Fox Tucson Theatre is preparing for 'new normal' as it waits out pandemic

Fox Tucson Theatre is preparing for 'new normal' as it waits out pandemic

Supporters of the Fox Tucson Theatre, which has gained a reputation as a jewel in the Old Pueblo’s performing arts crown over the past 90 years, are working hard to ensure that it will continue to shine after the pandemic.

“We are trying to understand what the new normal might look like and adjusting our performances and looking at other opportunities to build community while continuing to make the Fox the ‘crown jewel’ of downtown,” said Michael Heisler, president of the board of directors of the Fox Tucson Theatre.

“It is critical that people fully understand the impact of the coronavirus on the performing arts community of Tucson as well as the Fox Tucson Theatre. In order for us to continue, it is imperative that the community rally around performing arts centers and understand their cultural importance to Tucson and Southern Arizona.”

The Fox opened on April 11, 1930, and became known as Tucson’s “Classic Movie Palace” while also hosting vaudeville performances and other special events until closing in 1974.

After sitting vacant for 25 years, a $14 million-plus renovation by the Fox Tucson Theatre Foundation restored the theater’s former “Southwestern Art Deco” grandeur and opened the venue as a nonprofit in 2005. Since then, it has offered more than 150 events annually, including film screenings, concerts, special events, community gatherings and lectures.

Heisler said the diverse range of live performances provide a cornerstone of the foundation for performing arts in Southern Arizona.

“The performing arts provide a sense of community and closeness and an opportunity to share common values, ideas and interests,” Heisler said. “It is that human interaction that really enhances our lives, and that is what the Fox Tucson offers. It is much different than watching a TV show or a streamed video: Being there is what it is all about.”

That unique aspect of live performance provides an additional challenge during the pandemic and resulted in the suspension of public events at the Fox Theatre on March 12.

The venue is closed through Aug. 31; scheduled events have either been canceled, rescheduled to the fall or spring of 2021, or postponed with new dates pending confirmation from artists. Pending performances include Big Bad Voodoo Daddy, Lindsey Buckingham, the Taj Mahal Quartet and comedian Paula Poundstone. Among the rescheduled performances are The Music of Cream on Sept. 2; Altan on Nov. 6; Atlanta Rhythm Section with Firefall on Nov. 12; and Amy Grant on Feb. 25.

During the summer closure, the Fox projects a loss of $1.5 million in earned revenue.

“About 70% of our income is earned income from our performances and with the concern about COVID-19, the Fox took a leadership role and decided the safety of our patrons, guests and staff was paramount,” Heisler said.

In spite of reducing maintenance expenses and scaling back to a skeleton team, the theater’s operating expenses — including utilities, security, insurance and more — still run at least $90,000 monthly, according to Bonnie Schock, the theater’s executive director.

Schock said the diverse performances staged by the Fox are the result of a network of touring artists linked through an infrastructure of bus companies, hotel accommodations, partner performing arts venues, management companies and other agencies. This network is susceptible to circumstances in different locations along the route — including factors such as COVID-19 “hot spots” — that have impacted scheduled and future bookings for the theater.

“The performing arts industry is very interconnected and the artists that come to our stage are typically from all over the world,” Schock said. “Any given tour may be going from a club in New York to a university in Wisconsin to a venue in Los Angeles, so individual circumstances and realities on the ground impact the performances that we present.

“The route is a complicated web with many points where it can break and right now the potential for us to bring work to Tucson the way we have been is challenging.”

Additionally, reopening for the entire industry is also dependent on government regulations regarding safe social distancing at venues. The fact that those guidelines are yet to be determined adds another aspect of uncertainty.

“The pandemic has really thrown a curveball at us in terms of what the future will look like,” Heisler said. “We have a 1,000-seat theater and we are a nonprofit. Performing arts tend to operate on very thin margins anyway, so cutting back to 50% or 70% of seating capacity to enable social distancing impacts us in a dramatic way and questions our ability to continue with our current business model.”

Planning ahead in spite of the uncertainties remains paramount since the Fox has been a critical component in the overall development in downtown Tucson, according to Heisler.

“Rio Nuevo and the city of Tucson have done an exceptional job in bringing new industry and employment to Tucson. Historic jewels such as the Fox Tucson Theatre, the Rialto and a vibrant downtown arts and cultural scene will ultimately help retain businesses and their employees as well as students graduating from the University of Arizona,” Heisler said.

To that end, Heisler invites the community to help support the historic theater and protect the future of live performance through a fundraiser called the Fox Forward — Look to the Future Relief Campaign.

The campaign seeks to raise $250,000 in new and increased giving by Aug. 31 to ensure the Fox will be maintained until it can safely reopen.

“The Fox is absolutely integral to the overall mix of downtown Tucson. It is not only a beautiful building, but an icon and a beacon that calls us all together,” Schock said.

“That notion of spaces and places like the Fox that are dedicated to the importance of gathering together as a human community are what makes it absolutely irreplaceable, especially in moments when we are becoming more and more divided from one another, not only because of the pandemic but also because we are becoming more tribal and more connected to electronic devices.”

Since the theater's closing, an anonymous donor has pledged a match for every dollar raised up to $250,000.

Finally, Heisler emphasized that support of the Fox and endeavors such as Broadway in Tucson and UA Presents have practical economic implications for all Tucsonans.

“The Fox alone generates about a $10 million impact to downtown and the Tucson community,” he said. “Not only is the Fox itself generating revenue for the community, but also for ancillary businesses such as restaurants, hotels, support services and downtown in general. We impact a wide radius in the community.”

Contact freelance writer Loni Nannini at ninch2@comcast.net

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