Atlanta's Fabulous Fox marks the 40th anniversary of surviving a push for tear down for big business. Southern rockers and a few pop acts banded together to Save the Fox instead.
In 1972, the Fabulous Fox in Atlanta almost faced demolition to make room for Ma Bell's towering high-rise. Instead acts like Lynyrd Skynyrd and The Allman Brothers banded together to help "Save the Fox." 2015 marks the 40 year anniversary of keeping the spectacular building a part of Atlanta history.
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According to Billboard, the Fox Theatre ranked No. 2 in Boxscore for venues with fewer than 5,000 seats. Visitors and guests are able to see a variety of acts in 4,665 seats. Built as an architectural oasis between ancient Egyptian and Moorish design, the theatre was originally meant to serve as a Yaarab Shrine Temple but a lease deal was struck with film house franchiser William Fox.
Opening on Christmas Day, two months after the 1929 stock market crash, the location faced highs and lows in Atlanta history. Small and intimate, the Fox Theatre declared bankruptcy just shy of two-and-a-half years in business. In the era of Big Band, it served as one of the few places that allowed white and blacks to attend the same event. Segregation still demanded a “colored” box office, entrance, and seating. The wall separating the two venues in still visible and the venue does not hide a checkered history.
In May 1974, the Fox Theatre was placed on the National Register of Historic Places and the stars rolled out to keep the site intact. Artists like Liberace and southern rock artists crowded around to make sure history wouldn't be bulldozed to make way for ‘progress’. The same feeling of ‘progress’ often finds vocal critics as historical landmarks are destroyed for the current chrome, glass, and concrete design.
Islamic ablution fountains in a courtyard work with the Ramses II’s Karnack temple in the Egyptian Ballroom. Immersing oneself inside the world of King Tut isn’t a bad thing. A triumph of design, 660 Peachtree Street feels like walking back into time as gilded paint and trompe l'oeil take visitors back to romantic, bygone eras.
The $3 million (equivalent to $40 million today) investment showcased a mosque-like facade that could be seen throughout the city's skyline. Domes and minarets melded into sweeping, grand archways, as visitors saw the gold leafing along the outside of the building. No expense was spared for William Fox's pride and joy.
A national landmark since 1976, the historical preservation included a restoration and even inclusion of what was originally planned but not financially feasible. Vice President and General Manager Adina Erwin points out since reopening and revitalizing the place, it has run a profit. No small feat. Acts include a wide variety of musicians, comedians, touring Broadway plays, film festivals, and even the Atlanta Ballet’s annual Nutcracker.
Fox historians note that the “Mighty Mo” is one of few remaining original theatre organs that can play the 3,622 pipes spread over five chambers means a complex and varying level of instrument mimicry, ranging from clarinet to steamboat whistle. Second only to Radio Music Hall in NYC, the piece even has a glockenspiel inside. And a piano attached. Built by M. P. Möller for $42,000 in 1929, the 1960s restoration was vital in bringing a very real, very lively part of theatre history back.
Attracting more than 750,000 guests a year, the $3 surcharge for maintenance is worth the price when viewing the overall theme. For example, the stage boasts a Bedouin village front and a ceiling painted to look like a canopy. The night sky sparkles as lights flicker, including a piece of Coca-Cola bottle in the ceiling. Hometown businesses have to support each other, right?
Venue strikes back
Sometimes decisions of the past offer amazing opportunities for musicians, too.
Lynyrd Skynyrd’s Ronnie Van Zan once told the band to “play it pretty for Atlanta.” A mantra that served through the live-recording of One More From the Road album, including the internationally recognized and wildly popular “Freebird.”
“We played the Fox a couple of times over the years to keep it from getting torn down,” Gregg Allman told the music magazine. The 67-year-old musician has deep roots in Georgia and an obvious infinity for the Fox. “People love that place, and they should. It’s so perfectly tuned. It’s magical.”
When the theatre joined with musicians like Gregg Allman, Lynryd Skynyrd, Trace Adkins, Alabama, Peter Frampton, Cheap Trick, Charlie Daniels and Donnie Van Zant for a celebration, the “One More For The Fans!” event, looked to honor the band’s rise in music history with the fans in mind.
Don Was worked as the music director for the talent showcase. “Lynyrd Skynyrd’s music has had a profound and unmistakable influence on artists and fans all over the world.” So it’s a big real when a music legend wants to save the beautiful, ornate craftsmanship.
Known for the shallow stage, some Broadway plays like The Lion King cannot perform in the venue, but many favorites like The Phantom of the Opera and Wicked find the atmosphere perfect. Aretha Franklin to Wynonna Judd have performed at the Fabulous Fox, letting their vocals call out to the tiered seats and audience members.
Erwin recognizes that Atlanta’s sprawling, transient market is very different than 1975, but hopes fans of the building will continue to support the artistry involved. Since 2008, the nonprofit owners have shared restoration expertise and grants to historical theaters across the state.
“Because we were saved by the community, we want to make sure that we stay in touch with the community and engage with the community, and that the community continues to have an affinity for the Fox and what we stand for.”
It’s hard to forget how the business was saved. Fox is planning a “Legend Lives On” as part of the 40th anniversary. Hosting a gala on March 14 and a block party on June 7, the venue wants people to remember the roots of Atlanta cooperation.
“We thought that this was a good opportunity to take a look back, to engage in the current time as well as to reach out to audiences for the future.” June 21 marks the actual 40 year anniversary, but native Atlantans are probably enjoying the lead up just as much.
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Oh, and the Bellsouth building? Adjacent location without having to sacrifice beauty for progress.