Scenic, Historic Arts Venues Enrich Performances
By Loni Nannini
Over two centuries, Tucson has set the stage for legendary actors and artists by building venues that have become stars in their own rights.
Rio Nuevo, Downtown Tucson Partnership, Tucson Metro Chamber, Tucson Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, and other stakeholders have championed the eclectic array of historic and modern performance spaces – and created economic opportunities – for artists, audiences, businesses and the region.
Colorful Histories and Community Pride
“Downtown Tucson is home to several iconic theatres, performance venues and a number of arts and cultural organizations,” said Kathleen Eriksen, president & CEO of the Downtown Tucson Partnership. “The visual and performing arts are critical to a vibrant downtown. Their patrons support our culinary arts scene and a variety of other local businesses.”
That begins with the historic Fox Tucson Theatre.
“The Fox is an iconic space that holds an extraordinary amount of history,” said Bonnie Schock, Fox’s executive director. “It has welcomed millions of individuals over its lifetime for shared experiences and is a gathering nexus for community participation and community pride that is simply irreplaceable.”
Opened in 1930, the Fox was Tucson’s “Classic Movie Palace” for 44 years before decades of closure. A $14 million-plus renovation by the Fox Tucson Theatre Foundation has since restored its former “Southwestern Art Deco” grandeur.
It re-opened as a nonprofit in 2005 and offers about 130 events annually, the majority of which feature national touring talent. With a 2022 operating budget of $4.5 million, the Fox also offers film screenings, special events, gatherings and lectures.
The Fox’s $10-million annual economic impact on downtown will soon be enhanced by an acquisition of adjacent property and a 20,000-square-foot expansion.
“This bold vision will allow us to integrate this expanded building into our historic facility and give us an extraordinary new host of opportunities to really solidify the Fox as the most unique venue in Tucson and the best-in-class arts and culture hub at a national level,” Schock said.
Downtown’s Rialto Theatre is recognized by Pollstar as a Top 100 Major Club Venue worldwide.
Built as a sister structure to Hotel Congress in 1920, the theatre and surrounding commercial block are listed on the National Register of Historic Places. It opened as a showcase for vaudeville acts with stars such as Ginger Rogers, ballerina Anna Pavlova and the Sistine Choir. During the 1930s, the theatre accommodated English and Spanish-speaking films prior to renovation as a live music venue in 1995.
Operated by the nonprofit Rialto Theatre Foundation since 2005, the theatre also manages 191 Toole and R Bar. With a $5 million annual budget, it books almost 300 shows a year including concerts, comedy revues, spoken word shows, DJ battles and movie screenings. In 2021, it began providing free educational outreach to local schools.
“We are a true community theatre, and our goal is to be super diverse and inclusive for the entire community. It is important to be sure our community is getting the entertainment and experiences they need to feel fulfilled in the place they live,” said Rialto Executive Director Cathy Rivers.
Creating Niches for the Arts, Boosting Economic Prosperity
The recently-opened Century Room at Hotel Congress offers a world-class jazz club in the heart of downtown. Beginning in January, the venue will feature live music seven nights a week.
“Whether you are looking for an early concert or a late-night jazz experience after dinner or a show, the Century Room offers something that wasn’t available before,” said Arthur Vint, who designed and oversaw the $300,000 renovation of the space while working for his father, architect Bob Vint. “It is filling a void in culture here. We have lots of fantastic jazz musicians in Tucson, but there wasn’t a singular home for them and nationally-known touring jazz artists until now.”
The Century Room complements the famous Club Congress and the outdoor Plaza Stage at historic Hotel Congress – the only venue with three stages able to operate concurrently.
“On the weekend there might be a jazz band in the Century Room, rock-and-roll on the Plaza and hip-hop artists in Club Congress. If you walk through all three venues, you can hear all of this different music and see all these different people rubbing elbows: It is a beautiful picture of Tucson culture,” said Vint.
Adding star power is the Temple of Music and Art, a refurbished 1927 theatre that is home to Arizona Theatre Company in Tucson. The 627-seat theatre was built in the Spanish Colonial style and offers a great view from every seat. In fact, no seat is more than 66 feet from the stage.
Teatro Carmen, which is being renovated, will fill another niche. Built in 1915, the theatre was the original cultural and artistic center for Tucson’s Spanish-speaking community in the Barrio Viejo. It premiered Mexican and Spanish theatre groups, famous actors, musicians and vocalists and magicians.
Herb Stratford, founder of the nonprofit Stratford Artworks, is spearheading a $7 million project to restore the 300-person theater to its former glory. The work will include new theatrical and film projection systems, a new stage house, a restaurant, bar, kitchen and an 8,000-square-foot patio.
An expert in historic theatre renovations and incubator of FilmFest Tucson, Stratford is excited to expand Tucson’s footprint with year-round programming at Teatro Carmen.
“Film is such as important medium for storytelling and is really unmatched in the way that it captures people’s attention and emotions. It is universal to every country in the world and offers a unique opportunity for people to understand different cultures without traveling,” said Stratford.
Additional performing arts space is one goal of the recent $65 million renovation of the Tucson Convention Center including the Grand Ballroom, the Exhibit Halls and 16,000 square feet of new meeting space.
The project included two parking garages and a DoubleTree Hilton along with upgrades to the Linda Ronstadt Music Hall, the Leo Rich Theater and the adjacent Alma Torres Plaza. The facelift for the music hall – home to the Tucson Symphony Orchestra, Arizona Opera and Ballet Tucson – included new seating and carpeting, lighting, sound and production systems. Leo Rich received similar upgrades and, together, the facilities are on pace to present 105 performances in the 2022 fiscal year.
“When selling Tucson to programs, conventions, associations or businesses, we are selling the whole market: Outside activities, the quality restaurants, the great facilities, and arts and culture are all part of the picture,” said Kate Breck Calhoun, director of sales and marketing for the Tucson Convention Center.