Fox Theatre, Brooklyn New York History

In 1926 Fox interests acquired control of the triangular property bounded by Flatbush Avenue, Nevins Street, and Livingston Street in Brooklyn. In 1927 the site, partially occupied by the Cowperthwait Building, was cleared. The cornerstone of the Fox Theatre was laid on September 27, 1927 at the junction of Flatbush Avenue and Nevins Street in the presence of numerous civic dignitaries, prominent members of the business community, and theatre representatives, Borough President James A. Byrne officiating. William Fox himself was not present, but what was said to be the first check he ever earned was enclosed in the stone along with the day's Brooklyn newspapers.

In April 1928 the forthcoming August opening was announced. The 4,305-seat theatre was reported to have cost $10,000,000 and was described as the most recent addition to the Fox chain "which now embraces more than 280 theatres through the United States." A 70-piece house orchestra was assembled, with Charles Previn, former musical director of the Roxy Theatre as conductor. Previn had worked with the St. Louis Municipal Opera Company and had been involved with over 60 stage productions for A. L. Erlanger and others. The associate conductor, Frederick Pradkin, had served as the first American concertmaster of the Boston Symphony Orchestra.

  • As the popular entertainer Georgie Jessel explained so significantly from the stage of the new Fox Theater in the course of the inaugural ceremonies last night, "it was only a year ago that Cowperthwait was asking four or five dollars for an ordinary chair on the same spot. Now you can get a beautifully upholstered mezzanine seat for 75 cents."
  • Which is another way of saying that William Fox's newest "temple of amusement" at Flatbush ave. and Nevins St. is open for business. It is another way of explaining that Brooklyn may now point with pride to the second largest motion picture theatre in the city. The largest, of course, is still the Roxy, albeit the esteemed Mr. Samuel Rothafel "Roxy", who was among those present last evening, found reason to admit that the new Fox Theater was not far behind his own Cathedral in magnificence and structural splendor. (Brooklyn Eagle, September 1, 1928)

So began reporter Martin Dickstein's bylined account headlined "New Fox Has Sparkling Opening." The ceremonies commenced with the "Star-Spangled Banner" followed by a "Dedicatory Tableau." Next, the packed audience heard and cheered Borough President Byrne's address of welcome on the Fox Movietone. Charles Previn then conducted the Fox Theatre Grand Orchestra in a "thunderous" rendition of Wagner's Tannhauser Overture and a "galvanizing" symphonic jazz arrangement of a Johann Strauss waltz titled "Dance of the Blue Danube Blues." The orcehstra was followed by screenings of Fox Movietone News and a Movietone short subject of George Bernard Shaw wittily mimicking Benito Mussolini. The curtain then rose on "Carnival des Naples," the stage show, subtitled "A Mood Picture of Neapolitan Shores." The 16 "Fox-Tillerettes" danced a tarantella, Niles Morgan and Vivian La Rue danced their adagio, and John Griffin, soloist, and the Fox Theatre Choral Ensemble of 40 voices sang Neapolitan airs. The gala program concluded with the feature film. Street Angel, a romance set in Naples and starring Janet Gaynor and Charles Farrell.

For some years after its opening, the Fox Theatre in Brooklyn enjoyed a generally uneventful but successful career. One of the big four in the Fulton Street/Flat bush Avenue theatre district, it offered stage and screen presentations that paralleled those at Loew's Metropolitan, RKO's Albee Theatre, and the Brooklyn Paramount. Attendance was so great on November 4, 1930 that police were called to protect shop windows from the pressure of the holiday crowd. In 1932, fortune changed as one Henry Spitz of Paterson, New Jersey filed suit, claiming default by Fox on his $13,000,000 bond issue and seeking appointment of an equity receiver for Fox Metropolitan Playhouses, Inc. By February 1933 economic conditions forced the Brooklyn Fox to close. Employees were given two weeks notice, and the closing was announced to be solely for the purpose of enlarging the stage facilities. The theatre was soon reopened in charge of Harry Arthur, formerly with the Roxy Theatre, with a new admission price policy. The new prices, 25 cents for morning and matinee shows, and a 35 cents maximum for evening shows, spurred attendance, and other theatres followed suit. By July 1933, the Loew-Warner Corporation, negotiating for the purchase of the Fox Metropolitan Theatres Corporation from the bondholders' committee for $4,000,000 raised their bid by $500,000. When Fabian Enterprises, operators of another theatre chain, raised their bid to double that sum, although over a five-year term, Loew-Warner withdrew its offer, and Fabian Enterprises took over.

The change in ownership did not affect the patronage of the Fox Theatre. With the 99-year lease to Fabian Enterprises, it was announced that Fox policy would continue unchanged. Although the rise of sound films and the fall of the economy soon ended the stage extravaganzas of the 1920s, audiences remained large for another twenty years. When Radio Station WBNY was installed in William Fox's former eighth-floor quarters in 1934, a direct line to the Fox stage was provided for certain broadcasts. The once-famous program series "Just Plain Bill" began at WBNY, and radio amateur-hour contests originated on the stage of the Brooklyn Fox. However, the appearance of gifted minors on regular Fox bills after their having won amateur contests drew the wrath of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children and resulted in $500 fines against the theatre management or one-day closures by the License Commission.

On May 29, 1938 a bomb scare at the theatre was handled most efficiently. Police announced that mechanical trouble in the projection room would delay the rest of the showing. The auditorium was searched, ostensibly for a lost seven-carat diamond ring, and the film was resumed after a twenty minute delay. The bomb threat proved to have been a hoax. In March 1945 amateur night was discontinued "in a drive against bobby-sox juvenile delinquency in movie theatres." "Riotous conduct" by young teenagers had resulted in 35 arrests before the law barring "admission of unescorted children under 16 before 3 and after 6 p.m." was enforced. On the night of December 12, 1945 the police were again involved after the Fox ticket seller was robbed at gunpoint of $65.

By 19^+8 previous attendance records were broken as the theatre continued to flourish, and by the summer of 1949 the fox took the rise of television competition in its stride by introducing the first closed-circuit-telecasts shown in theatres when an audience of 4,000 saw a double film feature plus the June 22 Walcott-Charles fight, which was brought via coaxial cable from Chicago through an arrangement by Fabian Theatres with RCA and NBC. The Fox paid only $10,000 for exclusive theatre rights to the 1949 World Series and presented the first 200 patrons with pictures of Brooklyn Dodgers star Jackie Robinson. Football followed baseball as the Notre Dame-Southern California game was telecast from South Bend to the Fox.

Telecasts to the Fox in the following years were varied. They included addresses by Presidents Truman and Eisenhower; Notre Dame home games; the December 11, 1952 Metropolitan Opera House performance of Bizet's Carmen, when 1,750 Fox patrons saw and heard Brooklyn natives Richard Tucker as Don Jose and Robert Merrill as Escamillo; and the Sonny Liston-Floyd Patterson boxing match in 1962, when the screen went dark just before the knockout, and further mayhem was narrowly averted by promising refunds to all ticket stub holders among the 4,000 outraged fight fans who had paid $7.50 apiece for the two-minute-and-six-second bout. By that year, however, competition from home television sets had already made serious inroads on movie theatre patronage.

Fire in an optician's store on the Nevins Street side of the Fox Theatre Building halted ticket sales for twenty minutes on May 26, 1954, but the 500 patrons already seated were not required to leave. Normal routine was abruptly shattered late one Saturday night in 1957, when an armed robber herded the manager and several employees into the manager's office and escaped with $5,500. As in the case of the fire, the patrons remained unaware of the excitement so near to them. In 1965 there was a "near riot . . . precipitated by a shrieking, shoving mob of teenagers . . . rampaging . . . over police barriers and jammed traffic as they struggled to get into the theater to hear a rock 'n' roll disk jockey." (Sunday News, October 4, 1970, p. BKL 70)

In 1962 the Brooklyn Fox Corporation, from which Fabian Enterprises had leased the theatre, sold out to Fabian. For four more years Fabian operated against increasing odds. Early in 1966 it was clearly no longer feasible to carry on. On Thursday, February 3 the New York Times headlined reporter Martin Gansberg's bylined piece "The Fox, $8-Million Film Palace In Brooklyn, Going Dark Sunday." John F. Burke, who started as an usher on opening night and rose to become the theatre's last manager, was quoted as saying, "In the early days, 12,000 people would come to the downtown section on a Saturday night. Now you see only 1,200 to 1,300. This area is becoming a ghost town." Manager Burke's comment aptly summed up the decay of the inner city, which, combined with television, gave the Fox its coup de grace. Attendance on an average night had slumped to around 100. The theatre's 70 employees were given two weeks notice, and with the final showing of William Bendix's Johnny Nobody and David Niven in Where the Spies Are on Sunday, February 6, 1966, the Fox ceased to be a moving picture theatre.

The house lingered in a kind of half-life for a brief span. Some rock-and-roll performances were staged there until April 1968, and later in 1968 the theatre was used by the Salmaggi Grand Opera Company, which failed, leaving behind 345 newly upholstered loge seats, acoustically the poorest in the house. After a Humphrey for President rally that same year, the doors closed. For two years marquee letters spelled out "TEMPORARILY CLOSED: FOR RENT." Before demolition in January 1971, the marquee announced one last performance, "Farewell to the Fox: October 31, 1928, to November 4, 1970. Bill Gage at the Mighty Wurlitzer." On January 4, 1971 the New York Times, under a headline reading "Brooklynites Bid a Nostalgic Farewell to the Fox," stated that "The Fox Theater .... is finally coming down." An office building was scheduled for erection on the site.