The Bay Area live music scene gets its economic stimulus package early this year: a newly restored, $90 million live music palace in downtown Oakland. Beginning February 5, Social Distortion, the Black Keys, Bloc Party, B.B. King, and Cake will draw thousands of regional music fans to the 3,000-seat Fox Theater. There, lucky locals will find arguably the Bay Area's best entertainment venue inside a fully restored 1920s-era East Indian/Moroccan-themed movie mansion.
Project manager Jeffrey Chew of Oakland's Community and Economic Development Agency says experts call the Fox the most expensive historic theater restoration in the country. "It was a behemoth in its times, and it was the white elephant of downtown Oakland," he says. "The whole idea is to revitalize Uptown and create a presence there after 5 p.m. It's part of a renaissance for downtown Oakland."
Walk past the glow of the titanic marquee, past the gilded box office, and inside lies a Golden Nugget-size lobby. The rich décor yields to a gargantuan main room that feels big enough to comfortably land a helicopter. Looking up from the dance floor, the hand-painted ceiling hangs sixty dizzying, dazzling feet above.
The Fox's deep, broad stage feels as if it could handle a full Broadway production or, say, Sufjan Stevens. Ample bars and bathrooms, floor-based ventilation, super-cushy pleather seats, and even cupholders between chairs bespeak a fan-first design; not to mention a 4,000 square-foot bar attached next door, called the Den at the Fox.
Artists and roadies will consider lengthy residencies after they spend one day in the twisting, underground artist bunker. Larry Trujillo — a 25-year veteran promoter and owner of the neighboring Uptown Bar — got a private tour of the venue and said the Fox offers bands more than anywhere else on the West Coast.
"There's nothing that can compare to this," Trujillo gushed. "They're better equipped than most professional locker rooms. They have one-person showers. They have gang showers. I'm serious. It's incredible. They have a restaurant for bands serving breakfast, lunch, and dinner down there."
Thanks to the décor, the soundsystem, and the shear classiness of the city-funded joint, the venue is turning Oakland into a destination for major touring acts. For example, indie-rock band Animal Collective's only Bay Area appearance happens at the Fox in May.
By most accounts, the Fox shouldn't even be open. It's been cursed since the get-go in the '20s, then neglected, abandoned, and finally burned and ruined. When it opened in 1928, movie houses were local Disneylands, projecting Mickey Mouse cartoons and newsreels of Stalin's five-year plan. The Depression turned it into a nickel-hotel where homeless customers would spend the night watching films. But after World War II, cars, suburbs, freeways, television, and multiplexes killed off most historic theaters. The Fox closed in the '60s. Oakland's economic paralysis actually helped preserve its vintage architecture.
The city bought the Fox for $3 million in 1998 and then-Mayor Jerry Brown made the parcel a focal point of his eight-year boost to downtown housing and arts. The city's redevelopment agency tapped developer Phil Tagami to aggregate a building and funding team. Along with Friends of the Fox, Tagami has corralled 32 funders, including Bank of America, to help match the city's $42 million starting pot of money. "It's a miracle,' Tagami said. "If we had started any later it wouldn't have happened."
Today, the budget floats upward of $90 million, while the org chart looks like a hairball of public and private money, for-profit and nonprofit entities, local and state tax credits, and a 500-student charter school, Oakland School for the Arts, sharing the parcel. "It's mind-boggling, even to an insider," Tagami said.
More than 1,000 workers have descended on the project over the last two years as costs ballooned. Head Foreman Mike Richards said plans did not exist for all the problems and challenges discovered inside the ruin, which had seen arson, homeless encampments, earthquakes, and vermin. "Every day we felt like we were on the brink," Tagami said. "Mike and his teams saved our bacons every day."
Every inch of the place was restored, from the hand-painted ceiling to the plumbing beneath the edifice. Friends of the Fox continues to work to endow the building against future neglect, and at the end of the day, the redevelopment agency holds the deed for the pricey property. "The theater belongs to the people of Oakland," Tagami said.
Berkeley promotion powerhouse Another Planet Entertainment came in as operators of the venue. The firm had spent five years running the Independent in San Francisco, the Greek Theater at UC Berkeley, and organizing the Outside Lands Music Festival and co-organizing 2008's Treasure Island Music Festival.
Another Planet cofounder Gregg Perloff said it's a golden age for the kind of mid-level bands served by the Fox. BART's 19th St. station — just a block away — promises a route to and from the venue for fans from the entire region.
"I've been trying to do the Fox for 25 years," Perloff said. "It's twelve minutes from Embarcadero Station. Twelve minutes from San Leandro. It's in the absolute dead center of the Bay Area in terms of population. And talk about a honeymoon period — every show is selling out. I want it to be the hottest building in town."
Still, public safety concerns and the recession cloud the Fox's horizon. In January, roving mobs of vandals from a demonstration over the shooting of Oscar Grant terrorized the entire block, besieging neighbor restaurant Flora. "The customers were screaming," Trujillo recalled. "Finally, the cops chased them away by the time they had smashed all their windows."
The daytime population of downtown has swollen from a historic 25,000-person low to 80,000 today. Now the nighttime is the right time, Chew says. "What's happening now is part of a paradigm shift in America where cities are important again."
The recession will sap future redevelopment funds and slow the renaissance, Chew says. But will the recession cause concertgoers to skip shows as well?
Another Planet marketing manager Danielle Madeira says the end of '08 at the concert promotion company turned out great with sold-out shows for AC/DC and Metallica.
"I think '09's a big question mark," she said. "I think that everybody's a little intimidated by all the media hype about the recession and money. But there's also some things either that thrive in recessions or do okay, and that's entertainment, and drinking. You gotta hope for the best."
"As far as ticket sales go, it's great. Everybody feels good about it."
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