JOPLIN, Mo. – In 1930, a lavish entertainment option came to Downtown Joplin. Fox Theater, located at 415 S. Main Street, offered guests a new movie watching experience and an escape from the outside world.
“No matter what sort of horrible things you were confronting, you could maybe get into the character or just watch something that made you feel good,” said MSSU’s Community Historian Brad Belk. He says that the theater played a huge role in the social culture of the area.
Fox Theater is a two-story, L-shaped, two-part commercial building. It was constructed in a Spanish Revival style and upon completion was the “most ornate movie palace to be constructed in Joplin,” according to the building’s 1991 registration form for the National Register of Historic Places.
The building featured a 65 foot wide stage and seating for 2,000 guests, making it the largest in the city.
“It was the largest, most opulent movie house in Joplin. It’s also pivotal… We went from a photograph moving to sound,” said Belk.
Being built with a focus on acoustics, Fox Theater was one of the first of its kind. Previous theaters had not foreseen the future of motion pictures having sound.
In 1927, theater architect L.P. Larsen was drawn to Joplin with the opportunity to build a “grand movie palace.” Based in Chicago, Larsen was one of the best known theater architects in the country by 1929.
Larsen founded the Joplin Building Corporation and received financial backing to construct a “first class theater.” Larsen and the Joplin Building Corporation negotiated a lease with the Fox Midland Corporation, one of the leading film and theater companies, to operate the theater.
The Fox Midland Corporation agreed to lease the building and operate the theater for 20 years following its completion. The theater was called the Fox in recognition of the corporation.
Under the direction of Larsen, The Gillioz Company was then selected to build the Fox Theater. The theater took only seven months and $500,000 to complete. This required Larsen to employ as many as 300 men to work on its construction at once.
“This is in the heat of The Depression. It’s amazing that this building got finished,” said Belk.
Opening Fox Theater
Its formal opening night was a major social event for Joplin. Mayors from Springfield to Coffeyville attended. The Joplin Globe reported that visitors “gasped in admiration at the splendor of the new edifice.” The cost was 50 cents for an evening ticket, 35 cents for the afternoon.
The grand opening began with the live show “Wild and Wooly,” which featured tap dancing cowgirls, cowboy singers and dancers.
“Before the movie would start, they would have this live entertainment which people were familiar with. These were very staged and crafted productions,” said Belk.
After the performance, the film “Up the River,” directed by John Ford, was presented.
Typically, news reels would play prior to the movie. At the time, these previews could have consisted of news about The Great Depression, FDR’s presidency, the Bonnie and Clyde scandal and more.
Despite The Depression, Fox Theater remained profitable as hundreds of guests viewed movies each week.
“People came to escape… This is where they could cool off, they could warm up. It had air conditioning and it had heat… Very few places had air conditioning at the time,” said Belk.
Because the theater was constructed without a separate balcony section, no black people were allowed until the 1960s. The theater also had poor accessibility.
“The era that is was built, some people weren’t welcome. And that would be African Americans… But that’s not the only people that were shortsighted. It was also the people that had accessibility issues, mobility issues. The only way you could come in was on Main Street… To do that, you take a series of stairs,” said Belk.
After shutting down
In 1973, Fox Theater played its last film. The theater then shut down due to increased competition from modern theaters and rising operating costs.
A year later, Central Christian Center in Joplin purchased the building. According to Belk, the church bought it for $140,000. He says Fox was initially wanting $3 million.
“This little church that had 300 members was looking for a place to grow… They were just going to temporarily be there and then they would build a new church, but that never developed,” he said.
The only major alterations to the building were the remodeling of the stage area for use during church services and the removal of the neon Fox sign — which was one of the largest in the Midwest.
“It’s still very much intact, which is a remarkable thing,” said Belk.
Belk is appreciative that the “extraordinary structure” was saved. Belk believes Fox Theater was “one of the first to recognize preservation.” He thinks that, typically, old buildings like Fox Theater need to be “reinvented” in order to be preserved.
“They need to find something else to do,” said Belk. He uses the transformation of the Frisco Building in Joplin – from offices and a train station to apartments – as an example.
Along with being a church, the old Fox Theater building is available for rent for events, concerts and more. For information on renting, contact Gary Shaw.