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Fox Theater/Stevens Point, WI

The Stevens Point Journal (Wisconsin)

Saturday January 22, 2011

SPJ; Pg. A1

Committee hopes to breathe life back into Fox Theater

By B.C. Kowalski, Journal staff

Twenty-three entertainment halls opened between 1860 and 1910 in the Stevens Point area.

Of those halls, the Fox Theater on Main Street downtown stands as a reminder of when such places were cultural beacons in the area.

One empty reminder.

Ada Sanders now thinks it is time for that to change.

Sanders, whose grandfather G.F. Andrae opened the theater as the Grand Opera House in 1894, said she and a group of citizens have formed a committee with plans to restore the theater.

Sanders, whose family owns the theater, will have a news conference Tuesday in front of the Fox Theater to detail her plans to reopen it.

When it opened in the late 1800s, the opera house’s stage brimmed with a variety of entertainment, from vaudeville and plays to lectures and presidential candidates.

Shows were so popular that patrons sometimes were turned away for lack of room.

"It was one of the focal points of Stevens Point," Portage County Historical Society President Tim Siebert said. "That along with the square."

Filled with history

If the walls of the Fox Theater could talk, they’d tell tales of budding movie stars, directors, entertainers like Harry Houdini dazzling crowds. They’d tell stories about 1920s majestic glamour and style, and Depression-era citizens flocking to its confines for cheap entertainment. They’d delight with tales of ’50s price protests and ’60s and ’70s Art Deco films, even X-rated shows.

They’d tell a tale of ’80s excess, of dreams of shopping malls and a public that largely turned against a once-popular theater.

The rear stage was torn down in 1985 to make way for the CenterPoint MarketPlace. The mall’s end has been as controversial as its opening — residents then debated whether it was worth tearing down so many buildings; as it stands empty now, residents debate its future.

Paving the way

Stevens Point Mayor Andrew Halverson said one of the first things he did when he took office was contact Ada Sanders. He said he came over to her house the day after Thanksgiving in 2007 and apologized for the city’s role in tearing down the theater’s stage.

"I think for a mayor to apologize that we made a mistake to one of the oldest families that goes back to the city’s inception, I think that family needed to hear the city’s mayor apologize," Halverson said.

Sanders said it was something neither she nor her family ever expected.

"I was so impressed with that," Sanders said. "It was an absolutely wonderful thing to do."

Sanders has received several offers since the theater’s closing: everything from opening a church to a teen night club to a tattoo parlor. She estimated she’s gotten about 50 offers in the 25 years the Fox has been closed.

But Sanders said her family held on for the opportunity to restore the Fox to a lively theater that would make their great-grandfather proud.

"We don’t want to have something that people sit and look at," Sanders said. "We want it to be a place that’s lively and busy. We want so many people in it that we have to change the seat covers because they’ve been used so much."

Sanders said the time is right because the public’s attitude is once again in favor of seeing the Fox restored to its former glory. She said she can hardly turn around without someone asking her about the Fox.

"We think it would be a wonderful place for people to start gathering again," Sanders said.

Fox Theater: A few key dates

1894: G.F. Andrae builds the Grand Opera House in Stevens Point. The theater is popular, with performances from future director Cecil B. DeMille and magician Harry Houdini.

1915: The opera house closes due to "unusual business conditions."

1920: The theater reopens as The Majestic, going from about 650 seats to 1,000 with extensive renovations.

1928: Fox Corp. takes over operations of the theater.

1939: Theater closes for three days and reopens with the Fox marquee.

1953: Theater closes amid student protests over ticket price.

1972: Theater shows X-rated films to increase business.

1985: Fox closes after 50 feet is taken off the back to make room for CenterPoint Marketplace.

2006: The marquee on the theater is restored, and the lights are turned on periodically.

Source: Stevens Point Journal archives

If you go

What: News conference about the Fox Theater

When: Noon Tuesday

Where: Fox Theater, Main Street, downtown Stevens Point

Why: The Sanders family will make an announcement about the future of the Fox Theater

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