VITAL SIGN: Aurora Fox theater bringing back the past for the future

The Aurora Fox theater sign, before enhancements unveiled this week.
Photo by Philip B. Poston/Sentinel Colorado

AURORA | Upgraded back to its nostalgic state, the Aurora Fox Arts Center’s signature 61-foot sign will be lighting up the night once more with its original 1946 colors on June 22 at 9:30pm, after the theater’s last production of “The Lightning Thief: The Percy Jackson Musical.”

For long-time patrons of the theater, such as retired Aurora firefighter Mike Ackman, preserving this part of Aurora’s history couldn’t have come sooner. 

“I can still picture it in my mind, exactly what it looked like,” said Ackman, whose father attended John Wayne movies in the 1940s at the theater and where he watched shows in the 1960s. “I always remember the marquee that was over the doors, the ticket taker and the snack bar. People going into the movie theater and opening the door on the side and letting their friends sneak into the theater.” 

File photo of the Aurora Fox theater marquee..
Photo by Gabriel Christus/Aurora Sentinel

Ackman has seen the theater bustling with moviegoers at its highest peak and at its lowest valley in 1981, when the theater caught fire. 

As a firefighter, he was sent as part of the relief crew the morning after to ensure there was no chance of the fire reigniting.

“To go in as a firefighter when the whole thing was gutted was overwhelming to me,” Ackman said. “It was just sad. It was like a loss because there was no real guarantee that they were going to rebuild it. That’s what I kept remembering: that, ‘Oh, my God, they’re gonna tear my Fox Theatre down.’ You know, it’s the only place I really knew.”  

But that didn’t happen. The post-war Fox Theatre transitioned into a performing arts center in 1985 after community members petitioned for the city to purchase the building. To this day, the Arts Center thrives as two theaters; so does its sign. 

After being approved in early 2020 for a State Historical Fund grant and receiving donations from the Aurora Museum Foundation, Visit Aurora and the city’s municipal funds, the COVID-19 pandemic and the closure of their initial sign company delayed the theater sign’s renovation. Now, more than $143,000 later, the sign is complete. 

The Aurora Fox and the Aurora Cultural Arts District on East Colfax Avenue. Sentinel File Photo

Fox’s wild color chase

While the project was initially estimated to cost $120,000, unexpected road bumps were revealed as the paint was chipped away. 

Chris Geddes, the City of Aurora’s Historic Preservation Specialist, has worked closely with the theater and sign restoration project, digging through local news articles for early colored pictures of the sign for references and got into a crane bucket to scrape off paint samples. 

“I’m afraid of heights, so it’s pretty amazing that I actually got to go up there,” Geddes said. 

Initially, the theater had plans to restore the color to match what they thought to be their oldest color photo of the theater from 1962, which depicted a forest green sign accented yellow.

That was until the sign company DaVinci Sign Systems Inc. had taken off a panel from the top and side during their sign survey and found a faded bit of yellow paint that bled through. 

This led Geddes and the sign designer to do more digging to find out what the original colors were, looking at the other old Fox Theatres through Colorado and the country. Starting the search for the real original colors in December of last year, it wasn’t until this May that Geddes and the team went into a crane lift and hand scraped the paint, which revealed more yellow and a light green accent.

“The Fox Inter-Mountain Amusement Corporation had hundreds of theaters across the country, and we started seeing a pattern where they did red and yellow in a lot of theaters,” Geddes said. “I texted the designer and said, OK, we’re gonna need to tweak the drawing a little bit because we found yellow in another place.’ And he says, ‘Oh my gosh, that’s amazing.’ Then we were scraping, and we found the green on the front.”

To add to the struggle, the team discovered an obscene amount of bird droppings caked on the sign. After years of buildup, the sign had turned into a “biohazard,” according to Geddes. To continue the restoration, the theater had to hire a biohazard team to clean the mess.  

A sign of community, not just a theater

Why put so much effort and money toward revitalizing an old sign? It seems Aurora can’t help but value the Fox as a center for art and community, the theater’s Executive Director, Rich Cowden, said. Just as the community came together to save the theater in the past, several organizations in Aurora contributed to the sign restoration. 

Ginger White Brunetti, the director for the Aurora Library and Culture services says the project wouldn’t have happened without support from the community.

“It’s a facility that’s been around for so long, but there’s always an opportunity to continue to sort of reinvent in some ways,” White Brunetti said. “When it comes to the Aurora Cultural Arts District, this has been an important anchor of the district and perhaps one of the best known in part because of its visibility and its history.

 In other words, the renovation is representative of Aurora itself as it evolves and changes while still making efforts to preserve and honor its history.  

The theater has dipped into synergetic programming with its recent production of the Percy Jackson musical in collaboration with the Aurora Public Library to encourage kids to read the book that inspired it. The same goes for the theater’s next production, which is an adaptation of Jules Verne’s novel Around the World in 80 Days slated for the fall.  

The theater is also reaching out to other Scientific and Cultural Facilities District organizations to try and attract a more diverse audience and support the SCFD groups such as Roshni and the Colorado Jazz Repertory Orchestra

“My vision for this place is always that this is a primary community space, where everyone is welcome, where we try to keep things affordable,” Cowden said. “We try to keep the quality very high, and part of that is partnering with other community organizations. I think it’s one of the things that we’re going to focus on as we keep going. … Some of those dramatic pieces that also have strong literary backgrounds, whether that’s for young adults, small kids, older or mature folks to be able to offer those.” 

To Ackman, the theater is a cornerstone of historic Aurora, and it seems many would agree because after the fire community members successfully petitioned the city to buy the theater and convert it to a public space. 

Today, Ackman is on the Aurora Historic Preservation Commission and helps in preserving  and restoring historic buildings such as  the Fox throughout the city.  

“My old shopping centers where I used to shop, where I used to get my hair cut — that’s all gone, and it’s all six-story apartment buildings,” Ackman said. “It’s tough to tell people, (the commission wants) to landmark your gas station because of its historic styling when somebody offers $2 million for the property.”