The Fox Plaza building looms over Civic Center, funneling the bracing winds that chill Market Street most afternoons. In the apartments above, curtains in various stages of closure give the structure a war-torn look, and the rows of rectangles that line its facade make it resemble an old air filter yanked from a mid-1990s Toyota. While it’s easy to dismiss its sins as merely aesthetic, the 29-story mixed-use building has a history of residents leaping to their deaths from its concrete balconies.
“That’s at least three suicides from Fox Plaza since we moved here just about a year and a half ago,” Dieter Bohn, executive editor of The Verge, tweeted on Nov. 6, 2013.
Marcus Wohlsen, a reporter for the Associated Press from 2006-2012, concurred. “AP bureau was there years ago. Bodies a regular feature then, too,” he replied.
The ugliness of Fox Plaza stands on the site of what was the 4,651-seat Fox Theater, a rococo extravagance that was once the largest movie palace west of Chicago. According to urban legend, Church of Satan founder Anton LaVey played the organ at the Fox during its final show on Saturday, Feb. 17, 1963, three years before he declared Anno Satanas — the first year of the reign of Satan — in 1966.
As LaVey struck the last chord that would ever echo through the Fox’s gold-leafed auditorium, he reportedly cursed whatever building would replace his beloved cinema. A gold wrecking ball wrapped in tassels from the Fox’s oversized stage curtain slammed into the theater’s west wall just 11 days later.
The curse appeared to take effect before the new Fox Plaza building was even completed. A five-ton crane collapsed and hurtled through the metal skeleton of the upper floors on July 20, 1965. One man’s legs were crushed under the crane’s five-ton mast, and four others were injured.
LaVey proclaimed the reign of Satan as April 30, 1966 gave way to May 1. Fox Plaza opened without incident a day later on May 2. The suicides in the high-rise started the following year when 49-year-old William B. Dederer shot himself in his girlfriend’s 26th-floor apartment in March 1967.
The tragedies continued in the next decade when an epileptic man jumped 22 stories to his death on Sept. 4, 1971. A 45-year-old cabbie shot himself in the face with a skeet gun in his apartment and crawled off his 14th story balcony on Feb. 15, 1972. Other accidental deaths and suicides have been reported ever since.
Not all of the tragedies connected to Fox Plaza were self-inflicted. A fire truck responding to a small wastebasket fire in the building jumped the curb on Market and Taylor Streets on Dec. 5, 1975, killing three people at a crowded Muni stop. A sniper rained down bullets on the plaza itself in 1979.
While decades of death falls from Fox Plaza may confirm the rumor of LaVey’s curse, the Fox was a troubled enterprise even back in its theatrical glory days. Less than a month after William Fox opened his “theater of dreams” in June 1929, the movie studio magnate was severely injured in a car accident that killed his chauffer. Fox was kept alive by a blood transfusion from J. Carol Naish, a character actor who later played a murderous hunchback in House of Frankenstein (1944).
The theater hit hard times after the stock market crash of 1929, and closed for six months in 1932. After reopening, the Fox was the scene of several holdups, a suicide, and a deadly accident where two ushers stepped into an empty elevator shaft.
The cause of the building’s history of suicides may have more to do with unfettered balcony access than the supernatural, and death curses seem out of place with the gothic hedonism LaVey actually espoused. It’s also unclear if LaVey really played the organ during the Fox Theater’s farewell. According to a 2000 Chronicle obituary, Everett Nourse was the organist for the Fox “where he delighted audiences until the theater closed down in 1963.”
But even if LaVey didn’t possess the power to conjure a half-century of tragedy, the destruction of the Fox Theater brought one era of San Francisco to a close. But one can argue the construction of Fox Plaza in its place marked the beginning of a colder, even more violent time.