HISTORY OF THE FOX THEATRE
Atlanta's Fox Theatre, originally the Yaarab Temple Shrine Mosque, was designed in the late 1920s as headquarters for the 5,000-member Shriners organization.
It was a beautifully outlandish, opulent, and grandiose monument during the excesses of the pre-crash 1920s. The mosque-like structure was complete with minarets, onion domes, and an interior décor even more lavish than its façade.
Entering the huge auditorium, an early reviewer for the Atlanta Journal described "a picturesque and almost disturbing grandeur beyond imagination. Visitors encounter an indoor Arabian courtyard with a sky full of flickering stars and magically drifting clouds; a spectacular striped canopy overhanging the balcony; stage curtains depicting mosques and Moorish rulers in hand sewn sequins and rhinestones."
The interior was a masterpiece of trompe l'oeil. From false beams, balconies, and tents to the ornate grillwork hiding air conditioning and heating ducts virtually every practical feature was disguised with artistic fantasy.
No space, furniture, or hardware escaped the gilt, tile, or geometric designs. Men's and Ladies' Lounges, broom closets, and telephone booths were all emblazoned with intricate plaster, bronze, and painted detail.
Yet with all its excessive ornamentation, the Fox retained a sense of tastefulness and never appeared overstated.
The venue’s history has been as dramatic as its décor. Construction costs threatened the Yaarab Temple mosque from the start and to generate additional funding, the Shriners negotiated a deal with movie mogul William Fox. At the time, Fox was building movie "palaces" in Detroit, St. Louis, Brooklyn, and San Francisco. Fox made Atlanta’s palace his Southeastern jewel with only minor alterations to the original blueprints.
The Fox opened as the Great Depression began. After 125 weeks of talking pictures and elaborate stage entertainment, the theatre declared bankruptcy. After a temporary revival through local ownership, the Fox scraped by during the early 1930s.
Under strong management, the Fox prospered as one of Atlanta's finest movie houses from the 1940s through the 1960s. Occasional live entertainment by prominent artists and the Metropolitan Opera Company's 20-year annual spring performances brought the Fox some of its greatest moments of glory.
The era of the movie palace finally ran out around 1973 when television, suburban flight, and a changing movie industry took patrons elsewhere. Film distributors required month-long commitments for first-run films, which was an easy task for suburban theaters with 500 seats. However, it presented a problem for the massive, 4,678-seat Fox who complete a run in less than a week. The Fox was reduced to showing second-run movies to dwindling audiences.
The Fox faced yet another threat: the relentless growth of metropolitan Atlanta. Almost sold and demolished to make way for Southern Bell's headquarters, it was rescued through the efforts of Atlanta Landmarks, Inc., a nonprofit organization of interested, energetic, and committed Atlantans. Their four-year "Save the Fox" fundraising campaign opened the hearts and purse strings of individuals and corporate donors.
Under Atlanta Landmarks, Inc.’s ownership, the Fox was once again put on a sound financial footing as a multi-purpose performing arts center. In 1976, documents were submitted that qualified the Fox to be designated a National Historic Landmark.
The moment Atlanta Landmarks, Inc. took leadership, an organized restoration program began. An army of volunteers went to work cleaning the interiors for the first benefit concert.
As time passed, the work required skilled artisans to make the auditorium and exotic ballrooms appealing to draw the large audiences and quality shows necessary for success.
In 1987, a second fundraising campaign was launched to "Fix the Fox." It successfully raised $4.2 million to improve safety code compliance, provide access for the handicapped, better equip the building to operate efficiently, and preserve it structurally.
To date, over $30 million has been spent on restoration projects, funded by ticket surcharges and operating surpluses. The Fox’s in-house Restoration Staff employs highly skilled artisans and Historic Preservation experts. The Fox is continually restored and preserved in an authentic manner, including the decorative surfaces, the masonry and cast stone exterior, the furniture collection, and archives. The Restoration Department is also instrumental in the building’s technological improvements and architectural modifications.
The Fox has generated an operating surplus every year since Atlanta Landmarks, Inc. took over in 1975. Over 300 performances a year are booked in the auditorium and the Egyptian Ballroom and Grand Salon are rented regularly for special occasions from corporate events, video and film shoots, and sports presentations, to proms, and weddings.
As a tribute to the Fox's movie palace heritage, the Coca-Cola Summer Film Festival shows a variety of films in the theatre, from the classics to newly released blockbusters. Film Festival events feature Wine Tastings and pre-movie "Sing Alongs" with the Mighty Möller organ, known as "Mighty Mo." The Mighty Mo, a 4,000-pipe theatrical organ, is extraordinarily maintained, as is the collection of the 1930s era lyrics slides that are projected during the sing along.
Today, the Fox is a fiercely protected landmark and nationally acclaimed theatre. Having survived the Great Depression, mortgage foreclosure, bankruptcy, competition, television, real estate development, and age, the Fox is impeccably intact and aggressively preserved. The Fox is proud to be listed on the National Register of Historic Places and designated a National Historic Landmark (the highest national ranking).
*Photos courtesy of Fox Theatre Archives