Fox Theatre: A phoenix rising from the celluloid ashes

Newton native Barb Burns has fond memories of the Fox Theatre in downtown Newton from when she was growing up ? recollections of cinematic treats like candy and cartoons.
For many years, Burns? mother was manager/owner of Lois? Style Shop, just off of Main Street on West Broadway.
?I grew up on Main Street,? Burns said. ?Saturday morning cartoons at the Fox with friends is a warm and lasting memory. There were treats at the Fox that we simply didn?t get anywhere else: Milk Duds, licorice taffy, even popcorn was a special treat. Good memories. Lots of Newton natives recall their budding social lives happening at the Fox. Lots of ?first kiss? activity in the back rows!?
Burns said her back-row experiences were nil, but she does recall feeling quite grown up when she attended the Friday night cinema without her parents.
?I still remember how frightened I was leaving the theater after watching ?Rosemary?s Baby,?? Burns said. ?Lasting memory!?
Many people have lasting memories from that historic building, which was constructed in 1914 as a live theater. One such person is Daryl Skibbe of Newton.
?One of the things I remember is the activity downtown and the Fox being in the center,? Skibbe said. ?Back in the ?70s, fuel was cheap, and we only had one phone in the house, so we could only talk for five minutes at a time. So what we would do is tell our parents we were going downtown to see what was going on and who was out.?
The Fox was in the middle of the driving turn-around places, including A&W and Sonic or Big D. People would socialize outside the theater.
?Cars would be parked on both sides of Main Street and on the side streets when it was a really good movie, and then when the show would end, everyone would be either talking outside or dragging Main honking their horns at those still standing outside,? Skibbe said.
MGM Fox acquired the theater in 1955 and upgraded it for movies. When Dickinson purchased it in the 1990s, they put in new seats.
The arrival of multiplex theaters and shopping malls in the mid- to late 1990s led to the demise of single-screen movie theaters, and Newton was no exception, said Burns, who is chair of the board of directors of the Newton Fox Performing Arts Center Inc. During this time, the Fox fell into disrepair.
In 2001, the Newton High School class of 1965, led by Dan Suderman, purchased the theater for $1 from the city of Newton with the ?blessing to keep the theater and make it happen,? Burns said.
This group worked hard, cleaning out gunk and fixing things, Burns said. For almost 10 years, they brought in local concerts, even without doing fund-raising, she added.
Now, the Newton Fox Performing Arts Center Inc. board of directors, which is a group of volunteer owners, is working to raise money to renovate the Fox and enhance programming.
After Suderman died in 2010, the theater was headed back to the city, as the previous owners grew weary of the project. The city commission was presented with doing something with the Fox or tearing it down.
Dewayne Pauls, who ?singlehandedly has done more for Main Street in the last decade than anyone else,? suggested Burns get her arms around the project, she said.
So, Burns visited with Newton City Manager Randy Riggs.
?Clearly, tearing that down simply wasn?t an option,? Burns said.
However, the city does not put any money into the theater, and the city is not a safety net for it, either. Working with the theater is in Burns? job description as advancement director for the city.
The NFPAC board of directors has been together for about a year. Other members include Ann Davidson, Newton Police Department Chief James Daily, Tim Buller, Rosaland Scudder, Kevin Geraci, Gini Coleman Johnson, Chris Conrade, Floyd Sowers, Janis Whitfield, Michelle Coffman, Larry Morse, Julie Preisser and Donna Mills.
Burns cited several reasons for restoring the Fox.
During the 2010 ReNewton comprehensive plan, more than 1,800 citizen participants said in writing nothing was more important to Newton than an energized and vibrant downtown, and that the Fox Theatre was identified as the single most important catalyst to that goal.
?Having quality, fun events at the Fox downtown brings local folks and people from out of town in big numbers,? Burns said. ?People and the arts are key to a vibrant community.?
She also had a more personal reason for restoring the Fox.
?The Fox Theatre is the heart of downtown Newton,? she said. ?Those of us who have lived here and loved our Main Street for many years know that.?
Burns hadn?t really planned on being part of such a large project.
?I certainly didn?t wake up one day and decide to renovate an old theater in my non-existing spare time,? Burns said. ?And quite honestly, I was na?ve to the magnitude of the challenges facing the project. I was also na?ve, though, to the fun and creative energy the project would generate. More importantly, I have created lifelong friendships through the intensity and time commitment of the project. Our Fox Theatre board spends a lot of time together.?
The theater twice has been close to being torn down. Burns said she remembers when the decision was made to demolish the old Harvey County Court?house and build the current one.
?Sounded good at the time, probably saved money over renovation,? Burns said. ?But there is a lasting collective angst knowing what we lost forever in that decision. Had our group not stepped up to work on the Fox, it likely would have been destined for demolition this time. Not good.?
The new board inherited a building with many problems. In the early weeks and months, Burns said she knew she had no ability to make the renovations happen on her own, but if she put together a strong team, ?I knew we could do anything.?
Burns spent many hours meeting with people about the possibility of restoring the Fox. ?And the excitement was almost palpable with everyone I spoke with,? she said.
Then, the board of directors was formed. ?So, this committed, energized and visionary group of volunteers galvanized around our project,? Burns said.
At the time, the building had a dark feeling, as well as a nasty stench. They found closets that were full of junk, including moldy drapes, stacks of broken toilets, dead birds and cockroaches, Burns said.
?No cinema treasures,? she said. ?There was just junk everywhere.?
In February 2012, the board and friends rolled up their sleeves and carried out 2.5 tons of waste, which filled up five city dump trucks.
?Once we got that stuff out, we (could envision) some potential,? Burns said. ?We bonded with the project.?
The volunteers then set about to freshen the place by replacing granite outside, cleaning and whitewashing some walls. Prudential Realtors helped paint.
The group also received hope in getting great concerts when Miner Seymour, who was with Old Settlers Inn in Moundridge for years, said he?d help recruit talent.
The board also knew the place needed to be renovated, so they took their story to Law-Kingdon Architects in Wichita, complete with the theater?s history and plans for the future. The board decided it wanted to bring the Fox back as a multi-use facility, including showing movies as there had been no screen or equipment to show flicks. The board also wanted to make the Fox a community-use locale for community meetings or as political forums.
?But to do that, we knew we needed to make structural improvements,? Burns said.
The architect firm drew up a historically accurate 1955 design, part of long-range plans for the theater.
The renovation project will cost $2.2 to $3.2 million when completed, but there is no time frame at this point as to when the major renovation will take place.
The historical designation of the theater will be 1955, Burns said, which means the theater?s look will be from that time period.
As the project vision began to take shape and the board started asking for help, very few people said no, Burns said. For example, the advertising agency Sullivan Higdon & Sink in Wichita helped with early promotional materials at no charge to the Fox.
?We had hope, we had energy, we had vision, but we still had no money,? Burns said. ?The Fox Theatre simply sells itself to interested people. It just must be the right thing to do.?
In fall 2012, the board scheduled the Under Construction concert series as a way to test the concert waters in Harvey County; Seymour made the entertainment arrangements. More recently, Adam Hartke, who was program director for the Orpheum in Wichita, stepped in as program director at the Fox.
Performing for the Fox Christmas program in 2012 was Cherish the Ladies, a world-renowned Celtic women?s group. During the performance, seven young men did Irish step-dancing on stage. In the last 30 seconds of the performance, one of the men fell through a hole on the stage. That wasn?t the only problem that night. Earlier, there were plumbing problems in the women?s restroom.
?We knew we couldn?t continue without stopping and fixing the building,? Burns said. ?Safety and comfort is paramount to our being a quality venue for our guests.?
The theater closed from December 2012 through May. Local plumbers were brought in and did a ?colonoscopy? of the building. The structure was rewired for better sound and light capability, and fire code compliance measures were installed. The theater received at no cost like-new theater drapes from Maize High School. Digital movie equipment was purchased, and a 20-foot retractable screen soon will be installed. The theater will start showing movies in the fall.
As of July, dressing rooms, each having its own shower, were being constructed just off the stage. Having spacious and comfortable dressing rooms will help the board?s goal of attracting quality performers, Burns said.
In addition, the stage was extended and rebuilt with new flooring added. Darryl Skibbe with ServiceMaster steam-cleaned theater seats, and ?did magic? on the floors, Burns said.
Much of this was done with a loan from the South Central Kansas Economic Development District with guidance from Mickey Fornaro Dean with Har?vey County Economic Develop?ment.
Patrick Johnson, with Patrick Johnson Interiors of Newton, is doing a great deal of work in the theater, such as painting, designing and creating.
?We?re going to make this place respectable,? he said, standing in front of the concession counter. Plans include renovating the counter, adding an ADA exit ramp and working on theater walls.
?It will be done in phases, and we?re just chipping away at it,? Burns said.
Chipping away at renovating needs funds, and the board has been working on raising the money. For example, in April, a dueling pianos event, ?Rock for the Fox,? raised significant money for the Fox. That same group will return in the spring. Those in attendance seemed to have a great time, with audience participants singing and dancing on stage to audience requests of tunes from the ?60s and ?70s.
?We had a packed banquet room at the Meridian Center having a great time,? said Burns with a grin. ?Those two pianists were amazing talents.?
The Rock for the Fox event was a turning point for the theater project. People who had never darkened the Fox doorway left with a sense of the fun and togetherness the Newton Fox can generate, Burns said.
?Part of our mission is to bring a fun, social pulse back to Newton,? Burns ?said. ?So far, mission accomplished.?

Photos and story by?Wendy Nugent