Waiting for the music to begin I counted the berets in the audience at the Fox. There’s two. And a third.
I stroked my silver soul patch as I watched Tucson pour into the theater. The soul patch was in its trial period. A Spanish-speaking friend told me the thing under my lip, on my chin, is called an Imperial. The Spanish conquistadors who conquered this region in the 17th century wore them on their chins as they wore their religion on their bloody sleeves.
Who were all these people I had never seen before? Tucson’s elite in their white pants, opera glasses, silver pony tails and blue gray hair? They had the look of casitas in the foothills, new hybrid cars in the garage, and season tickets in their wallets and they had come fearlessly into the city, into downtown to listen.
Chick Corea’s piano sat glistening like a black Stealth fighter on the stage. Next to it Gary Burton’s vibraphone sat like an elemental primitive thing, the end result of an evolution that began with a row of wooly mammoth tusks that Barney Rubble would beat with pterodactyl drumsticks while Fred and Wilma and Betty snapped their fingers and stared into the fire wondering if they were in Greenwich Village or Tucson.
The stage of the Fox is a gleaming secular altar capped by a curtain that hangs above it like the sexy red hem of a saloon girl’s skirt.
The deep blue curtains at the back of the shrine were lit from below; the folds resembling illuminated Greek columns. A maginificent cathedral devoted to the worship of arts, high and low, the Fox theater is downtown’s gilded San Xavier del Bac. Art deco murals gleamed out of the 1930s and the pink walls on either side of the theatre looked like the the sheer walls of Dorothy’s emerald city. Only there was no head popping out of the exit saying,”Bless my buttons why didn’t you say so come on in.” If you squint you can see the spectral shadows of shopkeepers in fedoras and women with parasols that once haunted this theater.The aroma of wine and cologne drifted in front of us like ghostly patrons excusing themselves as they found their seats.
The jazz duet in jeans took to the stage. With his sticks the vibraphonist chopped out gold like a Chinese chef with a cleaver made of feathers tapping out a roller coaster of chiming that rang like baby’s sighs over our heads. The audience nodded to the beat.
The heart of downtown was beating. Downtown’s rebirth was here in these seats and in this glorious hall. The Fox is the womb, the heart, the prime mover, the source of the Nile along with her sister the Rialto. Thank you, Doug Biggers and thank you, Herb Startford.
The show ended and I gave a standing “O” to the Corea and Burton and the Fox and to downtown and all of the capitalists who are invigorating her, wrenching hope and profit from her streets.
Out front the tracks for the streetcar lay like giant dinosaur thigh bones at an archeological dig. Monster sized bouncers in shades wrote down the names of hipsters dying to get past the red velvet rope line into the thumping clubs along Congress, bookended by the cranes and skeletons of apartments that howled up at the neon-dimmed stars singing of students and shoppers and theatergoers and downtowners yet to come. I don’t care if the streetcar makes a dime, like a steel sidewinder it snakes through downtown, holding the promise of a yellow brick road leading to the Oz of a hopping downtown, fed by a steady stream of U of A students spending, walking, spending, talking and spending some more. And then the grownups in their high-end lofts will come and the food markets will come and the light rail roll east and west, the river delivering goods and people up and down the the banks of a fat Mardi Gras night life in the middle of our western desert.
Like an alien from Roswell you will not recognize downtown. Take me to your leader, but first let me sit at the cafe window and watch the crowds. Where shall we grab a bite or a drink? So many choices.The Cup, Poca Cosa, the Hub, the Playground, Janos' place and the list goes on and on like the parade of handsome Tucsonans on the sidewalks. The ghosts of fedoras and parasols smiling.
I pity the fools afraid to come downtown. As Portland keeps weird, downtown Tucson keeps gritty and always lurching forward cafe by cafe, condo by condo leaving behind the sad stuck suburbanites and their white gravel yards. Downtown is what is unique about the old pueblo and distinguishes us from ticky-tacky any town. The heart of Tucson has lain at the base “A” Mountain for 10,000 years. All the tendrils of stucco and brick and ranch houses snake out from its nexus across the valley. Take your foothills, suburbs, resorts and strip malls. Give me the great southwestern city, give me the multi-cultural rainbow salsa soaked heart, give me grit.
Walking to our car I marveled at the prosaic beauty of the newly redone Chicago Store. Stripped of the plywood and murals that stank of surrender, its facelift is a stunning victory for belief in the future, coupled with a passion that sees the beauty in our past. I stared in wonder at the new storefront that was the pride of 1919. The artisans who restored San Xavier’s interior cavern by coaxing a spectacular past out from under the detritus of neglect couldn’t have done better. The newly naked vintage windows on the second story held the promise of Edward Hopper in the sunlight. Where were the nighthawks dining?
The heart of downtown beats steady and strong like a Tohono O'Odham drum.The patient is off the table. Rothschild will inherit the glory that Walkup pumped and cheered.
We sat in the Hub and imagined ourselves in a gritty enclave in Manhattan or San Francisco. I said,”It’s almost like a city” as I stroked my absurd imperial, sipped my martini and toasted the nattering critics of redevelopment.