As Don Strasburg recounted the story of Boulder's Fox Theatre during an interview in his AEG Live Rocky Mountains office in Denver, he described the venue as having been started by "kids that just came out of puberty" who got their own rock club.
It was 1992 in Boulder. Members of the University Hill venue's core founding crew were aged 25 years, tops (save for one founder, an "elder statesman" in the late-Dicke Sidman). It was a time when J.J. McCabe's, the Dark Horse and Tulagi's ruled the roost for club experience, said Strasburg, a founder of the Fox who today serves as vice president of AEG's Colorado branch.
"Being a 23-year-old kid in 1992, that's what we lived," said Strasburg, a self-proclaimed Grateful Deadhead. "We'd go see bands like Band Du Jour, Leftover Salmon, The Samples."
The Boulder Theater downtown was the more "adult" venue, where major bands would play. Strasburg said 1992 was a time when Colorado's famed amphitheater Red Rocks called 30-40 shows a killer season, whereas today the venue hosts more than 100 concerts in a year. And in 1992, the University of Colorado was more involved in the music scene and the Glenn Miller Ballroom in the University Memorial Center was a more active participant with live music.
"It was a vibrant scene, there's no doubt about it," Strasburg said. "I remember helping Phish get one of their first shows, at J.J. McCabe's. This is what the community was like right before the Fox opened on the Hill."
Now, 25 year later, the storied Fox Theatre is celebrating its silver anniversary. On March 6, the venue's birthday, Boulder's legendary jam group Leftover Salmon is performing. The Fox's big anniversary soiree is slated for March 17 with Colorado funk revivalists The Motet — and in between the two, and through the end of the month, some big names in music will help the intimate club celebrate its birthday with big performances (from 3OH!3 to Big Gigantic, and The Meters and way more). These March shows are filled with artists that Strasburg called the "backbone" of the Fox Theatre and how it grew into the legendary venue it is today.
The very first show at the Fox Theatre was on March 6, 1992, when New Orleans funk band The Meters performed. The Funky Meters, an offshoot with founding Meters members Art Neville and George Porter Jr., will be returning to the Fox on March 23 for an anniversary show.
"The song 'Cissy Strut' was one of my favorite Meters songs," said Strasburg. "I'll never forget hearing the first notes of that song resonating out of the Fox Theatre's PA. It was crazy. I was a 23-year-old kid in my own club. It was like, this is f***ing surreal."
The Fox Theatre opened its doors that day by the efforts of investors Strasburg, CU students and buddies Dave MacKenzie and James Hambleton, sound engineer (and Strasburg's friend) Jon O'Leary and Sidman, a former production manager at the Boulder Theater. James Hambleton's brother Charles Hambleton (who played in Boulder band The Samples and is the associate producer of the 2009 Academy Award-nominated film "The Cove") was also in the mix.
Sound of success
In 1990, when Strasburg was 20 years old and a student at Colorado College in Colorado Springs, he was hell-bent on bringing Vermont jam band Phish to Colorado to perform. The East Coast musicians never really toured outside of Vermont before, he said.
In his Denver office in the Santa Fe arts district in January, Strasburg pointed to one of his historic, framed music posters and memorabilia on his office wall: "Right there is the actual petition I wrote to Colorado College to get the money for Phish to play Colorado College. I had to go in front of the student board and say, 'Can I please have $1,500?'"
His efforts got him the cash, the band — and probably most importantly, a window into the business of music entertainment. Getting Phish to perform in the state cemented his interest in seeking out fresh acts to play in the Colorado market.
The seed for his future rock club was planted, Strasburg said, while he was backstage at the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center theater in 1990 during a Samples performance. This is when he realized, "We really needed a room in Boulder."
"I remember calling Dave Starr, who ran (CU's) Program Council at the time," said Strasburg. "I told him about the idea, and I said, 'Don't tell anybody.' About two hours later, I get a call from Dicke Sidman, saying, 'Dave Starr just called me.'"
Soon a partnership between Sidman, O'Leary and Strasburg was born over a gentleman's handshake and drinks at the Hotel Boulderado, he said.
From the Peak to the Fox
The Fox Theatre wasn't originally supposed to be what Boulder knows as the Fox, Strasburg said.
The plan was to snatch up the Peak Theater (sitting at 1109 Walnut St. — the former site of The Foundry and Absinthe House, currently occupied by Boulder House). Sidman enlisted his brother-in-law, a lawyer, to help the crew put some documents together to raise money so they could put a bid on the building. With a contribution from Strasburg's grandfather, the trio had plans to invest in what Strasburg's grandfather called a "sound business decision."
But life doesn't always go according to plan.
"After much negotiation, we lost the bid," Strasburg said. "We thought it was over. We had this genius idea and it was never going to happen."
When the trio acknowledged that the space at 1109 Walnut wasn't going to be used as a rock club, but more as a dance club, "We didn't see it as someone stealing our thunder," Strasburg said. "Somebody just took the space."
"What the f*** are we going to do now?" he asked.
After Strasburg made the move to Boulder, he said he would get in his car and drive around, trying to conceptualize how he and his business partners could get this rock club up and running. During one of his drives, he made a stop on the Hill, entered what was then the Fox Movie Theater (next to the now-defunct Tulagi's), and asked the older woman collecting movie tickets if there was any prospect of purchasing the space.
Her enthusiasm for the young businessman spurred him, Sidman and O'Leary to have negotiations with Cinamerica Theaters, the space's owner. Cinamerica was only interested in a sale, but Strasburg said they convinced the company to lease them the space for three years with an option to buy.
With a lease secured and a core crew in place, the only thing the trio needed was some good old-fashioned money. Strasburg said the Hambleton brothers were on board from the beginning, so the remainder needed would be up to O'Leary, Sidman and Strasburg.
"Jon, Dicke and I were literally walking around Boulder with prospectuses in our hands," said Strasburg. "We were going to our friends' college housing places — you know, the houses with the beat-up couches from Goodwill on the porches that were probably going to get torched on the Hill at some point — trying to find friends who wanted to make an investment."
MacKenzie hopped on board with the Hambleton brothers to help with investments.
"James (Hambleton) and I were college buddies," said MacKenzie. "Our sisters were college roommates. It was all about the house parties — and listening to The Samples — when James came to me and said, 'Hey, you want to become partners in a rock 'n' roll venture?' ... And because I couldn't play music, I said, 'OK, cool.'"
The money was in place, and many local musicians were passionate about the venture, throwing support behind it, Strasburg said, adding that the partners had a leader in Sidman, a creative guru in O'Leary, and a self-proclaimed hustler in Strasburg himself.
"We may have had the Boulder Theater as competition, but, we knew we were going to make it," Strasburg said.
Next, the group had to face the liquor board.
"We were freaking out," said Strasburg. "We knew if we got this liquor license, this is the moment of our lives. This is everything."
Alas, Boulder was skeptical of the "23-year-old kids" trying to pull this off, he said.
"We're trying to open a major concert venue on the Hill in Boulder," said Strasburg. "Nobody thinks we're going to pull this off. Nobody."
After canvassing for neighborhood approval and getting an initial rejection from the liquor board, the guys returned a month later to the City of Boulder with the drive to get an approval. ("It was pretty contentious," Strasburg said.)
The crew finally got their liquor license the second time around.
"We literally, that day, walked up to the Fox and changed the marquee to say, 'Feelin' irie.'"
Perfecting the space
Once the liquor license was secured, the partners started cleaning out the old movie theater.
"All of our buddies — Jon-O led the charge — carried all the seats in the Fox out, and started removing everything we could to start construction," Strasburg said.
With a renovation that began in December 1991, and a business launch in March 1992 — the crew only had a couple months to put the new club together, Strasburg said.
Truncated timeline aside, there was nothing sloppy about the job. The theater, which has been nationally hailed for a flawless sound system, an intimate concert experience and a history of soon-to-be worldwide acts recording live albums there, like Dave Matthews, the venture had no intentions other than to create the best possible experience for concertgoers, Strasburg said. (In 2013, Rolling Stone put the club at No. 4 as one of "The Best Clubs in America.")
It was no coincidence the group was successful. Sidman came complete with back-of-the-house experience and a big dream, Strasburg said.
"Our fearless leader, Dicke Sidman," recalled Strasburg. "He had an ethos he called he Harvard theory. It was a win-win. The audience wins, the band wins. It feeds upon itself and the gyroscope spins harder, which is the fun. That was the ethos that guided us."
O'Leary, who Strasburg said is still a partner with the Fox, led the charge for the design and build of the theater with a team of renowned sound and light people. The crew built the theater from the center out — they wanted to see how it felt to dance, to hear, to be comfortable — including elevated platforms and drink rails.
"They thought out, from a common sense approach, on how to make this small room the best experience it possibly could be," he said. "And it was really successful."
Strasburg said that while many concert venues concern themselves with good looks — pretty walls, fancy bathrooms — "it doesn't really impact what it's like to actually watch and hear a show."
Although the endeavor to create a community music space was in full effect, "We were bleeding money from the week we opened," said Strasburg. "It was a constant battle for years and years and years to stay afloat."
Strasburg said Sidman had an old phone ("I'm surprised it wasn't a rotary phone, it was so old," he said, laughing) that had "Don't Panic" written on the number label so nobody would panic when bill collectors called.
Strasburg admitted that early on, he didn't think they'd make it past one year.
"You're just holding on for dear life," he said. "The vision of the dream was not some kind of get-rich-quick scheme. The idea behind the Fox was to create an eternal experience that would be a part of many, many generations who could experience what we did 25 years ago."
But Strasburg said the struggle was still an everyday challenge. He said Sidman used to say, "Live to fight another day. The only reason you won't win is if you give up."
Sidman's death, three years after the club opened, hit the Fox crew hard. Sidman was described by the men as "a fearless leader," "an elder statesman," "a dear mentor and friend." Investor MacKenzie called him, "the ghost with the most."
"My least favorite memory at the Fox was when Dicke died," said Strasburg. "Or when we heard he had cancer. But remembering some of those painful memories at different shows ended up becoming some of the best stories."
Fox and Friends
In 2010, management at the Fox Theatre and the Boulder Theater came together under one umbrella, Z2 Entertainment. Z2 took over ownership and operations of the Fox and Boulder theaters and is a promoter for various venues, such as Boulder's Chautauqua AuditoriumCheryl Liguori is the CEO of Z2 Entertainment and was the Fox Theatre's general manager in its infancy.
"The Fox was more or less on life support or barely surviving until we merged with the Boulder Theater," said Strasburg. "Once Z2 was created, the venues could stop beating each other over the head. Suddenly we're able to get out of the weight of that constant fear of death, because we were killing each other ... That's a fact."
Strasburg said Z2 is putting its energy in full force behind both Boulder venues, making sure the theaters are fully nurtured. It's a challenging job, Strasburg said, but he quoted Bob Dylan from the song "It's Alright, Ma (I'm Only Bleeding)": "He not busy being born is a busy dying."
"We want to keep creating and evolving," Strasburg said.
David Weingarden, talent buyer for Z2 Entertainment, said that when he was on the road with '90s bands, like The Verve Pipe and Tonic, the Fox Theatre was "this shining beacon of a theater."
"It's just a wonderful room," said Weingaden. "Especially if you're on the road hundreds of days a year and you never know what you're going to run into when you're on the road. The Fox is one of the greatest venues. Not only for the sound, but backstage, hospitality and customer service. Everything."
When he was on tour with bands, they would have to play at some "really dumpy places," but the Fox was "always a favorite," Weingarden said.
"People love playing this room," he said. "I feel honored to be working here and to be booking these rooms."
It's not just the musicians, though. Chris Peck, a talent buyer with Z2 who relocated to Boulder from booking shows in Knoxville, Tennessee, after booking shows for Bonaroo, said the bare bones of the company comes from the staff.
"It's like a family here," said Peck. "It's such a small, tight-knit company. And the whole experience from coming through the doors, to getting a drink, to hanging out and lounging. This is one of the best rooms that I think sounds by far way better than a lot of other small, 500-cap clubs. And it sounds really amazing in here."
With big names coming back to play the 625-capacity club (Primus is playing the Fox before hitting Red Rocks this summer), groups like Boulder's String Cheese Incident (which can sell out a multiple-night engagement at Red Rocks in a short period of time), is helping to celebrate the Fox's anniversary with two intimate shows on March 3 and 4.
The club, which has moved beyond daunting challenges, seems to have another 25 fruitful years ahead of it.
"The Fox, while it's perceived as a big deal and a big venue, it's small," said Strasburg. "In the scheme of national clubs and what's considered a club — it's considered a very small club — there's a level of how many musicians can come down and afford to play the Fox. So to have so many of these acts who have come through the Fox and make their start at the Fox, be willing to come back and play it again — we were just really grateful and honored that they would remember us."
Favorite Fox moments
The Fox Theatre opened its doors March 6, 1992, through the early efforts of investors Don Strasburg (now vice president of AEG Live Rocky Mountains), University of Colorado buddies Dave MacKenzie and James Hambleton, James' brother Charles Hambleton (who played in Boulder band The Samples), sound engineer (and Strasburg's friend) Jon O'Leary, and the "elder statesman" Dicke Sidman, a former production manager at the Boulder Theater.
"There was nothing I loved more, when we opened the Fox, was going to see live music," Strasburg said. "That's what I am, what I was. It was the most important experience for me ... that unexplainable phenomenon of being in the room and the whole place is levitating."
While at his AEG office in Denver, Strasburg talked about this crazy endeavor he helped launch, with ideas that started spinning back in 1990, and his favorite moments at the Fox over the past 25 years.
• Strasburg points over my left shoulder: "Maybe the most memorable musical moment for me was that show." It was a Bonnie Raitt and Willie Nelson show for the Triple A Summit on the Hill in 1998.
"I'll never forget Bonnie Raitt, singing 'Angel From Montgomery.' And I remember her singing, 'I remember when I was a young girl, drinking at Tulagi's, looking for some boy to take me home.' I was like, man, we're just steeped in tradition here."
• He said he'll never forget when Coldplay performed in 2002. "They just exploded. I was flat-out blown away by what we were seeing that night."
• Or when Muse played the Fox in 2004: "I remember there being only 600 people there. I didn't even go backstage and talk to them. I was like, 'I'm just going to let this be, because I've never seen anything so spectacular in my life. I'm just gong to leave them up on that pedestal."
• Or when Sublime never showed up in 1994: "Sublime didn't show up for their first show at the Fox, because they were partying in Telluride and decided that they just wanted to stay in Telluride, but didn't tell anyone until 6 o'clock that day. Someone came in to work and said, 'Dude, those guys aren't coming, man, they're still partying in Telluride, my friends are down with them, they're still partying.'"
But when core members of the Fox Theatre gathered for the Daily Camera in early February to take photos at the venue, Cheryl Liguori, CEO of Z2 Entertainment and the Fox Theatre's general manager in its infancy, which operates the Fox and Boulder Theater, and Strasburg had an even better story from the Sublime show, when the band actually did show up to perform in 1995.
"Sublime was a good one," Strasburg said.
"Oh my god, remember when they picked up Allison and put her in the Dumpster out back at that Sublime show?" Liguori asked. (Allison used to work in production, they explained, and a Sublime band or crew member jokingly tossed her in the alley trash.)
MacKenzie, James Hambleton and Strasburg erupted in laughter.
What was your favorite show at the Fox?
Strasburg: Willie (Nelson) is up there. That Willie one was really cool.
James Hambleton: I say Wilson Pickett. That was so rare.
MacKenie: Yes, Willie Nelson, Bonnie Raitt.
Liguori: David Byrne, definitely.
But they all agreed that there are way too many good memories to choose one.
James Hambleton: My band and I (Doug and the Thugs) opened up for Radiohead here in '93...
Strasburg: I still have that poster.
Liguori: I think I managed that band for a minute.
Strasburg: Not Radiohead.
Liguori: No, not Radiohead. Doug and the Thugs.
Mackenzie: Remember before we could afford places to live, James' bedroom was where the VIP deck is now?
James Hambleton: It was. For over a month. I was yelling for room service, Bloody Marys ...
Mackenzie: There were no windows, so you never knew if it was 2 a.m. or 2 p.m.
As they all had a rare opportunity to interact and reminisce that day on the Hill, spouting exciting memories over one another, Strasburg broke the chatter and said: "You just have to imagine. A bunch of, more or less, a bunch of kids that just came out of puberty, f***in' had their own rock club."
Not like he had to explain it, but the gesture was sweet.
How are you guys still alive?
Mackenzie: I got married and had kids and moved to a f***ing farm in Longmont.
James Hambleton: I moved to Denver with what hearing I had left. (His Fox bartending gig in the early days and one too many hip-hop shows are to blame, he said.)
Strasbug: Remember when I would yell at all the girls to keep the plants watered?
Mackenzie: And then you'd put your cigarettes out in the plants.
James Hembleton: Remember the Fox Cafe (concession and food)? It w was done by the guy who did the New York Deli, Warren Tepper, and for a long time the smoke was flowing the opposite way.
Strasburg: Oh yeah, the fan was reversed and all the cheeseburger smoke was coming back into the Fox. And everyone was smoking cigarettes inside. It was a little different than it is now.
Liguori: Well, shall we take this picture? I'm still wrangling the troops after all these years.
Strasburg: Let's do this, people. I've got 10 minutes.
The Fox founders circulated the below "description of intended use" in the run-up to the rock club's 1992 opening.