The Fabulous Fox West Coast Theatre
Writer Joseph J. Airdo
Photography Courtesy of UCLA Digital Library
Long before AMC and Harkins popped up in major commercial districts across Arizona, the Valley was home to only a handful of movie theaters to which residents would flock in order to escape the heat and catch the latest flick in air-conditioned comfort.
One of the first and arguably one of the greatest was the Fabulous Fox West Coast Theatre, which was located on the southeast corner of Washington and First Streets in downtown Phoenix.
Built by S. Charles Lee, the 1,800-seat theater opened July 30, 1931 and was immediately a popular destination—perhaps because it was the state’s first building to provide refrigeration, as its grand billboard boasted.
Surrounded by Penney’s Department Store, Jones’ Western Store, Korrick’s Department Store and Skaggs Pay Less Drug Store, the Fabulous Fox West Coast Theatre’s lobby greeted patrons with decorative banisters, crystal chandeliers and a curved floating staircase accompanied by a series of futuristic lamp posts topped with glass disks and silver globes.
The concession stand was painted with saguaro and prickly pear cacti, while the walls were covered with wildlife frescos featuring flying birds and leaping gazelles.
A metallic sunburst spread across the auditorium’s ceiling, which was adorned by jewel-like lanterns composed of geometrically shaped glass panes. The fire curtain that hung immediately behind the proscenium arch displayed an abstracted version of the Arizona desert landscape.
Without a doubt, the Fabulous Fox West Coast Theatre was the go-to place to see motion pictures in Phoenix, with seats in the 1940s costing a whopping 45 cents for adults and 20 cents for children. The theater even let patrons place their groceries in its refrigerators while they watched a film—a convenience that is highly unlikely at movie theaters today.
Arizona’s official state historian Marshall Trimble recalls frequenting the Fabulous Fox West Coast Theatre every Saturday morning to see serials such as “Roy Rogers” on the big screen.
The serials were part of the theater’s Fox Leaders kids’ club, which showed short Westerns that always ended with a hero in seemingly inescapable danger. The next week, said hero would miraculously manage to cheat death—much to the relief of Trimble and the hundreds of other children who stood in line after suffering through seven days of anxiety.
“Some of the kids would watch from the balcony and one day one of them leaned a little too far over it and fell 25 feet to the floor below,” says Trimble, noting the boy was rushed to the hospital where—much like the on-screen heroes—he walked away without so much as a scratch. “He was just really frustrated that he had missed the serial and didn’t know how the good guy got out of his dilemma.”
In addition to movies and serials, the Fabulous Fox West Coast Theatre hosted a number of live shows. The stars of the locally produced “Wallace and Ladmo Show” regularly performed at the theater, which was also home to productions of seasonal events such as “The Nutcracker” and national radio broadcasts of “America’s Town Meeting of the Air.”
The Fabulous Fox West Coast Theatre’s reign in the Valley continued through the 1950s, at which point business began to decline. Arizona State University emeritus history professor Dr. Philip VanderMeer, Ph.D., says the theater’s demise was a result of three factors.
“Downtown Phoenix collapses,” Dr. VanderMeer explains. “That’s the first thing. The second thing is television comes along. The third thing is you get an out-migration of movie theaters. You have movie theaters—including multiplexes and drive-ins—being built elsewhere.”
Movie theaters started popping up in the farther reaches of the city and its surrounding communities as a result of urban sprawl.
In the 1960s, the Valley saw the debut of a new retail model—shopping malls. Movie theaters opened their doors inside of these indoor marketplaces, which replaced downtown as residents’ venues-of-choice for commerce, eating and all things entertainment.
Like many of the other pieces of our state’s history, the Fabulous Fox West Coast Theatre eventually closed its doors—beginning the process of its vanishing act from Arizona. The architecture that decorated its grand interiors was auctioned off at a fraction of its original price in 1974, and the City of Phoenix leveled the property the next year.
The site was briefly home to a city bus terminal but has remained a parking lot—a pale, gray image of what was once one a glistening centerpiece of downtown Phoenix.
Unfortunately, we are unlikely to ever see something as majestic as the Fabulous Fox West Coast Theatre to grace the area, but the land on which it sat will finally receive its long-overdue revitalization when RED Development’s Block 23 mixed-use project is completed later this year. In addition to the area’s first grocery store by Fry’s Food Stores, the project will include about 330 apartments and 200,000 square feet of office space as well as several restaurants and retail stores.