by William J. Bechaver
This year, the FOX Theater in Walsenburg is celebrating its 90th year!
Built in 1917 as the Star Theater, it was intended for the presentation of motion pictures and live performances, as evidenced by ample fly-space and rigging above the stage and dressing rooms under the stage.
Back in 1917 the motion picture industry was a fledgling. The great War To End All Wars was drawing to a close and it would be more than a dozen years before motion pictures would actually find a voice. In the silent-movie era, the theater had a pipe-organ for musical accompaniment. That old Wurlitzer organ later found a home in the choir loft of St. Mary Church for half a century, and was returned to the theater around ten years ago. It sits there still, backstage, awaiting restoration, a throwback to an age long gone.
For many years the theater has been a centerpiece for culture in our area. I can imagine my grandparents going there before they were married, catching up on world events through a newsreel before smooching during the movie.
My mom saw countless movies there while growing up. From Gone With The Wind, Robin Hood, and The Wizard Of Oz, to all the great war pictures and musicals, Saturday afternoons back then were spent in the dark recesses of the movie theater. Tickets then were only 10¢, for heaven’s sake, but still, you couldn’t afford to go every weekend.
That was the dawn of the golden age of motion pictures, and the birth of the huge studio system in Hollywood. During those days studios gained power, and decided to incorporate small theaters across the nation into their system of distribution. The Fox Studio was very resourceful in its bids and countless theaters across the county were renamed FOX Theater. With studio support, they thrived.
That was before my time. By the time I was a patron, the studio system’s influence and support had waned. I remember going there in the 1970s for the Saturday matinee. Back then, the theater was owned by Frank Piazza, a name synonymous with motion picture entertainment in Huerfano County. The FOX was only open in the winter since Piazza also operated the Trail Drive-In in the summer. Back then, we would see a movie advertised on television, and about a year later, it would come to town. Those were different times, before the age of video tapes or digital discs. Movies were released and remained in theaters for years. I remember Star Wars showing at the Continental Theater in Denver for more than a year after its 1977 release. That’s where I first saw it. I just couldn’t wait any longer.
But then, in the mid-1980s, things changed again. The multiplex was finding popularity. Single-screen theaters were disappearing everywhere, even in large cities. When the Southside Four opened in Pueblo the other theaters faded into oblivion. What chance did a small-town theater have of surviving?
Unfortunately, it didn’t. It was finally forced to close, unable to compete with the larger markets.
But then, a breath of life returned to the FOX Theater. After about 8 years, George Birrer determined that there are some things that are just worth saving. His determination to get the old theater opened again was undeterred.
If he knew then what he knows now, he may have thought twice. No one could have known how difficult it would be to get it up and running again, and keep it in operation week after week, for the past dozen or so years.
They obtained grants for renovation of the old building under the auspices of The Huerfano Youth and Arts Foundation, a non-profit organization. Back when they started, no one realized just how non-profit it would be. The building was put on the Colorado State Register of Historic Places, making it eligible for more funding. Finally, in the mid-90s, it opened once again.
Things were different. For one, they had to insure that they got first-run movies, and bring them to town as early after their national release as possible. That was the only way they could compete with the theaters in Pueblo. Next, they had to make the accommodations more comfortable. They had the seats restored, and spaced the rows to allow for greater leg-room. They updated the projection room as best they could, getting rid of the two-projector system, and altering the equipment they had to better present the modern motion picture.
The improvements really took shape in 1999, when Tiffany Square Theaters in Colorado Springs closed. Arrangements were made to have all the equipment from those theaters donated to the FOX Theater. Suddenly FOX had a "new" projector, and a Dolby surround-sound system. By "new" that is to say, the projector was from 1981, when Tiffany Square was built. Hardly state-of-the-art any longer, it was a vast improvement over the projector at the FOX, which still contained components from the original cast-iron projector installed in 1917.
It took a couple of years to get the electrical system straightened out and the new systems installed. The greatest improvement came with the surround-sound. That big speaker behind the screen, the one that looked like it had once originally crackled out Al Jolson’s voice back in the hey-day, was gone. Now the speakers were up to date and up to speed.
There were financial struggles along the way, with some difficulty with a loan. Birrer says it is doubtful they could’ve survived this long without continued county support, which pays for utility bills. It has taken a lot of effort and support, and countless volunteer hours for the restoration and the continued operation of the FOX.
They’ve brought live performances to the community, and hope to continue the tradition of live theater and concerts in the area. The acoustics of the old building are ideal for such presentations. The most difficult part is making such efforts profitable. Sometimes it’s hard to figure out just what works, what people want, and what people will support.
Now the FOX Theater gets first-run movies as soon as they’re released. Last week, they had Disney’s Enchanted on its opening holiday weekend. Turnout at the theater was a little slack, either due to the weather or the hectic pace of the holiday. But, the film is back for a second week this weekend, so you haven’t missed your chance.
So, the FOX Theater strives and lives on, in more than just our memories, thanks in great part to the diligence and determination of their faithful volunteers.
If you haven’t been for a while, I invite you to check it out this weekend. It’s a little nostalgic, it’s a little historic, but mostly, it’s a lot of great fun for the entire family.