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Dispute over Fox Theatre ownership leaves its future in doubt

The Fox Theater's signs illuminate the building facade
Philip Leara
The Fabulous Fox Theatre has been a jewel in the crown of St. Louis cultural offerings since a major renovation four decades ago. Now the owners of the land it was built on say it's almost their time to take charge.

Two companies are wrestling over control of the Fabulous Fox Theatre in St. Louis — and lawyers for each side are warning about the future of live performances there if the other side prevails.

Fox Associates bought the theater in 1981 and led a renovation that restored the theater as one of St. Louis’ cultural crown jewels, spending about $10 million since then on upgrades. The group inherited a 99-year lease to most of the land the theater sits on and has been paying an annual fee of $40,000.

The landowner, Foxland Inc., argued in St. Louis Circuit Court on Tuesday that it’s entitled to take over the theater when the lease expires in 2025. Lawyers for Fox Associates asked Judge Michael Francis Stelzer to instead direct Foxland to sell the land at a fair price and leave the theater’s current operators in place.

The two sides offered dueling interpretations of the 1926 lease at the heart of the the dispute.

Stelzer didn’t immediately issue a ruling. He could throw out either side’s case — or toss both claims, setting up dual ownership of the theater. Otherwise, a trial could begin by April.

Leaders of Fox Associates have said that without a swift end to the dispute, they will soon start missing out on opportunities to book high-profile shows for future seasons. Touring shows at the Fox are typically booked years in advance.

But an agreement to bring some Broadway tours to the Stifel Theatre is a sign that Fox Associates plans to shift its operations, a Foxland lawyer asserted.

The Fox’s current operators want to keep anyone else from competing with shows they produce at the Stifel, Foxland attorney Gerard T. Carmody said in an interview after the hearing.

“If they are successful in advancing their position, this is going to go dark. And there’s nothing we can do about it,” Carmody said of the Fox.

“How can we walk away from this, for this community, and say, ‘Let’s just push it all down to the Stifel Theatre’? We’re going to operate a very, very high-end theater when our day comes,” he added.

A scenario in which the Fox’s operators stop producing shows at the Grand Center theater and shift exclusively to the Stifel is not going to happen, Fox Associates attorney Gerald Greiman said after the hearing.

“This is the group that saved the Fox Theatre, restored it to its current grandeur, that has lovingly operated it for 40 years. The last thing they want to see is for that to come to an end,” Greiman said.

Fox Associates owns some of the property on which the theater was built, including the land beneath the backstage area and an adjacent parking lot that its workers use to load shows into the theater. Foxland owns most of the land beneath the seating area.

The sides agreed it would be impossible for either one to operate the theater without obtaining rights to use the whole property.

Jeremy is the arts & culture reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.

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