Inside the Fox
By Allison Smyly
Many Kitchen Drawer readers of all ages cherish memories of magical evenings at Atlanta’s “Fabulous Fox” Theatre, and some longtime area residents recall the famous “Save the Fox” campaign of 1974-75. Forty years later, Atlanta’s only remaining movie palace is flourishing and remains a classic example of a very successful community-based restoration and preservation effort. Through educational programs like Fox in the Box and community outreaches such as the Fox Theatre Institute, the theatre is using its success to educate a new generation and to help struggling theatres around the state.
“Save the Fox” Turns 40
Last September, in honor of the 40th anniversary of the landmark’s rescue from demolition, the legendary theatre announced a yearlong celebration to thank those who helped save the Fox, including the founding board members of Atlanta Landmarks, Inc., members of subsequent boards, volunteers and donors throughout the years, and the greater Atlanta area. The celebration, called “The Legend Lives On,” included March 14’s Gala Celebration, a “Rock the Block” party on June 7, special Behind the Scenes tours in June, an anniversary-themed Coca-Cola Summer Film Festival, and expansions to Fox in the Box, the theatre’s educational program for elementary school children. The Fox also relaunched their Friends of the Fox program with expanded membership opportunities.
According to Adina Erwin, Vice-President and General Manager, the celebration was planned not only to thank those who have helped save the Fox over the years, but also to continue to engage new audiences and build affinity among those who might not be aware of the theatre’s history, such as younger people and residents who are new to the area. The celebration also recognizes the fact that the grassroots, community-based effort to save the Fox was one of the first of its kind.
It appears that the “Legend Lives On” celebration is meeting and exceeding these goals. Says Ms. Erwin of June 7’s Rock the Block party, “It surpassed all of our expectations.” The total number attending was not available at press time, but Ms. Erwin says, “We know we had 5,500 people come through the building, and we think there were many more at the outside activities.” She adds, “We wanted people of all ages, races, and ethnicities—even those who might not normally come to one of our productions—to experience the Fox. We opened up the building and had tours throughout the day.” The first-ever Fox block party also included live entertainment, a children’s area, lots of food and beverages, a booth where people could share their experiences with the Fox, and plenty of social media participation.
The March 14 Gala was also a resounding success, with events in all areas of the theatre, including the auditorium, the Egyptian Ballroom, and the Grand Salon. Well-known performing arts groups such as the Atlanta Ballet, the Atlanta Opera, the Atlanta Boys’ Choir, and Dad’s Garage Theatre all took part.
The Experience and Preservation Efforts
Audiences of today are likely to find the Fox just as unforgettable as theatre-goers of yesteryear did. The stars in the Fox’s sweeping night “sky” still shine overhead, the grand Moorish and Egyptian architecture and furnishings continue to inspire awe, and singalongs accompanied by the peerless “Mighty Mo” theatre organ still precede movies and many live shows.
The building’s interior is meticulously preserved and seems to transport visitors to a different time and place. Many ingenious techniques were used to achieve the Fox’s exotic ambience. The theatre makes extensive use of trompe l'oeil, an art technique that uses realistic imagery to create optical illusions. The Fox’s sky is actually a vaulted ceiling painted ultramarine blue. There are 96 stars in the Fox sky, of which 83 twinkle—the twinkling “stars” are 11-watt bulbs fixed above three-inch crystals. (The rumor that one of the stars is actually made from a Coca-Cola bottle was confirmed in 2010.) The auditorium’s enormous Bedouin canopy overhang is really made of plaster and steel rods; in addition to being decorative, it serves as an acoustical funnel to project sound to the rear of the house. The original brass and stained glass light fixtures still adorn the walls. Low lighting in the 4,678-seat auditorium adds to the sense of mystery.
As this starstruck writer stood on the Fox’s stage for the first time, Kitchen Drawer’s guide to the Fox, Senior Director of Sales and Marketing Jamie Vosmeier, said softly, “You’re seeing the same view that Elvis saw when he performed here.”
Incredibly, 165 of 168 pieces of the 1929 furniture, beautifully preserved, are still in use throughout the theatre, which houses the largest collection of Ketcham and Rothschild furniture in the world.
We had the privilege of meeting Edna Tillander, who continues a longstanding family tradition of maintaining the Fox in excellent condition. She and her brothers, who also worked at the theatre, have 67 years of combined experience helping to ensure that the paint, carpet, and other details are as close as possible to what a theatre-goer would have experienced in 1929.
Backstage, Jamie Vosmeier showed us many example of the Fox’s practice of “retiring in place.” As new equipment is brought in to meet the needs of today’s high-tech performances, rather than disposing of old equipment such as generators, stage lift motors, and lighting boxes, the vintage equipment remains in place to help visitors appreciate the theatre’s past. The Fox still has its original Brenograph projector; its use was discontinued just a few years ago, and then only because replacement parts were not available. As Vosmeier put it, “Our goal is to send you back to 1929.”
KD’s tour concluded with a peek into the recently remodeled star dressing rooms and some gossip about the celebrities who have performed at the Fox over the years. “When Yul Brynner performed here, everything had to be brown, even the carpet, because he couldn’t stand to see dirt,” Vosmeier told us. “When Prince was here, everything was covered in pink and purple chiffon and feathers.”
The Fox was honored by the Georgia Trust for Historic Preservation in March for its preservation efforts.
Education and Community Initiatives
During this celebration year, the Fox has expanded their “Fox in a Box” program to include even more schools, especially those whose students might not have the opportunity to experience the Fox firsthand. This traveling exhibit provides an interactive experience that gives insight into the theatre’s history and its role as a modern arts venue. “We tie into the curriculum, especially the third-grade Civil Rights curriculum,” says Ms. Erwin. “We also tell about the theatre’s role in American history—how movies were a refuge and a place to get away during the Great Depression.”
Erwin says that the Fox Theatre Institute, formed in 2008 as the community engagement and outreach branch of the theatre, is going strong. “The motto is ‘Thinking outside the Fox.’ The institute takes our assets and resources to communities around the state. We support other historic theatres with grant funding and restoration projects.” As a local example, she cites the Institute’s helping Thomaston’s Ritz Theatre develop a preservation plan and get on the Georgia Trust’s “Places in Peril” list. Ms. Erwin explains that the community theatre is often a key driver for a small town’s economy: “The theatre gets people to come into town and stay. We at the Fox come into towns through the theatre door because that’s what we know.” She adds, “When you buy a ticket to the Fox, you’re not only helping the Fox, you’re helping small-town theatres around the state. We’re revitalizing communities one theatre at a time.”
An Intriguing Past, a Vibrant Present, and a Look toward the Future
In 1928, the building that would later become known as the Fox Theatre was conceived as a home for Atlanta’s Shriners organization. Inspired by the ancient temples of the Far East, the Shriners planned a mosque-style structure to reflect the group’s prominence in the community. The building’s elaborate and ornate design includes soaring domes, minarets, and elegant archways.
The ambitious design proved more of a financial burden than the Shriners could bear, and the Shriners leased the building to movie mogul William Fox shortly before its completion. With Fox’s financial backing, the 250,000-square-foot Fox Theatre was completed, with the crowning addition of “Mighty Mo,” the 3,622-pipe organ that remains the largest Möller theatre organ and the second-largest theatre organ in the world. The Fox opened Christmas Day of 1929 to a sold-out crowd, showing Steamboat Willie, Disney’s first cartoon featuring Mickey Mouse.
The Fox’s popularity didn’t prevent it from suffering the impact of Great Depression; in 1932, William Fox and the theatre declared bankruptcy, and Fox lost his namesake movie palace. The theatre was auctioned on the courthouse steps and was sold to a private company for a small sum, but it remained a beloved destination for moviegoers. For the next three decades, the Fox showed hundreds of films, hosted live performances, and was the favorite dance hall in Atlanta for live Big Band and swing music.
By the late 1960s, movie palaces across the country were being replaced by suburban multiplexes built for efficiency and multiple-screen showings. As customers left downtown Atlanta for the suburbs, the Fox fell into disrepair, and in 1974, Mosque, Inc. closed the doors. Atlantans horrified by the prospect of losing the beautiful theatre created a nonprofit called Atlanta Landmarks and launched the legendary “Save the Fox” campaign. In 1975, after months of painstaking restoration and many donations from area residents intent on saving the theatre, the Fox opened its doors once again. In 1978, the mortgage on the Fox was paid off six months ahead of schedule.
Since then, the Fox has hosted a wide variety of performances, including movies, concerts, Broadway shows, and comedy acts. It was the site of the world premiere of the touring production of The Phantom of the Opera. For the past decade, the Fox has been consistently ranked in the top three theatres in North America for gross ticket sales.
The Fox is well positioned to continue to thrive and to be an asset to Atlanta well into the future. The Fox’s annual economic impact is $25 million, not including ticket sales, and it paid $2.8 million in sales tax in 2014. The theatre has 62 full-time employees, 400 part-time employees, and 800 volunteers. Since 1974, the Fox has invested over $30 million back into restoration efforts. An estimated 750,000 people visit the Fox each year. As it continues to reach out to the community, the Fox is likely to grow even more popular. According to Adina Erwin, “The primary goal of the Fox is that we stay in touch with the community and that we are doing things that make us a good community partner, because the community helped save us, and we’ve never forgotten that.”