From Start-Up Doubts to a Premiere Venue: The Fox Theatre Celebrates Thirty Years | Westword

The Fox Theatre Celebrates Thirty Years of Music in Boulder

Fox tales.
The 600-capacity Fox Theatre hosts both local and national acts, such as 311, pictured here.
The 600-capacity Fox Theatre hosts both local and national acts, such as 311, pictured here. Dave Arnold
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When Don Strasburg and five partners opened the Fox Theatre on University Hill in Boulder thirty years ago, their motivation was simple.

“We wanted to have the greatest place in the world, where we could hang out, see the greatest music in the world and have a ton of fun,” Strasburg says. “We were all coming out of college. We didn’t feel that the existing [venues] — which were far [fewer] than they are now in Colorado — really cared about our community and the experiences we wanted. You’ve got to build it. You've got to make it happen if you want it."

Strasburg, who graduated from Colorado College a few years before the Fox opened, teamed up with University of Colorado Boulder students Dave MacKenzie, brothers James and Charles Hambleton, Jon O'Leary and Dicke Sidman, who was the oldest of the group and was a former production manager at the Boulder Theater.

As Strasburg remembers it, when the Fox, which was inducted into the Colorado Music Hall of Fame last year, opened on March 6, 1992, nobody thought the venue would make it.

“There wasn't a person in the existing adult-music community in Colorado that thought we had a one in a hundred chance of surviving except Dicke Sidman, and maybe his friend Craig Webb,” he recalls.

While most of the partners were in their twenties, he says, Sidman was around forty at the time and had a long history of working with Fey Concerts; he died from cancer three years after the venue opened.

“Dicke also knew the best sound people, the best light people, the best people who ran the backbone of what makes the music tick,” says Strasburg. “We all take for granted the quality of the sound, the quality of the lights, the quality of the security — all these things that you know are unbelievably flawless when you go to see concerts at the Fox and the Boulder Theater. But these things aren't guaranteed.

“Dicke made sure we really had the best people in the state to make sure our backbone was strong," he adds. "He essentially brought the ragtag crew of college kids and industry veterans together to beat the odds.”

Because of Sidman’s help with developing relationships in the music community, the Fox had credibility from day one that the venue partners could deliver on their promises, Strasburg says. “And the quality when you walked into the Fox was like something nobody had ever heard before. The Fox today and then may still be the greatest-sounding room in the world, and people noticed fast.”

In the early days of the Fox, there was a new music scene coming up, with high-profile jam bands like Phish and local acts like the Samples and Big Head Todd & the Monsters, Strasburg says, noting that such groups were part of a community that wasn’t totally respected by the main concert players in Colorado.

“We were really passionate about that stuff,” he remembers. “We were part of that community. We were all, in one form or another, Deadheads; we were driven by that community. ... That was kind of where we started in programming.”
click to enlarge
The Fox Theatre opened thirty years ago.
Courtesy of Fox Theatre
Paul Epstein, owner of Twist & Shout Records and co-chair of the Colorado Music Hall of Fame’s board of directors, told Westword last year that he saw String Cheese Incident, Leftover Salmon and Yonder Mountain String Band — all three of which were also inducted into the CMHOF in 2021 — play at the Fox Theatre in the bands' early days.

“Besides being one of the premier venues in the state for sound and location and hip vibe, the Fox was home to each one of these bands,” Epstein says. “This is where they broke out. I remember seeing each one at the Fox early on and saying to myself, ‘Wow, each one of them is going to go somewhere.’ And they did. They all transcended that market.”

Strasburg, who’s now co-president and senior talent buyer for AEG Presents Rocky Mountains, says the Fox went through a few different eras of talent buying. He booked shows at the theater until 1999 and was followed by Eric Pirritt, who would go on to be president of Live Nation Colorado/Rocky Mountain Region. Ben Baruch was the next talent buyer at the Fox; he later started his own management company, 11E1even Group, which represents acts such as Big Gigantic and Goose.

Since the 600-capacity Fox Theatre and the 1,000-capacity Boulder Theater joined forces in 2010, when Z2 Entertainment was formed, Strasburg says there’s been some wonderful growth, as well as a stellar staff. David Weingarden, Z2’s vice president of concerts and events, started in 2013; Joe Golaszewski came in as Z2’s talent buyer in 2017; and Cheryl Liguori joined the Fox Theatre during its first year and was its general manager for six years before taking over as CEO. Ligouri is now CEO of Z2, which also oversees booking for the Aggie Theatre in Fort Collins, Chautauqua Auditorium, and 10 Mile Music Hall in Frisco.

“One of the best things about the Fox Theatre is the fact that [David], Joe and Cheryl are still running it,” Strasburg says. “Not just running it, but maintaining the same ideals and ethos that a bunch of kids thirty years ago believed in, and to this day, still fight for it every day. And that's why we'll be here another thirty years.”

Strasburg jokes that the two theaters were mortal enemies before teaming up. But in reality, they all cared about the same thing: the live-music community in Boulder and the larger music community in Colorado.

At a certain point, says Weingarden, “it didn't make sense anymore to keep driving up the artist fees and then also driving up the ticket fees."

“We looked at each other finally and said, ‘Why are we essentially bringing war to something that's about love?’” Strasburg recalls. “'Wouldn't we be better off if we worked together for the sake of everybody...and for the music, the community's best interest?' It was a win-win.”

The Fox Theatre and Z2 are very customer-focused, according to Weingarden.

“We see it not only as taking care of our patrons, but taking care of our artists,” he says. “That's one of those things that's been passed down for so long from the Fox from the early days. It's a two-pronged approach: making sure that the patrons have the best experience that they can have, and then also making sure that the artist and the artist teams have the best experience that they can have. And I'm not just saying that in lip service — it’s really a core piece of our culture within Z2 Entertainment. And that's all from the Fox.”

The Fox opened as the jam-band scene was bubbling up in the early ’90s, and while it's still known for booking such bands, Weingarden says the venue also gears shows toward college students, particularly with CU close by. These days, that means bringing in more more EDM, hip-hop and indie-rock acts.

“You have to adjust to what your market is interested in,” he says.

George Porter and Dumpstaphunk will play the music of the Meters to celebrate the venue’s official thirtieth-anniversary event on Sunday, March 6, but the Fox will continue to mark the milestone throughout 2022 with other shows, including G. Love & the Juice on Saturday, March 5, and Michael Franti & Spearhead on Thursday, June 2. More anniversary concerts will be announced.

The Fox was closed for fifteen months during the pandemic, and there was no point in trying to open the venue even after some of the COVID restrictions were lifted. Early on, there had to be 25 feet between the performers and the audience — "and 25 feet in front of the Fox is essentially by the soundboard,” Weingarden points out.

He and his team didn’t want to reopen the venue until they could do full-capacity shows. Lukas Nelson’s sold-out show last June was the first when the Fox reopened. Ticket sales have been increasing recently, notes Weingarden.

“Our day-of-show walk-up, which was very minimal through COVID on the shows that we had, that's also starting to increase,” he adds. "You can tell people are feeling more comfortable with going out again, which is awesome. And the community is super supportive. We all needed it. We all needed to get back into the Fox and be around our community and our friends and enjoying ourselves.”

The Fox Theatre 30th Anniversary: George Porter Jr. & Dumpstaphunk perform the Meters, 9 p.m. Sunday, March 6; 1135 13th Street, Boulder. Tickets are $40-$45.The Fox will host other anniversary concerts throughout 2022.
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