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Fox Theatre

Posted by Craig Summers on January 4, 2011
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The Fox Theatre (often marketed as the Fabulous Fox), a former movie palace, is a performing arts venue located at 660 Peachtree Street NE in Midtown Atlanta, Georgia. The theater was originally planned as part of a large Shrine Mosque as evidenced by its Moorish design. The 5,000 seat auditorium was ultimately developed as a lavish movie theater in the Fox Theatres chain and opened in 1929. It currently hosts a variety of cultural and artistic events including the Atlanta Ballet, a summer film series, and performances by national touring companies of Broadway shows.When the Fox Theatre first opened, the local newspaper described it as having, “a picturesque and almost disturbing grandeur beyond imagination”. It remains a showplace that impresses theatre-goers to this day. The principal architect of the project was Olivier Vinour of the firm Marye, Alger and Vinour. The original architecture and décor of the Fox can be roughly divided into two architectural styles: Islamic architecture (building exterior, auditorium, Grand Salon, mezzanine Gentlemen’s Lounge and lower Ladies Lounge) and Egyptian architecture (Egyptian Ballroom, mezzanine Ladies Lounge and lower Gentlemen’s Lounge). The 4,678-seat auditorium, which was designed for movies and live performances, replicates an Arabian courtyard complete with a night sky of 96 embedded crystal “stars” (a third of which flicker) and a projection of clouds that slowly drift across the “sky.” A longstanding rumor that one of the stars was a piece of a Coca-Cola bottle was confirmed in June 2010 when two members of the theater’s restoration staff conducted a search from within the attic above the auditorium ceiling. The Egyptian Ballroom is designed after a temple for Ramses II at Karnak while the mezzanine Ladies Lounge features a replica of the throne chair of King Tut and makeup tables that feature tiny Sphinxes. The Islamic sections feature a number of ablution fountains, which are currently kept dry. Throughout the Fox there is extensive use of trompe l’oeil; “wooden” beams are actually plaster, paint that appears gold leaf is not, areas are painted and lit to appear to receive outside lighting, ornate fireplaces were never designed to have working chimneys, and what appears to be a giant Bedouin canopy in the auditorium is plaster and steel rods designed to help funnel sound to the farthest balcony. The Atlanta Preservation Center sponsors regular tours of the Fox Theatre’s interior. History Originally intended as the Yaarab Temple Shrine Mosque, the headquarters for a 5,000-member Shriners organization, the $2.75 million project was completed only with funding and a 21-year lease by movie mogul William Fox, who was building theatres around the country at the time. The theatre opened on December 25, 1929, just two months after the stock market crash. After 125 weeks of talking pictures and stage entertainment, the Fox Theatre declared bankruptcy. It floundered financially during the 1930s and both William Fox and the Shriners lost their economic interests in the building. In 1939, the movie perhaps most associated with Atlanta and the South, Gone with the Wind, premiered at the (now-demolished) Loew’s Grand Theatre rather than the Fox. Although GWTW was produced by Selznick International, it was distributed by Loew’s Incorporated as part of a deal with rival studio Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. The parade down Peachtree Street for the movie’s premier coincidentally started just outside of the Fox because the movie’s cast was staying across the street at the Georgian Terrace Hotel. During the 1940s, the Fox acquired strong management and became one of the finest movie theatres in Atlanta. It was also at this time that the Egyptian Ballroom became Atlanta’s most popular public dance halls and hosted all the important big bands and country and western swing bands of the era. It was notable at that time, for being the only theatre in Atlanta allowing both white and black patrons. However, there was a separate black box office, entrance, and seating; the segregation wall in the middle of the second dress seating still remains, and the “colored” box office window stands unused at the back entrance. During the 1960s, several elements collided to bring about the Fox’s decline – white flight, television, and changes in how films were distributed. By the 1970s, the Fox could only show second-run movies to an ever-dwindling audience. In 1974, Southern Bell, the regional arm of AT&T, approached the owners of the theatre with an offer to buy and with the intent of tearing it down and building a new headquarters on the site. A group was formed to save the theatre and it was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in May 1974. The ensuing public outcry and massive campaign (including Liberace, Lynyrd Skynyrd and other celebrities) resulted in the city refusing to issue a demolition permit and ultimately, a complicated deal was brokered that prevented the Fox’s demolition. The Southern Bell Building (now AT&T) was built on land adjacent to the theatre on the west. The U.S. Department of the Interior subsequently named the Fox a national historic landmark on May 26, 1976. After the Fox was saved from the demolition, a lengthy and expensive restoration process began. Luckily much of the original décor had survived and new pieces were created with the help of old photographs. Today, the Fox appearance looks much like it did when it opened, with some additions that were in the original plans but scrapped in the 1920s because of financial constraints, and other changes that had to be made to bring the building up to current safety codes. The theatre, now run under the non-profit Atlanta Landmarks, Inc., currently hosts a multitude of cultural and artistic events, including the Atlanta Ballet, a summer film series, and performances for various national touring companies of Broadway shows. Because of its origins as a movie house, the Fox has a relatively shallow stage by theatrical standards and is unable to accommodate some of the set pieces required by modern large scale shows, such as The Lion King and Miss Saigon. In June 2006, the theatre installed a new digital cinema video projection system for $130,000, which debuted with a showing of The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe on June 26, part of the Summer Film Festival. The sing-alongs that precede each feature are still shown by the Brenograph projector which was installed in 1929. The Egyptian Ballroom and the Grand Salon are rented regularly for corporate and private functions, including banquets, fundraisers, weddings, trade shows and conventions. They are also both popular spots for proms for many area high schools. Every year since Atlanta Landmarks took over management in 1975, the Fox has generated an operating surplus. An estimated 750,000 people visit the Fox every year. The Mighty Mo The Fox features a four manual (or keyboard) 42-rank pipe organ nicknamed the “Mighty Mo”. It was custom built for the Fox by M. P. Möller, Inc. in 1929 in Hagerstown, Maryland. With 3,622 pipes, it is the second-largest theatre organ in the country, behind the Wurlitzer at Radio City Music Hall in New York City and was the largest theatre instrument built by Möller. As a true theatre organ, as opposed to a church organ, Mighty Mo’s pipes range in size from 32 feet (nearly 10 meters) tall to the size of a small ballpoint pen, and is designed to imitate the sounds of a full orchestra. Besides the pipes, it also contains a marimba, xylophone, glockenspiel, drums, sleigh bells, a gong, and even a six-foot (1.8m) grand piano (originally from the Kilgen organ in Chicago’s Piccadilly Theatre); plus a large variety of silent movie sound effects (such as various car horns, thunder and rain effects, bird whistles, etc.). The organ is remarkable for a theatre organ because it also includes 12 ranks of pipes for a church organ, known as the “Ethereal” division. Thus the organ can be played as a church organ as well as a theatre organ. It is noteworthy that the Mighty Mo is among the shrinking list of instruments which remain installed in the theatres for which they were designed. Larry Douglas Embury has been the theater’s permanent Organist in Residence since 2002. In this capacity he presides over the Mighty Mo in performances during the Fox’s summer film festival and the Atlanta Ballet’s annual production of The Nutcracker. In September 2002, he hosted “Fox at the Fox,” a concert commemorating the twenty-second anniversary of the death of the great concert organist, Virgil Fox. Fox had played a famous series of “Fox at the Fox” concerts on the Mighty Mo at the Fox Theatre in the 1970s. Private residence The Fox also contains a 3,640-square-foot (338 m2) apartment that serves as the private residence of Joe Patten, who served as technical director from 1974 to 2004. Patten, who was born in 1927, was granted a lifetime rent-free lease to the apartment. Patten first became involved with the Fox when he volunteered to restore the theater’s Moller pipe organ. He later was instrumental in the movement to save the Fox from demolition. The apartment occupies space previously used as an office by the Shriners, who had built the Fox as a meeting hall. The apartment’s walls are 2 to 3 feet (0.91 m) thick, and a passageway leads from the bedroom to a former spotlight platform at the top of the auditorium. A separate entrance provides direct access to the street outside the theater. Patten’s presence is credited with saving the Fox from a fast-moving fire in April 1996. The pre-dawn blaze, which broke out in the attic wiring, caused $2 million in damage. Damage likely would have been greater if Patten had not been on site to call the fire department, said Alan Thomas, president of Atlanta Landmarks, the nonprofit agency that owns the Fox. Atlanta Landmarks has no definite plan on how the apartment will be used after Patten’s death. “We could use it for dressing space, rehearsal halls,” Thomas told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “It’s unlikely that we’d let anyone else live there.” On August 30, 2010 local news outlets reported a dispute between Patten and the non-profit Atlanta Landmarks which owns the theater. Mr. Patten reported that he was being evicted from his apartment by the group which he helped to found. Meanwhile the Atlanta Landmarks board in a statement to the public indicated their intent to draw a new lease which addressed Patten’s health needs. They stated he remains welcome to live in the apartment. From Wikipedia