After much anticipation, the Martin Woldson Theater at The Fox opened its doors in November 2007. This art deco treasure is now the home of the Spokane Symphony and an incredible venue for all of the performing arts. The Theater celebrated its grand reopening with performances by Frederica von Stade, the Spokane Symphony, Tony Bennett, Thomas Hampson and many more. Since then, it has been added to the National Register of Historic Places.
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On the evening of September 3, 1931, searchlights roamed the sky and the streets were jammed with 30,000 people celebrating Spokane's Golden Jubilee and the grand opening of the Theater.
Celebrities and movie stars greeted the crowd from the roof of the Theater before watching the world premiere of Merely Mary Ann on the big screen. Charles Farrell and Janet Gaynor, stars of the film, were on hand, as were Anita Page, Will Rogers, and child star Rosemarie.
Built during the dark days of the Depression by Fox West Coast Theaters at a price of $1,000,000, the Theater was the largest in Spokane, at 2300 seats. Architect Robert Reamer, famous for his design of Yellowstone National Park's Old Faithful Inn, designed the Theater in the exuberant and modernistic Art Deco style.
Because the Theater was constructed during the transition between vaudeville and silent movies and the "talkies," the Theater was equipped with the a full-height stage house, orchestra pit, and dressing rooms to accommodate a range of movies and live performances.
The Theater featured the most advanced movie technology of the day, and was the first air-conditioned building in Spokane. The Theater was very proud of this distinction, and had picture windows installed that overlooked the mechanical room, so that passersby on the street could marvel at the oversized equipment.
The Theater is constructed of concrete and employs a sleek modernity, while the flat surfaces and lack of ornamentation provide graceful simplicity. The local newspaper described the building as "the last word in beauty and efficiency."
Inside the Theater, fantastic murals created by Anthony Heinsbergen evolve from underwater floral patterns at the lobby level to landscapes of castles, rivers, and clouds on the mezzanine, culminating with a magnificent 60-foot wide sunburst that dominates the auditorium. Sunlight radiates across the ceiling and falls on a canopy of foliage representative of a forest under a starlit sky.
During its heyday, the Theater was the largest in Spokane, and besides its use as a movie theater, played host to countless stage performances, including Katharine Hepburn, in As You Like It, as well as Marian Anderson, Bing Crosby, and Frank Sinatra.
The Community Concerts subscription series brought performers such as Paderewski, Vladimir Horowitz, and Lily Pons to the stage.
From 1968-1974, the Spokane Symphony performed in the Theater as their principal venue, often rehearsing before the Sunday matinee began.
It was definitely the "Place to Go" for many years, but by the 1970s audiences had begun to move to the suburban movie theaters, and the Theater began a period of decline. In 1975, the balcony was divided into two small theaters, and the Theater became a triplex, and entered a period of budget and second-run movies for the next twenty-five years. By 2000, the Theater, after being continuously open for nearly 70 years, was slated for demolition to make way for a parking lot.
Martin Woldson's daughter, Miss Myrtle Woldson, stepped forward anonymously with a $3 million leadership gift to help rescue and restore the theater. A Spokane Symphony-led campaign had raised $1.3 million from more than 1,300 contributors to save the theater from the wrecking ball. Miss Woldson waived deadlines for matching funds when the post 9/11 economy made it difficult to attract additional contributions, and she was a strong supporter of the public/private partnership that emerged to complete the capital campaign. With leadership-level support from the State of Washington as well as other important contributions from foundations, corporations, private donors, and the federal and local governments, along with the innovative use of Historic and New Markets Tax Credits in partnership with U.S. Bancorp Community Development and Investment Corporation (U.S. Bank) and Enterprise Community Investment, Inc., the $31 million restoration was undertaken.
Martin Woldson was a turn-of-the-century pioneer and successful, self-made businessman whose love of music and performing arts inspired his daughter's generous gift. Just 15 years old when he arrived from Scandinavia to work as a farm-hand in Minnesota in 1870, Martin Woldson soon joined the railroad construction crew of James J. Hill, delivering water to laborers. By the time Woldson was 19 he was foreman, supervising more than 500 men on Hill's transcontinental line - The Great Northern Railway. He eventually became one of the nation's most skilled and successful railroad contractors.
Woldson came to Spokane soon after the Great Fire of 1889 and went to work developing the rail lines that would become the lifeblood of the Inland Northwest, including the Great Northern and the Spokane-Portland-Seattle lines. At one time, more than 5,000 workers on three separate contracts were under his direction. Woldson also built the Lewiston Hill spiral highway, considered an engineering marvel at the time, using only horse-drawn steam power, ingenuity and support of his crew.
Through careful investments in a number of Northwest companies and initiatives including grocery stores, mines in Idaho and Alaska, oil holdings in Montana, as well as real estate and utilities, Woldson spurred additional growth and commerce in the Northwest. He died in 1958 at the age of 94.
The theater's restoration exemplifies Martin Woldson's lifetime achievements. As a builder, he shaped a legacy by constructing places, experiences, and opportunities from which others benefited. He spurred growth, bringing businesses, enterprise and vitality to an up-and-coming region. He created the connections that bring people, ideas, and communities together.
Today Martin Woldson Theater at The Fox honors both the benefactor whose leadership and vision anchored its restoration to broaden the Inland Northwest's capacity for the performing arts as well as the historic nature of the 1931 Fox Theater building.
The Theater is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the Spokane Register, and the Washington Heritage Register.