Fox Theater, Oakland
When the Fox Theater opened its doors in October 1928, 20,000 patrons thronged Oakland’s newest movie palace to experience music on the Mighty Wurlitzer, a live stage show and one of the latest innovations, the “talkies” that were replacing silent films. But one of the biggest draws was the massive domed theater itself, an opulent and exotic mix of terra cotta tiles, dizzyingly detailed paintings and golden deities, reminiscent of a Brahmin Temple.
Even in the heyday of elaborate movie palaces, the Fox stood out. The architecture of the buff brick and terra cotta structure has long defied definition, being variously described as Indian, Moorish, Medieval and Baghdadian. At the time, the San Francisco Chronicle called it “different, novel and mystic,” noting “its spaciousness, luxurious appointments and beautiful designs.” Rich colors and gold leaf were abundant, including two bejeweled golden figures flanking the stage who were quickly dubbed Buddhas, though historians now believe they were designed as warriors.
For more than three decades, the Fox held its own as a first-run movie house in a bustling downtown entertainment and shopping district. But as the advent of television dealt a blow to the movie business and suburban malls and multiplexes began to lure people away from downtowns in cities nationwide, Oakland was no exception.
The Fox closed its doors in 1966. Downtown lost its theaters, its department stores and much of its vitality. The grand Fox, closed longer than it was ever open, escaped the wrecking ball more than once, but suffered fires, leaky roofs, decay and graffiti.
The Fox survived an arson fire in 1973, but its increasingly shabby condition led it to be derided as “the largest outdoor urinal in the world.” Still, the theater escaped an attempt to raze it for a parking lot in 1975 and was named a city landmark in 1978.
That same year, Piedmont residents Erma and Mario DeLucchi bought the property at auction for $340,000 in hopes of restoring it and saving it from the fate of San Francisco’s Fox Theater, which had been demolished in 1963. The couple had gone on Saturday night dates at the Oakland Fox as high school sweethearts in the early 1930s, Erma wearing the gardenia corsages Mario would bring her.
“We just loved it. It was luxurious and it was always a good movie,” recalled Erma DeLucchi, an Oakland native. But Mario died soon after they bought the theater, and the project never got under way.
In 1996, the city, under the leadership of Mayor Elihu Harris, bought the building from Erma DeLucchi for $3 million. But still, nothing happened. After the wet El Niño winter of 1997-98, preservationists began pressuring the city to repair the Fox’s roofs. Parts of the intricately painted walls and ceilings had been damaged by rain, and mushrooms were sprouting from the floor.
The Oakland native Phil Tagami, whose parents had their first date at the Fox Theater, had first approached city officials about restoring the theater soon after the city purchased it in 1996. “I felt laughed at,” recalled Tagami, 42, a high school dropout who cut his teeth working as a laborer in the construction business before starting to buy and fix up old buildings, mostly in downtown Oakland. But Tagami earned a good measure of credibility for restoring the former Kahn’s department store across from City Hall — a long-shuttered but stunning piece of Beaux Arts architecture with its soaring glass dome — into the Rotunda office and retail building. Soon after the Rotunda opened, and the Fox sign was relit, an editorial in the Oakland Tribune urged someone to tackle the Fox. It suggested Tagami. Impatient with the glacial progress on the Fox to date, Tagami organized a meeting of interested parties and then took another plan to the city.
Tagami began searching for additional funding, leading to a complex financing and ownership structure that combines city redevelopment money with grants, tax credits and even billboard revenue. Years in the making, the project has gone through 28 public hearings, plus another three dozen meetings on community outreach and local hiring for construction.
Finally, after over 40 silent years, the Fox Theater re-opened its doors as a live music venue, arts school, and restaurant – its aged and rain-damaged interior restored to its once-breathtaking beauty. The theater’s opening finally anchored the long-awaited renaissance of an Uptown entertainment district of theaters, restaurants, and nightspots.