More big names are lighting the Fox marquee

September 20, 2011

By Teya Vitu


The Fox Theatre hit on all pistons to open its 2011-12 season.

A sleepy Sunday, Aug. 21 launched the season with a sold-out Steve Martin show.

“That was the beginning of the busiest week since I’ve been here,” said Craig Sumberg, who is in his second year as the Fox Tucson Theatre Foundation’s executive director.

Two days later followed an invitation-only taping of the PBS show “The Artists Den” with Amos Lee and local band Calexico. The show will get nationwide airing, likely in February – and with it nationwide exposure that could hugely raise the stock of the Fox.

“When that hits the air, it will put us on the national map in a way that would take us years and tens of thousands of dollars to duplicate,” Sumberg said.

Two days later, on Aug. 25, Bruce Springsteen’s lead guitarist Nils Lofgren took the stage and the following night it was Christopher Cross’s turn.

“For August, it was amazing,” Sumberg said. “We’ve finally gotten some momentum. Both agents and artists are coming to us with opportunities.’

Big name performers at the Fox will continue into the fall with Emmylou Harris on Sept. 23, Don McLean on Sept. 28, Kris Kristofferson on Oct. 6, young pop star Colbie Caillat on Oct. 18 and Judy Collins featured in a Chasing Rainbows Gala at the Fox on Nov. 4.

The Tucson Symphony Orchestra will play for the second time at the Fox for 2nd Saturdays on Oct. 8 with an all-Elvis program, and Up With People will be the Fox’s 2nd Saturdays offering for November.

The Fox has taken part in 2nd Saturdays since its beginning, sometimes with free events underwritten by the Carondelet Foundation and sometimes paid events. That has helped shift perceptions of the Fox, which has been under public scrutiny for a full decade, as the 1929 theater’s restoration costs more than doubled to $13 million. And since reopening on Dec. 31, 2005, public scrutiny continued as public debt lingers and a large share of the local population still has not seen the Fox’s interior, a gem that stack up favorably with any theater in the country.

2nd Saturdays has helped lift the veil for the Fox as more and more people stream into the gorgeous Southwest Art Deco theater during the monthly street fest and also for the growing calendar of events, projected for 160 for 2011 and potentially 180 for 2012.

“2nd Saturdays has been a great boon for the Fox,” Sumberg said. “There is no question that 2nd Saturdays has exposed thousands of Tucsonans who have never been to the theater to the beauty of the Fox.”

Sumberg is steadily strengthening the live performance schedule, which generate more revenue and also bring in more people than the movies.

“We want to do film because that is part of the history and mission,” Sumberg said. “We book concerts and rentals and if we have a hole we book a film.”

The Fox Tucson Theatre Foundation operates and manages the Fox but neither owns the theater nor puts on about two-thirds of the events that take place within. The Rio Nuevo Multipurpose Facilities District owns the Fox. The Fox does book about one-third of its own events, but big-name events often enough are partnerships with other organizations, and rentals to assorted groups play a considerable role.

The Fox has strengthened relationships with Phoenix promoters Live Nation and Danny Zelisko Presents, both avenues for the biggest name events. Also, the Fox has started to partner with the Rialto Theatre, which evolves a relationship that previously had the Rialto occasionally rent the Fox.

Partnerships are vital for the Fox because they fill seats and also reduce the financial risk to the Fox to stage big events.

“It feels on the programming end and on community response that the Fox is beginning to live up to its potential,” Fox said.

The Aug. 23 PBS taping of “The Artists Den” could end up being a landmark date in the Fox’s history, though we won’t know until the Amos Lee concert airs in spring. But Sumberg suspect that one TV showing could be revolutionary for the Fox.

“Already there is a buzz about the Fox in the music world,” he said. “The momentum is clearly with us already but (the PBS broadcast) will make us a place that everybody wants to play.”

Perhaps the brightest beacon of all for the Fox’s maturing years is the arrival in late spring of Fletcher McCusker as chairman of the Fox’s Board of Directors. McCusker moved the headquarters of his $1 billion Providence Service Corp. to 64 E. Broadway in May 2010 and instantly became the luminescent spark for the Downtown renaissance.

McCusker immediately launched 2nd Saturdays and started recruiting others to locate Downtown such as Buffalo Exchange, the Sonoran Institute, Imago Dei Middle School and others.

McCusker was on the Fox’s advisory board, but Sumberg asked him to chair the Board of Directors.

“When Fletcher signed on, that changed everything,” Sumberg said. “He was willing to say ‘I am going to make this work.’ Fletcher McCusker has demonstrated an ability to make things happen Downtown. He brings that intangible leadership that has made all the difference. Fletcher’s signing on and others who joined the board have given the community confidence that the Fox is moving in the right direction.

“He’s a non-nonsense kind of guy: ‘Let’s figure out what’s ready to be done and let’s do it.”

McCusker arranged a line of credit at Bank of Tucson for the Fox that allowed Sumberg to book the big-name events seen recently. Now McCusker is the Fox’s negotiator with Rio Nuevo.

Over the years, criticism has fallen on the $5.6 million public debt on the Fox. But the development agreement with the Fox foundation stipulated that the first debt payment of $1.5 million was not due until September 2011. This payment was delayed until November as Fox and Rio Nuevo officials renegotiate the loan agreement. Presently, the agreement calls for the foundation to repay $4.5 million of  the $5.6 million in three $1.5 million payments in 2011, 2016 and 2021.

“The Fox since its inception since reopening has been straddled with insurmountable debt,” Sumberg said. “That has been a dark cloud. We’re now in serious negotiations with the Rio Nuevo Board to come up with a win-win renegotiation of the loan agreement that we can realistically pay and allow us to continue without a huge debt burden.”