There is still much work to be done in the Historic Centralia Fox Theatre before it can host movies and live shows like it used to in its heyday. But enough of the theater has been renovated that visitors who toured the building on Thursday could feel the echoes of what it used to be and clearly imagine what it will become.
“I’m glad it’s going back to the way it was. I’ve got some good memories here,” said Tracy Miller, a community member who attended Thursday’s open house with her mother, Carol.
The pair often came to see shows at the Fox in the ‘80s. Carol Miller recalled visiting the Fox frequently from when she moved to the area in 1959 to when the theater closed in the 1990s.
Tracy Miller took video of her walkthrough to show to a friend in Florida who also had fond memories at the Fox Theatre.
Thursday’s open house, which was held as part of the Centralia-Chehalis Chamber of Commerce Business After Hours series, was the first time in five years that the Fox Theatre has hosted any members of the public.
Sherri Garland took the opportunity to visit the balcony seating section and reminisced near where her and her husband’s regular seats used to be.
Her husband had splurged on the balcony seats for the couple’s first date — a showing of Jaws in 1975 — and the seats became the couple’s regular spot for future dates.
“People love the Fox Theatre, they care about the Fox Theatre, they want it to be done and it really makes a difference when people are putting their support,” said Scott White, founder of the restoration project.
The Centralia Fox Theatre first opened in September 1930 as a member of the Fox West Coast Theatre chain.
The art-deco style, 1,200-seat theater was less elaborate than some of its fellows along the West Coast, but the muted yet ornate design was fitting for the cultural atmosphere of Centralia at the time it was built, according to White.
White began work renovating the Fox Theatre when he moved back to Centralia, his hometown, in 2008.
Some of the plans to update the theater space include extending the lobby, adding restrooms throughout the building, installing an elevator, creating a greenroom and dressing rooms in the basement, a stage extension, theatrical lighting and state-of-the-art sound and film equipment, according to previous Chronicle coverage.
Project organizers completed $3 million worth of renovation work on the Fox Theatre between 2009 and 2017, according to White.
The restoration work was on track to potentially be finished in 2020 — but COVID-19 brought the project to a screeching halt.
White recalled hearing the news that COVID-19 was officially a pandemic in early March 2020.
“A week later, we could not have workers in the building,” White said.
The restoration project stalled. What money remained in the project’s funds went into maintaining the building, “which is not an inexpensive feat,” White said.
Community support in the form of individual donations was enough to fund continued maintenance of the building through the pandemic, White said. “Those things really make a difference and they really add up.”
The project hasn’t received much financial support from individual community members in recent years, which White said was understandable given the uncertainties of the pandemic.
“Financial uncertainty made people wary of overcommitting financially,” White said, “our project just kind of fell on the back burner and we really struggled.”
In October 2021, White and those who stuck with the Fox Theatre renovation project during the pandemic “decided we needed to rebuild the organization from the ground up,” White said. New board members and volunteers from around the community have since joined the cause, and with support from the Economic Alliance of Lewis County and the City of Centralia, work inside the Fox has resumed.
With the City of Centralia being the owner of the property, the city council and Historic Fox Theatre Restorations — the city’s lessee for the property — entered into an agreement with the Economic Alliance of Lewis County, formerly the Economic Development Council, in February 2022 to move the work forward.
As part of the agreement, the Economic Alliance of Lewis County will be responsible for serving as the fiscal agent and project manager for the restoration work while Historic Fox Theatre Restorations remains responsible for the overall project, according to previous Chronicle coverage.
“My organization jumped into taking over the project because it's been delayed for a while because of COVID,” said Economic Alliance President Richard DeBolt. The Economic Alliance’s goal with the Fox is to “get it to a good position as a viable theater,” he said.
The restoration project has also received funding from the state Department of Commerce and Trans Alta and is seeking grant funding according to Todd Chaput of the Centralia-Chehalis Chamber of Commerce.
While Chaput said project organizers’ goal is to raise $2.5 million to make the theater operational within 18 months to two years, other project organizers were hesitant to name a dollar amount or a timeline needed to reopen the Fox.
Part of the reason for that hesitancy, White said, is the uncertainties surrounding construction costs and grant availability. But the plan to finish the theater is already in place “and we know what needs to get done,” White said.
For now, project organizers are focused on re-engaging with the community.
“We think the funding is gonna be there, it's not gonna be a problem. But we want to continue to garner that community support, re-engage the community, get the community excited again,” said Chaput.
The Fox Theatre will host a black-tie “Casino Royale” on Oct. 8 to raise funds for the continued renovation and keep people excited about the project.
More information is available at https://centraliafoxtheatre.com/casino-royale-night/.