On its first opening night 77 years ago, the Roxy screened Deanna Durbin’s Mad About Music. Brand-new then in 1938, its plot concerned a girl (Durbin) studying at Swiss boarding school who invents an explorer father, right down to sending herself letters from him. When her classmates start to doubt her story, she has to prove he exists—which, through the sort of hijinx musicals are known for, she manages to do. So right from the beginning, the Roxy was a theatre concerned with making the impossible come true, letting lofty ambitions of imagination find purchase in reality.
The Roxy went up in flames on Tuesday, in the middle of its resident company Theatre Network’s 40th-anniversary season; its next show Cheerleader! was slated to begin previews that night. Its absence now marks not just the loss of a historical building and theatre, but the loss of another stage in a city where affordable arts space is slowly, surely, being squeezed away; in the last few years alone, we’ve lost the Living Room Playhouse and the Third Space, with the Varscona set to go down for a year or so of renovations any day now. The Roxy made sure indie companies and youth had a professional stage to work on through its performance series as well as Nextfest, which got approximately 600 young artists on board every season. Whatever rises out of the ashes of the space—and assuredly something grand will, given a few years—the immediate loss of that sort of artistic safety net is palpable and difficult to fathom.
And yet it still feels strange to write an obituary for a building, however historical and beloved a space it may have been. Nobody died. As grievous of a blow as it is today, the ideas and the artists that called it home will live on, and continue to create.
On those first fliers for Mad About Music, Roxy owner Bill Wilson added a particularly empathetic line onto the tickets: “Your Own Theatre.” In its years as a cinema and then certainly as a playhouse, that statement never stopped being true. Not for audiences that wandered in, and not the arts community that embraced it. Whatever the shape the future takes for the company and space, it will always be ours. Like the Roxy was, is and forever will be.