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Fox Theatre, Atlanta, Georgia

Fox Theatre (Atlanta, Georgia)

Fox Theatre, Atlanta, Georgia

The side entrance of the exotic Fox Theatre.

I could only imagine the scene: movie and opera stars during the glamorous 1930s and 1940s emerging from the elegant Georgian Terrace Hotel, crossing the red carpet that had been laid over Peachtree Street, waving to fans and smiling for photographers on their way to their film premieres or their performances at the Fox Theatre across the street. The notable exception to this pre-E! frenzy was the 1939 premiere of Gone With the Wind, that quintessential Atlanta movie. When the film’s stars emerged from their accommodations at the hotel, they didn’t go directly across the street; rather, they paraded down Peachtree Street to where it was being screened for the first time, at Fox’s competitor—the now-demolished Loew’s Grand Theatre.

That wasn’t the only slight and snub—and downright indignity—the Fox experienced, as I was soon to discover. I had booked a one-hour tour of this historic theater that sported “a picturesque and almost disturbing grandeur beyond imagination,” according to the local newspaper at the time of its opening.

I arrived a bit early, so I walked around the outside of this outstanding building. Originally constructed as a headquarters for the Shriners (an offshoot of the Masons), the building makes the most of these fraternal organizations’ admiration for Egyptian, Islamic, and Moorish architecture. On the outside, it’s pure Arabian fantasy. One side, among alternating horizontal bands of light and dark brick, an external staircase leads to bracketed terraces on different levels. Decorative glazed panels highlight a corner tower above windows in horseshoe arches. The side entrance resembles a mosque, with a pishtaq with an abundance of arches and columns, and topped by a trio of domes, with the tremendous central dome rising above a shallow drum with Arabic script and topped with a crescent that narrows as it arcs skywards and barely touches to form a circle.

Fox Theatre, Atlanta, Georgia

The beautiful tiled fountain in the lobby.

At the main entrance, the massive red FOX sign is almost as tall as the minaret-like tower on which it is attached. I waited under the wide marquee, next to the elaborate ticket booth, for my tour to begin. The huge exterior lobby, deeply recessed from the sidewalk into the building, could easily hold hundreds of people, but, today, it was just me, the guide, and a family of three.

The exoticism continues inside. I felt as if I had just stepped into a sultan’s palace. Each door is topped with an illuminated panel that resembles a pointed turban. Beautifully tiled ablution fountains with generous basins are inset into the wall. I was grateful that the guide recommended we sit to take it all in while she explained how the theater almost never came to be—and how it barely survived the wrecking ball.

As construction continued during the late 1920s, the Shriners soon found that their grandiose design was draining their reserve of funds at a staggering pace, and the money soon ran out. So the Shriners struck a deal with movie mogul William Fox. If Fox provided the financial backing for the completion of their new building, they would lease most of it to him, including the massive auditorium meant for their meetings that would be turned into seating for audiences who were just starting to fall in love with motion pictures and movie palaces. Fox agreed.

Fox shelled out the rest of the money (the project cost more than $3 million, the equivalent of $40 million today) and the 250,000-square-foot Fox Theatre was completed—at the worst possible time: less than two months after the stock market crashed on October 28, 1929. The theater opened to rave reviews, not only for its very first event (a screening of Steamboat Willie, Walt Disney’s first cartoon starring Mickey Mouse), but also for the theater itself.

Fox Theatre, Atlanta, Georgia

Gentlemen socialized in their Turkish-themed lounge.

The fascination, and the profits, didn’t last long as the Great Depression set in. Despite the popularity of this cinematic destination, Fox had to declare bankruptcy only a few years later, in 1932, and he lost his namesake movie palace, auctioned off for a mere $75,000. Yet, the Fox remained in high demand with audiences, who continued to patronize the theater and its breadth of films and live performances as well as its dance hall during the craze for Big Band and Swing music.

By the 1960s, however, movie palaces like this were being shuttered around the United States, usurped by suburban multiplexes. The Fox fell into disrepair and was closed in 1974. The intention was not to reopen it one day; rather, it was suddenly facing demolition. The prospect of razing this magnificent structure and replacing it with a parking garage for the new Southern Bell office building going up across the street alarmed Atlantans. They took action quickly, creating a nonprofit and launching a “Save the Fox” campaign that raised funds by doing everything possible, from sponsoring benefit concerts with big-name celebrities to collecting pennies at local businesses. Their efforts worked: They raised $3 million in record time, and in 1975, after a massive restoration project, the Fox reopened.

But it took a worldwide pandemic to fully complete the job, explained our guide as she marched us up one of the staircases off the lobby. When COVID-19 hit in 2020 and theaters reluctantly occluded their doors, the Fox went to work, finishing off a painstaking task that brought back to life sumptuous textiles, mesmerizing trompe l’oeil art, gracious banisters, highly ornamented lighting fixtures, and all the delightful little tricks that the Fox plays—wooden ceiling beams that are actually plaster, paint that appears to be gold leaf but isn’t, sections that are painted so cleverly that they appear to receive outside lighting (they don’t), and ornate fireplaces that were never designed to have functioning chimneys.

We arrived at the upper lobby and trod across the red carpet. Here, those fake ceiling beams won my admiration, as did the Turkish lamps, the finely carved arches, and the tasseled curtains. Echoes of Spain’s Alhambra are prevalent—it served as inspiration for parts of the Fox.

Fox Theatre, Atlanta, Georgia

The stage itself is a star of any show.

She led us into the Gentlemen’s Lounge, a Turkish oasis where refined men could smoke (it’s not a cigarette pictured on the sign above the entrance, but rather a man smoking a hookah), make phone calls, and discuss the performance, or business, amid the beamed ceiling, fireplace, tile floor, and Turkish ceramic tiles within keyhole arch niches. On the opposite side of the auditorium, the Ladies’ Lounge received an Egyptian treatment, with makeup tables that feature tiny sphinxes, an astoundingly colorful replica of King Tut’s throne chair, columns with organic capitals, a scarab motif, and a secret: The lounge led to an outdoor terrace where the women could smoke clandestinely when social norms of the time contemned the act.

In between the two lounges resides the massive 4,655-seat auditorium. Thankfully, the guide invited us to sit as she unveiled the room’s story; if not, I surely would have stumbled and fallen down, not paying attention to anything but this incredible space. Replicating an Arabian courtyard, the auditorium immediately conjures up mental images of One Thousand and One Nights, and I wish I had that much time to spend here. What to look at first?

Nearly 100 crystal “stars” are embedded into the ceiling, painted a late-dusk cobalt-blue. One third of them flicker as a projection of clouds slowly drifts across this night sky. As the seats, with their fantastic carvings on the aisle chairs, rise up to the balconies, Bedouin tents swoop out over the highest seats. I would have wagered anything that they were made of cloth, but I would have lost that bet—these canopies are plaster, supported by steel rods and specifically designed to help funnel sound up to these far-away sections.

On either side of the auditorium, faux stone walls with embrasures and turrets slope down to the stage. A bridge with a central projection crosses above the stage: Fancy pendant chandeliers hang from it, Middle Eastern rugs are draped over its sides, and illuminated lampposts rise above it. On either side, the stage is flanked by what appear to be box seats for the extra-privileged, but the balconies, columns, arches, and finely carved screens serve a completely different purpose—to hide the pipes of “Mighty Mo.” This Möller organ, built in 1929 at a cost of $42,000 to perfectly accompany silent films, remains the second-largest theater organ in the United States (surpassed only by the one in New York’s Radio City) and the largest Möller organ in the world. Its pipes range in size from 32’ tall to the height of a ballpoint pen. The organ, which rises from the orchestra pit during performances and received a yearlong $500,000 renovation during the COVID shutdown, is so complicated to play (not only does it contain 3,622 pipes, but also everything from a grand piano to a gong to a xylophone to drums) that very few people alive today know how. To preserve its remarkable tradition for the future, the theater offers lessons on how to play it to music students.

Fox Theatre, Atlanta, Georgia

Faux Bedouin tents make you dream of Arabian nights.

As I reluctantly tore myself away from this incomparably lavish space to follow the guide out, I was wondering what else the Fox had in store to beguile me with. The answer came quickly enough: the Egyptian Ballroom. Designed after a temple for Ramses II at Karnak, this massive space of 6,840 square feet boasts soaring columns with papyrus reed leaves painted on their bases, a stage with a light show of rotating neon colors, and a fine carpet adorned with hieroglyphics, pharaohs, and scarabs.

And then came the final secret, one which made me more than a bit envious. Adjacent to the Egyptian Ballroom, the Grand Salon is 3,350 square feet of Moroccan tiles, mosaics, antique stained glass, and fake wood ceiling beams. A subtle little door on the side of the salon grants entry to the former private residence of Joe Patten, the technical director at the theater from 1974 until his retirement in 2001 and a key paraclete for both saving the theater and restoring the organ. In gratitude for his unflagging efforts, the Fox gave him a 3,640-square-foot apartment for life…rent-free. A separate entrance provided him direct access to the street outside the theater. The apartment’s walls measure up to three feet thick to keep out the sounds of the performances in the theater, but if Patten wanted to catch any of them, he simply headed down a private passageway that led from his bedroom to a former spotlight platform at the top of the auditorium, where he could watch any show he wanted…for free. Patten enjoyed his home here from 1974 until his death at age 89 in 2016.

Fox Theatre, Atlanta, Georgia

The Egyptian Ballroom, complete with pharaohs, scarabs, and a light show.

Upon concluding the tour, I now easily understood the affection Atlantans have for the Fox as well as the numerous accolades it has received: nominations from both Billboard and Pollstar for Theatre of the Year, the League of Historic American Theatres’ 2011 Outstanding Historic Theatre of the Year award, and Rolling Stone’s nod as one of the best big rooms in America.

Every year, the Fox hosts weddings and special events, as well as 250 plays, musicals, concerts, and films that draw in 500,000 visitors, keeping it among the top three theaters in North America for gross ticket sales for the past decade. If you have the opportunity to attend any one of those, don’t hesitate. But even when nothing is playing, go anyway. The theater itself is the real star.

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