Fox Theater – Boulder, Colorado

by Jim Harrington

The neon “Fox”, looking a little bit art deco and streamline modern. is a premier live music club on “The Hill“, a commercial, restaurant and bar district in Boulder across the street from the University of Colorado. The grand red sign “Fox” and the huge surrounding white marquee gives the “Fox” a sense of majestic significance. Rolling Stone Magazine voted it the 4th best music venue in the country. The “Fox” a 625-person modern music hall opened on March 6, 1992, with a performance from The Meters. Many memorable artists have performed at the “Fox” including blues legend Albert King. Coldplay, De La Soul, YBN Nahmir Sublime, Dave Matthews Band, John Mayer, The Killers, Jack Johnson, The Fray, Sheryl Crow, Widespread Panic, Goo Goo Dolls, Phish, Sugarcult, Lyle Lovett, Bonnie Raitt, Willie Nelson, Heavyweight Dub Champion, Snoop Dogg, Method Man, Umphrey’s Mcgee, Drive-By Truckers, Wu Tang Clan, Ween, Hunter S. Thompson, Deadmau5, Jurassic 5, Steve Earle, George Clinton, Fishbone, The Chainsmokers, The Felice Brothers, Built to Spill, Jorma Kaukonen Skrillex, Michael Kang, The Samples, the Motet, The Lumineers, the Mickey Hart Band and other members from String Cheese Incident. The “Fox” hosted local acts such as: Air Dubai, The Fray, Yonder Mountain String Band, Leftover Salmon, Kyle Hollingsworth Band, Rose Hill Drive, The Drunken Hearts, West Water Outlaws, Jet Edison, The Magic Beans, Technicolor Tone Factory, Summa (band), Hot Soup, and more.


In the early 1990’s the “Fox” opened as “a rock ‘n’ roll haven for a bunch of late blooming hippies.” Too many live music venues were being run by people who didn’t know in their hearts of hearts the powerful communal significance found in the live musical experience. The “Fox” got it and became a live music aficionado grooving community.


The walls of the “Fox” tell many tales. Stories like when Willie Nelson and Bonnie Raitt fought over who’d go on stage first. It was a late night, and they feared a dwindling crowd. “Fox” staff darted back and forth from the greenroom to Nelson’s tour bus trying to negotiate with each side until Raitt’s team finally conceded. But neither artist had to fear for both played to a packed house and had an awesome time. What energy the artists generously gives the audience the “Fox” crowd abundantly returns. Then there’s the time David Byrne of Talking Heads was spotted bicycling — his preferred transportation — through the streets of Boulder before a solo gig. Or My Morning Jacket’s Halloween show dressed up as the Ghostbusters. And it’s hard to forget the time “Fox” staff played pinball with Thom Yorke of Radiohead. Dave Matthews played one of his first shows at the “Fox”, and there were like only 150 people in the audience. Philly’s G. Love & Special Sauce played the “Fox” on their first U.S. tour, stopping in Boulder on a Saturday night in 1994.“We just blew the roof off the place,” says G. Love. “It was such a special night for us, the crowd was electric.” Soon after they got off stage, management asked the musicians to play again the next day. The band agreed without hesitation. “It solidified this amazing connection we’ve had with Colorado in general,” he says. “It all started there.” Musician Kyle Hollingsworth first saw the String Cheese Incident play at the “Fox” and the set blew him away. He reached out to the Colorado bluegrass band and they started jamming together. That led to Hollingsworth joining String Cheese on the keys, and the new lineup soon found itself back at the “Fox.” “I feel like it’s the biggest small venue in the country,” he says. “One of the best things about the “Fox” is the sound quality. You can be in the audience and hear every instrument, and the PA is tuned perfectly.” The “Fox” favors the musical communal attunement of a live audience over commercial ornamentation.


The strong iconic “Fox” sign and marquee contrasts to the complex and confusing history of the building. The 90 plus year old theater has housed vaudeville acts, a cafe, and other entrepreneurial endeavors. The land was sold in April 1926 by William Beach, who also founded Beach park on “The Hill” Mr. Adrian G. Diez was the buyer who constructed the first building in 1926 and it later expanded in 1931.The original building facade had noteworthy features with a shaped parapet, brick walls, terra cotta details, and an iron canopy over the entry. It opened as the “Rialto Theatre” and to the horror of some upstanding citizens showed movies and vaudeville acts. It was all quite scandalous. The building quickly and quietly sold in 1927 to the Curran-Isis Theatres Company, they operated it for only a few months “before it “closed for lack of business.” “Good riddance” some thought. Very likely the Rialto was purchased and then closed so as not to compete with the other entertainment theaters in town operated by the same group. In 1930 the Fox Colorado Theatre Group bought the building but in 1932, it was still listed in the city directories as “vacant”.


In 1938 it was a dancing facility called the ‘Buffalo Club’ until the early 1940’s. In 1943 however the building was again vacant. That year, another business started up. ‘The Anchorage’. The manager, John Hart, had been rejected for military service and turned his attention to developing a recreation center on University Hill for students, sailors, and townspeople. During World War Two the University of Colorado at Boulder was host to the US Naval Language school. Hart stated, “I have been encouraged to open the building as a club by persons who recognize the shortage of entertainment places in Boulder.“ Manager Hart set out to make the theater into a dance hall and eatery, Friday and Saturday nights the jukeboxes in the balcony sang out and patrons cut loose after a few sodas. But people would not just stay with drinking soft drinks and the Anchorage was closed for a bit by the city manager for hosting a “liquor party” without a proper permit. It evolved to became known as the ‘Anchorage Bar & Grill’ and managed to hold on to the space through 1949.


Although the theater had been renovated to fit a food-service business the building was sold again in 1946 to the Isis Theatre Company (also Fox Intermountain Theaters). There was initially discussion of converting the building back into a theater. But those plans never materialized, and a building permit was issued to the Fox Theatre Company in 1951 to further remodel the building into a cafeteria instead. ‘Ted’s Buff Café & Cafeteria’ was opened November 9, 1954, it was advertised as “Boulder’s most modern eating house.” Just as its predecessors, the food operation would not last. And in 1955 the business had changed again to be the ‘Sugar-N-Space confectionery’.


The addresses for all the businesses located in the building have varied from 1133 through 1141 13th Street. When the building was first constructed in 1926, it also included two small shops, which flanked the central entrance to the theater. In 1936, Al’s Shine Parlor was one of the enterprises that were in these smaller shops throughout the years. Other smaller businesses have included: Albert D’ Elai, Barber and Penny Arcade in 1956; D’ Elai and Security Mutual Life Insurance in 1959; Buff’s Shoe Shop in 1966; Boulder’s House of Flowers in 1969; and Door of Perception Electronic Equipment and Carousel Beauty Salon in 1972.


In downtown Boulder there was the “Boulder Theater” showing first rate movies and its neighboring “Isis Theater” showing second run movies. The “Isis Theater” was renamed the “Fox Theater” in the 1950’s. The downtown “Fox” movie theater burnt to the ground on April 18th, 1960. It was not rebuilt.

After the fire only the original “Fox” marquee remained. In July of that year, the Fox Intermountain Amusement Corporation applied for a permit to rebuild the “Fox” movie theater on the Hill instead of downtown. They had been denied a permit to erect a 373-square-foot (34.7 m2) marquee but reapplied for a smaller 230-square-foot (21 m2) marquee. The plans included the “Fox” sign, as well as the lighted marquee. The marquee was 42’ 8” wide, 5’ tall, and 51/2’ wide at the base. The new “Fox” theatre was opened on July 7, 1961. Besides the sign and metal screen covering the front façade, another alteration was the installation of a 36′ x 18’ movie screen which was “designed to accommodate all sizes of motion pictures, including the spectacular cinemascope process, developed by 20th Century Fox. There were 500 seats with the arrangement assuring “each patron spacious leg room between the American Bodiform chairs.” A stereophonic sound system, new lobby with concession stand, specially built cooling system, and new rest rooms rounded out the changes to the building. For the opening night, only one show was scheduled, but afterwards it operated on continuous showings beginning in the early afternoons. The movie theater format stuck until 1991. In 1978, the building was sold by the National General Theaters to the Mann Theaters Corporation. This company sold the property in 1988 to Cinamerica Theaters.


In 1991, the Pyramid Group, Inc. leased the building from the Mann Theatres and received a liquor license from the City, with plans to turn the building into a concert hall we know as the “Fox” theater today. The interior of the building was altered and gutted for a new use, movie seats were removed, space for dancing added allowing for an expanded standing room capacity of 625 people. In 1994 Celtic Properties, purchased the building. The “Fox” theatre’s initial mission statement was to “put on the best shows and have the most fun while trying to scratch out a living doing it,” In over twenty five years the “Fox” mission raised expectations of concert goers across the front range and made the entire Colorado music community a stronger communal bond.

After more than a decade of positioning and posturing by both sides, in 2010 the competing “Boulder Theater” and the “Fox” merged into a single limited liability corporation Z2 Entertainment. Survival was the reason they merged. Too much of a good thing was getting to be detrimental to the live music scene in Boulder as a whole. Both theaters were going to go out of business because they were beating each other up financially. The deal allowed Z2 Entertainment to maintain reasonable ticket prices and take risks by showcasing some talent that may not have the biggest draw. Each hoping to complement each other rather than competing. Once together as movie houses the “Boulder Theater” and the “Fox” are together again as live performance halls. The two theaters share staff, combine ticketing operations and juggle acts between venues given the flexibility offered by the 625-person “Fox” theatre and the 1,000-person “Boulder Theater”.


The “Fox” has been many things to Boulder over the decades, which makes its national acclaim as a concert hall all the more impressive. It lends itself to cozy entertainment for locals and travelers alike. With its convoluted, piecemeal history of the building adding to its eclectic character. The “Fox” on the Hill satisfies the Boulder community thirst for creative eclectic entertainment.