Creative Spirit. Visionary. Small but Mighty.

photo by Justin Barr

 

By Diane Kline

It wasn’t Mary Strauss’ plan to take on the gargantuan task of restoring the Fox Theatre to its original glory—it was a matter of fate.

It happened about 40 years ago: Strauss was walking through the decaying building with her late husband, Leon, a renowned urban developer and founder of Pantheon Construction Company. Immediately seeing “the magic,” she pushed her husband to restore the theater.

“Who will do it?” he asked.

She didn’t a miss a beat.

“I will,” she declared.

Never mind that Strauss had no experience to guide her other than a background in art history. With sheer determination and boundless energy, she took just one year to reestablish the Fox as a premier entertainment venue.

Today, she is one of the co-owners of the Fox Theatre and Fox Theatricals in New York, which has produced Tony Award-winning Broadway plays, musicals, West End productions and national tours.

But the heart of Strauss’ passion is helping young people through the Fox Performing Arts Charitable Foundation, the organization that showcases the annual St. Louis Teen Talent Competition for high school students at The Fabulous Fox.

Strauss, who has three adult children and two grandchildren, serves on multiple boards of cultural organizations. With seven Tony Awards under her belt and an ongoing project to catalog an extensive—and impressive–collection of entertainment memorabilia, Strauss is unafraid of taking on massive projects and just “figuring it out” along the way.

I’ve led many different lives, even as a Playboy Bunny!

As a child, my parents introduced me to the arts. I saw “Sunset Boulevard” 11 times because Gloria Swanson fascinated me. I went to college in Mexico and became so fluent in Spanish that it was difficult to speak in English when I got home. I’ve taught Spanish and worked as a tri-lingual secretary (Spanish, French and English). I also was a Playboy Bunny. Looking back…that was cool.

photo by Justin Barr

Nothing daunted me because I was up for any challenge.

When I was younger, I questioned myself all the time. In fact, I was very shy, but the Fox changed that. From the day we opened the doors, I was a part of everything. That was me on stage in vintage costumes for Monday Night at the Movies. It brought me out of my shell. I had all these ideas and started to have confidence that they could succeed.

I’m little but I’m mighty.

I’m only 5 feet tall (and getting shorter!) If I’d been taller, I’d have had a different life.

My mother expected a lot and I delivered. When I wrote home from camp, my mom sent the letters back with the spelling and grammar mistakes circled. She’s still in my head, but I think she’d finally be proud of me.

You can’t stay stagnant because time moves on.

You always have to be looking for something new, a way to branch out. In 1990, we became theatrical producers. Most organizations either present or produce; we’re one of the few that do both. Producing plays is a crap shoot.  Most of them lose money, but we’ve had some big hits, including “Thoroughly Modern Millie,” “The Humans” and “Fun Home.”

I’m a little girl from St. Louis surrounded by the biggest names in Broadway. 

I pinch myself about the success we’ve achieved. Leon and I would say, “We did it again!” Our productions have received 48 Tony Awards and 150 nominations. It’s been so exciting – the readings, the auditions, the out-of-town tryouts. At our opening night parties, there’d be 1,000 people and I wouldn’t know anyone.

My passion is helping young people.

In the ‘80s, we started to help kids embrace theater and performing with the St. Louis Teen Talent Competition. It was ahead of its time, before “America’s Got Talent” or “American Idol,” and today we’ve revived it. The winners get college scholarships, but all the kids get the thrill of strutting their stuff on the Fox stage.

Leave both your eyes open.

Let yourself be free. Leave yourself open to possibilities and opportunities will come to you. If you pursue something and really concentrate, you can make it happen. That’s why my friends say, “She’s not the little engine that could… she’s the little engine that can.”