ST. LOUIS — Comedy and tragedy have played out at the Fabulous Fox Theatre for decades. But offstage, the Fox has been embroiled in its own drama, nearly 100 years in the making, that some allege threatens the future of the theater.
The dispute is grounded in a standoff over who will own the theater and the North Grand Boulevard land it occupies when a 99-year lease expires. The two groups at the center, Fox Associates LLC and Foxland Inc., both own the land under the theater and both claim to own the theater itself. Both have fought over those rights for years.
The precipice draws near: The lease expires at noon on Jan. 14, 2025. And Fox Associates, which operates the theater, alleges the historic cultural institution will close if no resolution is reached by then.
That, Fox Associates said, “will have devastating economic, cultural and other consequences” for its Grand Center Arts District neighborhood and for the region as a whole.
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Foxland said that will never happen. The business, in a statement to the Post-Dispatch, said it “has looked forward to the day when the lease expires so it can continue to operate the theater for current and future generations as a world class facility and as the anchor to Grand Center.”
What the two groups do agree on is that the original lease, signed in 1926, was unusual.
Theatre Realty Co. and Sydney Real Estate Co. — the predecessors to Fox Associates and Foxland, respectively — agreed to have Theatre Realty erect a building on land both companies owned. The deal stipulated that Theatre Realty or its successor would lease the building from Sydney for 99 years until 2025 when Sydney or its successor would take possession of the operations and building. Sydney or its successor would receive $40,000 a year in lease payments.
For years, the two groups peacefully co-existed, and Fox Theatre operated as a movie palace until it went out of business in the late 1970s.
In 1981, local developer Leon Strauss acquired successor rights to Theatre Realty under Fox Associates. His wife, Mary Strauss, spearheaded a multimillion-dollar restoration of the property and later started a production company to bring Broadway shows, concerts and other entertainment acts to Fox Theatre. To date, her production company has received 224 Tony award nominations and won 68 Tonys. She, along with Lisa Baudendistel Suntrup and Julie Baudendistel Noonan, children of one of Strauss’ original investors, own Fox Associates.
But Fox Associates’ relationship with Foxland, comprised of New York-based investors who succeeded Sydney in 1964, began splintering when discussions to head off the 2025 deadline led to stalemates.
In 1998, Fox Associates made a deal with City Center Redevelopment Corp., formed by St. Louis to revitalize the Grand Center district, to have the agency pursue eminent domain against Foxland at Fox Associates’ request and on its dime. Fox Associates would then own the theater and all of the land underneath it.
But a judge ruled against that effort in the early 2000s. The Missouri Court of Appeals later upheld that ruling.
A few years later, Foxland sued its attorney Harvey Harris , alleging Harris helped Fox Associates acquire more land under the theater and later aiding Fox Associates’ eminent domain attempt. Harris, who was an investor in Fox Associates at the time, disputed that he served as Foxland’s attorney at that time, according to a report in the St. Louis Business Journal, and said that Foxland was aware of the land deal.
Foxland and Harris settled in 2008. Fox Associates, in the lawsuit it filed last year, alleges that in the 2008 settlement — details of which are sealed from public view — Foxland gave up rights to take over the theater and all of the land in 2025.
“Fox Associates doesn’t think Foxland has a leg to stand on in that regard,” said Fox Associates attorney Gerald Greiman of Spencer Fane. “We believe the language couldn’t be more clear.”
Foxland’s attorney, Gerard Carmody of Carmody MacDonald, said Foxland only admitted that it did not have the rights to take over the land at the time of the settlement.
“Our right to the property doesn’t ripen until January 2025 when we get the theater and land,” Carmody said.
But this could cause problems far before that deadline, Fox Associates says. Broadway shows often are booked two years in advance.
For now, both groups have agreed to a mediation next month. If that fails, then a November trial could be scheduled, the attorneys said.