1

Harmon’s Histories: Remembering the old Fox Theater’s grand opening

The old Fox Theater in downtown Missoula.

By Jim Harmon

A few days ago, at the weekly meeting of the Missoula Senior Forum, we had a chance to hear about the $150-million Riverfront Triangle development, commonly referred to as the “Fox” Project.

It envisions a hotel and conference center, medical building, housing, restaurants, bike trails, a foot bridge to McCormick Park, and urban-sized (aka, smaller) box stores. They’ll even be treating and filtering all the storm water on site, rather than it running directly into the river.

Quite a proposal.

My interest dwells in the plaza, in the center of the development. That’s where you’ll find the “Fox” sign identifying the project and reflecting the history of a small part of the real estate involved.

Let’s board the time machine and set the date to early December (actually this very week) in 1949.

In Hollywood, Shirley Temple was granted a divorce from actor-husband John Agar, whom Temple claimed was a cheater and a drunk who caused her to contemplate suicide.

But in Montana, the mood was festive, as Hollywood stars arrived for the gala opening of Missoula’s Fox theater, a modern, air-conditioned $400,000 marvel of a building, described by one company executive as the “most beautiful thing I’ve seen.”

20th-Century-Fox stars Mark Stevens, Nancy Guild and Betty Lynn flew into Butte the day before the big grand opening, then motored to Missoula, escorted by the state highway patrol. They had a busy schedule planned the next day.

On December 8, 1948, there would be media interviews, a film shoot at the university, a luncheon, a parade through downtown Missoula, then the dedication of the new theater that night.

The local paper reported the stars checked into the Florence Hotel, but didn’t mention whether they had a restful night’s sleep. There were a lot of early morning sirens.

Night watchman Homer Williamson discovered a fire in the sawdust storage building at the White Pine & Sash Company just after midnight. It quickly went to a general alarm fire in the 16 degree cold. Luckily the fire department’s aerial truck was able to spray the flames from above, controlling the fire.

As the fire smoldered the next morning, the Hollywood stars did a radio interview at KGVO, then moved to the MSU (Now, U-M) campus for a noon “stunt” filmed by FOX Movie-tone News. The Daily Missoulian described it this way: “Taking their cue from the Indian tribes which abound in Montana, the buckskin-clad Grizzly twirlers (initiated) the guests into their tribe.”

Later, it was back to the Florence for a mid-day luncheon followed by rehearsals for the evening dedication.

Missoula’s 40-piece city band, directed by a young Alex Stepanzoff, led the evening parade through downtown to the Fox theater. The Elks band and the Grizzly twirlers joined in. Missoula Mayor Ralph L. Starr and Fox officials addressed the crowd.

But the real star of the night was the building itself, and it knew how to show off for the crowd. The “81-foot neon lighted tower (flashed) the word ‘F-O-X’ in three sizes up to eight feet high.”

Inside, soft music played in the thickly-carpeted lobby. Patrons sat on a plush davenport below a large hanging mirror. One could even make a phone call from the booth near the manager’s office.

The washrooms (as they were called in the day) offered no hand towels. Instead, they featured new gadgets called “Electric-Aire Evapo Hand Dryers.” We’re used to such devices today, but in 1949 they were a nifty novelty. A Fox promotional ad declared, “The soothing warm air, and the gentle massaging of the hands while being dried, invigorates and makes them feel alive and clean – also, relaxes tired arm and finger muscles. So the hands become 100% moisture dry, smooth, and look and feel younger after this SKIN-CONDITIONING treatment.”

Entering the sloping, stadium-style theater, patrons found over 1,000 specially-designed, sponge rubber seats, which retracted and swiveled to allow people to pass by without having to get up. Imagine!

Hightower & Lubrecht, the general contractors, in a special Missoulian advertising supplement, called “the new Fox theater building… one of the finest structures of its kind.”

Technicians had installed the new “Simplex Four-Star Sound System,” which “ensures even distribution of all sound frequencies and uniform coverage to every seat in the theater.”

In the basement was the latest in heating and cooling technology designed to “automatically prevent air from entering the auditorium too hot or too cold… (and removing) devitalized air.”

Adjacent to the state-of-the-art theater was the Fox Pharmacy and the Parkway Drive-In Cafe, both locally owned and operated.

Francis Peterson, who earned his PhC degree in Missoula ran the pharmacy and a couple of Butte boys who had moved to Missoula, Elwood Nelson and E. L. Peterson, operated the restaurant.

The Parkway featured the new “Burgermaster” machine, which made uniform-sized hamburgers, “each pattie generously like its predecessor.”

Oh, I nearly forgot. The movie for the premier was hyped as a “button bustin’ comedy” called “Everybody Does It” featuring Paul Douglas, Linda Darnell, Celeste Holm and Charles Coburn. The storyline: Housewife wants to be an opera star, but has no talent. Junkyard-owner husband turns out to have wonderful voice & goes on tour. Housewife, not happy.

Anyway, Missoula’s Fox theater was popular for decades, until the late 1970s and early ’80s. By 1983, losing business to the multi-theater complexes, it was running dollar-night movies and barely making it.

The California-based Mann Theater Group tried to sell it but couldn’t find a buyer. So they offered to give to the city if they promised to turn it into a performing arts center. The city said no. So finally, Mann just gave it to the city as a tax write-off.

The once-glamorous, star-studded old theater quietly and unceremoniously closed in early July, 1984. The city mothballed it.

Most Missoulians know the rest of the story. The Fox and the neighboring Mustard Seed restaurant were razed. Same fate for the old Super America gas station, with its wonderful three-for-a-dollar hot dogs.

Eventually, the city excavated the site, removing the old dump-material on which the buildings once stood, relocated utilities, and built a huge retaining wall and parking lot.

Now, as we approach 2017, after 30-plus years of dreamy, pie-in-the-sky proposals, Hotel Fox Partners & CTA Architects have a viable plan on the verge of city approval.

CTA’s Jeff Crouch refers to Orange street as downtown Missoula’s western “DMZ.” Right now, he says, “No one crosses to the west. That’s the end of the downtown area, as far as most people are concerned.”

With the new library to the east and the proposed Riverfront Triangle project to the west, Missoula’s “downtown” perimeter is about to breached.

Jim Harmon is a retired journalist whose 50-year career included nearly three decades at KECI-TV, Missoula in roles ranging from news anchor to weather forecaster. In retirement, Jim is a landscape gardener and history buff who’s spent years reading historical micro-film newspapers. You can read his weekly history column at the Missoula Current.