Only in Arizona: Old movie and live performance venue in Phoenix entertained generations before the decline of the central business district in the 1960s

In the annals of classic local movie theaters like the Valley Art in Tempe and The Rialto and the original Cine Capri in Phoenix, few rivaled the grandeur and glitz of the Fabulous Fox West Coast Theatre at Washington and First Street in downtown Phoenix.

Down the street from the old Adams Hotel and on the site of the first Phoenix City Hall and fire station in the city’s original Block 23, S. Charles Lee’s 1,800-seat design sat in the epicenter of cinema cool when it opened in July 1931 — especially since it was the first to provide air-conditioned comfort.

Its ornate Moderne-Deco facade, flashing lights and grand billboard announcing the week’s show welcomed generations of families seeking the latest movie or serials like “Roy Rogers”, “Johnny Mack Brown” and “The Durango Kid.”

A curved floating staircase with futuristic lamp posts and decorative banisters, crystal chandeliers, organ music and elaborate frescos in the lobby with birds, archers and wildlife created an otherworldly experience even before entering the theater. Painted saguaro and prickly pear cactuses adorned the candy counter.

Seats in the 1940s cost 45 cents for adults, 20 cents for children.

Fond memories

“We lived on a farm way out in the West Valley at 27th Avenue and the Grand Canal, and we’d catch a bus down on Grand Avenue into Phoenix where we’d stand in line for Fox Leaders (kids club),” official state historian Marshall Trimble said. “We’d watch serials that always ended with the hero or heroine in dire straits only to return the next Saturday to see that miraculously they’d managed to cheat death.”

“We moved to northern Arizona when I was 8 and didn’t return until 1955, just in time to see “Rebel Without a Cause” and “Giant” with James Dean, and “Davy Crockett” with Fess Parker.”

The Fabulous Fox West Coast Theatre for decades was central to the entertainment lives of locals, which also included live shows.

Wallace and Ladmo regularly performed there, as well as seasonal events like “The Nutcracker” and national radio broadcasts of “America’s Town Meeting of the Air.”

What’s left

So what happened? Is anything left of the Fabulous Fox?

The theater enjoyed a good run through the late 1950s until more people and businesses migrated toward the suburbs.

By 1975, the City of Phoenix owned the property and wanted to level it. Much of the décor, chandeliers, ceiling panels — even the one-of-a-kind ticket booth — were auctioned off at a fraction of their original cost.

Block 23 would lay fallow for years as downtown Phoenix declined. It became a parking lot when the Suns opened America West Arena in 1992, and is back in the news recently as the site of RED Development’s mixed-use project that includes a Fry’s Food Store.

Hopefully it will be as fabulous as the old Fox West Coast Theatre.

Contact “Only in Arizona” columnist Mark Nothaft at [email protected] Send him the weird and fun facts and places found #OnlyInArizona.

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