It took many years and countless headlining acts before Don Strasburg felt secure about the financial future of the Fox Theatre. Along with fellow investors Dicke Sidman, Dave MacKenzie, Jon O'Leary and James and Charles Hambleton, Strasburg had taken a big risk investing in the former movie house, dancehall and vaudeville venue on Boulder's University Hill. Twenty years after the Fox opened to public as a music venue in March 1992 with a show headlined by the Meters (now the Funky Meters, returning to the Fox tonight for a show with Hot Soup), Strasburg recalls just how long that sense of risk persisted.
"No one besides a handful of people thought that we would make it through the summer of 1992 ... We were all Deadheads. We were hippie-dippie freaks," recalls Strasburg, adding that one of the first messages on the venue's marquee read "Feeling Irie." "We barely made it. On Dicke's phone, it said 'Don't Panic,' because bill people were calling us day in and day out ... There was no turning point. For years and years, we were clawing and scratching."
As Strasburg and the rest of the Fox crew prepare to celebrate the venue's twentieth anniversary tonight, those days of stress and uncertainty seem incomprehensible. For Boulder natives, countless rounds of University of Colorado students and any local music fan with a passable familiarity with the scene, the Fox is an institution.
The glossy photographs in the front hall speak of the theater's glory in the form of heavyweight headliners - portraits of artists like Public Enemy, Radiohead, Willie Nelson and John Fogerty grace the Fox's walls. The 500-seat room boasts a feel that's airy and intimate at the same time; its proximity to the state's flagship college campus makes the theater seem a no-brainer, a guaranteed money maker.
But in the early '90s, Strasburg and the rest of the Fox investors had to persist through astronomical debt and pushback from the community to see the dream realized. Then a student at the Colorado College, Strasburg said the drama started long before the Fox hosted its first act.
The idea to open a new music venue in Boulder went back to 1990, when the group first targeted the another theater as their ideal site. When another buyer got their hands on that property, though, the focus shifted to a one-screen movie theater on the Hill owned by Mann Cinamerica.
"I was driving up on the Hill, and I looked over at the Fox theater," he remembers. "I was just looking for a place we could do this. I walk in, and there's this little old lady sitting at the front ... I walk in and asked, 'Who owns this place.' She was like, 'YOU'VE GOT TO CALL THE OWNERS!' We'd found the venue."
The next hurdles included negotiating with Mann, securing a liquor license from the city's liquor board in a contentious and hard-fought battle. Refitting the former movie theater came next. By the time Curtis Salgado and the Stilettos played the first private event and the Meters prepped for the Fox's debut event on March 6 and 7, 1992, the owners ran into a new hiccup:
Convincing the community the Fox would be a legitimate concert hall posed its own hurdles. "When we first opened, Steve Knopper from the Daily Camera absolutely thrashed us," Strasburg said. "He said we were just going to be a hippie, hippie-dippie place."
Overcoming the financial and public relations hurdles had a lot to do with the connections of Dicke and promoter Bill Bass. "Without Bill Bass," Strasburg points out, "there's no chance that we would have gotten the big-name recognition acts. He really was the critical component for just getting on the map."
Those ties helped draw a diverse set of acts to the Fox stage, including Fogerty, who played the venue when he came out of retirement and started played Creedence Clearwater Revival tunes again. Bands like the Samples served as the hometown heroes, and an appearance from Willie Nelson, Daniel Lanois, Phoebe Snow and Bonnie Raitt in a single night stands out for Strasburg as an early highlight. Big name hip-hop acts became a regular feature on the stage. During a Sublime show in 1995, though, Strasburg had to deal with an unexpected outbreak of violence.
"One of the band's friends was beating up one of my security guards," he recalls. "I tried to tell him to stop ... A massive fight broke out. Brad [Nowell] from Sublime sees this, he sees his friend fighting. He unhooked his guitar in the middle of the song...dives out into the crowd and starts throwing punches."
All Strasburg could do was plead for reason, he said, explaining to the now-deceased Nowell that the victim of the beating was a Fox employee. "I said, 'Your fucking friends are punching my security guys,'" Strasburg recounts. "He just stopped, turned around, walked back up on stage, picked up a guitar and started playing."
Strasburg laughs with the recollection, but anecdotes of fights, financial straits and other stresses (Dicke Sidman, a guiding force, died from cancer three years after the venue opened) still carry emotional weight. His voice bears a note of disbelief, as if he's still marveling that a bid to start a theater by a group of Deadheads proved successful. Bringing back the Meters and welcoming the community that made that success possible will help it feel a bit more real.
"It's an honor to be able to bring the Meters back to join us," he says. "It was as important to us to have our community, to have a reunion of sorts. That was our goal here. These people are our family; these are our friends. They've given us memories that you couldn't buy."
We Believe Local Journalism is Critical to the Life of a City
Engaging with our readers is essential to Westword's mission. Make a financial contribution or sign up for a newsletter, and help us keep telling Denver's stories with no paywalls.
Support Our Journalism
Follow Backbeat on Twitter: @westword_music