August 19, 2009 by David Gillaspie
Limited space forces a city to give up one building for another. Such was the case of the new Fox Tower on Southwest Broadway, rising from the footprint of the Fox Theater. A one-time luxury palace from the vaudeville era, the Fox Theater had become a graveyard for lost pigeons and hungry rats through years of neglect.
The news of The Fox’s demise went out to every cinematic scavenger in the region. It was a place ripe with history and they all wanted a piece. I got in as an agent of history. Before it went down, I walked through every hallway and room, searching for objects that might re-create the magic of the room in the future.
My instructions included finding the brass signs beneath the once segregated drinking fountains. I found the discolored paint behind the signs; the first wave of collectors had already picked them off.
I could have walked out then, but didn’t, since the jewel of The Fox, the stainless steel ticket office, was already donated.
I broke it off it’s foundation with wrenches and hammers. The only hold up was the thick electrical cord coming out of the cement floor. I wasn’t going to cut it until I had more information, like if the power was shut off.
History taught me that someone donating one object may have something else they’d like to give. With that in mind I moved through the stink of The Fox lobby. A couple of greasy, broken down, popcorn machines with years-old popcorn stood behind the snack counter, a tribute to the longevity of popcorn.
I squished across the mushy carpet, and opened the swinging doors to the theater.
Rows of red mohair rocking chair seats packed the bowl in the Fox under a double balcony over-hang. Precise acoustics rivaled the big rooms in Las Vegas (I saw Seigrfried and Roy before…). The humid stench of condemned air did little to dampen the sound quality from the stage to the back of the room.
While my eyes adjusted to the gloom I saw shadows filtering through blood-red seats, a slash in the big stage screen, and something slippery underfoot. I eventually recognized work crews, not shadows, dismantling rows of luxury seats; the slippery candy I expected on floor turned out to be a decaying pigeon. I made a mental note to throw my shoes away when I got home.
The slashed screen was dismaying. One of the guys on a crew said it was ten thousand dollars.
Besides the seats and the screen, the most eye catching object in the room was a gold leaf sunburst surrounding a speaker with three dimensional rays spreading outward. It had the magic of theater, glowing on the asbestos sprayed wall, probably the only reflection once the lights dimmed. With a bowed wooden ladder, I climbed toward the sun burst with a pry bar, levered it off the wall, and climbed down. There was another one but I wasn’t going up the ladder again.
I explored behind the screen to a huge side room with a caved in roof. Pigeons flew in and roosted. Some flew out after resting, the ones that went further into the building didn’t come out.
A long stairway led down to a sub-basement room with a wall of air filters. On the other side of the wall stood long dormant air handling machinery.
Further down I found a large dark room with bars of waving light in the ceiling. A careful listening brought a frightful truth. The waving light in the ceiling came from cracks around the steel doors covering a long gone sidewalk freight elevator.
The cracks moved with every step on the doors. I imagined, from seeing them used, that steel double doors in the sidewalk once rested on the top of the elevator cage. Now these rattling doors covered a three story drop into a black hole, a testament to the strength of steel.
The Fox was slated for destruction after an inspection found that modernizing it, like the Paramount/Portland theater up the street, couldn’t happen. Retro-fitted duct work installed for air conditioning in the fifties left huge holes blasted through walls and floors. Bringing it up to safety standards, including earthquake protection, was impossible. It did leave a treasure trove.
The strangest part of The Fox lay above the false ceiling over the first balcony. A hallway on the side of the first balcony led to a door that opened outside to a steel stairway to the sidewalk. A fire escape?
The interior stairway ran up to the second balcony, hidden from below by a false ceiling. In the second balcony, wooden benches with strips of canvas tacked over straw down the center replaced the red mohair rockers found below.
The stage, now viewed through gaps in the false ceiling, was about two inches wide. The summer heat would have been unbearable to all but the most avid show fans.
Oregonian reporters, ladies in high heels and dresses, climbed over the duct, hopped across the gaping holes in the floor to see the benches. Their story was about the historical aspects of the building, a story picked up by the New York Times. Why? Because Isadora Duncan once danced there.