A History of the Atlanta Fox Theatre
Part Four
"Save the Fox!"
The Dark Days 1970-1978

By Hal Doby
Originally written, March 1996, last revision: January 24, 2017

By the 1970s, Mosque, Inc. was composed of four share owners; 50% was owned by American Broadcasting - Paramount, Inc. (doing business as ABC Southeatern Theaters), 25% Georgia Theater Company, Inc (John Stembler, President), and the remaining 25% owned by Storey Theaters (Fred Storey, President). John Stembler of Georgia Theater Company held the position of President of Mosque, Inc.

One of the common myths long believed was the Yaarab Temple was a share holder in Mosque, Inc., but that is not true. This myth was perpetuated mainly because the Yaarab Temple constructed and originally owned the complex. When it lost the property due to bankruptcy in 1932, the Shriners were allowed to continue to reside in the Mosque portion of the Fox.

When the Fox was sold at public auction, it was purchased by the Theater Holding Company. That group was composed of people that had purchased Yaarab Temple building bonds, it made logical sense that most of these people were also Shriners. Because of their afilliation to the Shriner organization, not only does it make sense that they allowed the Shriners to continue to use the Fox, they were also able to use that as a charitable tax deduction. This arrangement continued to 1949.

When the attempt to sell the Fox to the City of Atlanta failed and the deed was returned to Mosque, Inc. while not confirmed, it would appear that shares of Mosque, Inc. were issued to the members of Theater Holding Company for their share of the $615,000 now owed to them from the aborted sale of the Fox to the City of Atlanta.

Over the years, the shares of Mosque, Inc. were paid off, sold, or traded. I believe by 1939, when Lucas-Jenkins became the Georgia Theatre Company, they had become the majority share owner of Mosque, Shares continued to change hands well into the 1960s when by that time, it appears Mosque shares were wholly owned by the three companies listed at the beginning of this chapter.

Starting in the post-wars years after World War II, the popular trend throughout America was for people to move outside of the downtown city districts and into suburbs. This was further escalated with the development of the Interstate system that allowed people to travel at high speed from suburbia into the city in a relatively short period of time. At first, it was thought that people would stay in town for evening meals and entertainment, but especially with the growing popularity of Television, more and more people were eager to leave their city jobs and return home to spend thier evenings in the comfort of thier homes.

Because of the flight of people to the suburbs, Atlanta's theaters were in trouble. In time, the Capitol, the Paramount, and the Roxy, all were shuttered and razed. by 1974, only the Loew's Grand, the old Howard Theater (then Martin's Cinerama), the Rialto, and the Fox were still standing. The Fox and Loew's Grand contiued to operate while the Howard and Rialto sat shuttered. There had been a number of smaller theaters in Atlanta, but most of them had converted over to exploitation films, or worse yet, XXX-Adult only fare before they were eventually shuttered and razed.  The only new cinema inside the city of Atlanta was the AMC 8, located inside the Omni International Complex. It opened in 1975, but never developed a sizable patronage. It changed hands a couple of times before it was shuttered and razed in the late 1990s. Of note, Ted Turner moved his CNN world headquarters into the Omni Complex and took over the cinema in the early 1990s. During his tenure of ownership, he insisted that Gone With the Wind continually play in one of the theaters for as long as he owned the theaters. It continuslly played there until  the theaters were shuttered.

As I mentioned in the previous chapter, one of the reasons the Fox was spared destruction for the longest time was because it stood outside the main downtown district of Atlanta in what was called the Midtown district. While I would not exactly say it was an area in decline, it certainly had lost its reputation as being a trendy area to live in. A lot of larger homes had been converted into apartments, so there were a lot of inexpensive places to live. This was very attractive to a lot of younger people and the overall area, especially around fourteenth street became known as hangouts for beatniks and hippies.

In the early 1970s, a local rock music promoter, Alex Cooley, began to use the Fox Theatre as a venue for a series of late night rock concerts called "Midnight at the Fox" that brought out the youth of Atlanta and through that, many got to see the Fox for the first time. They were awed by the building, evening while it was clearly showing decades of wear and dis-repair. They felt it was a magical place and had the best musical acoustics in the city, if not the nation. The concerts became a staple that everyone looked forward to. Many of the musicians that played at the Fox during this time eventually became superstars and rock legends. David Bowie, Steve Miller, Bruce Springsteen, and and others performed at these concerts. The concerts were responsible for a sudden increase in revenue at the Fox and to the amazement of everyone, the Fox actually reported a small profit in 1973. 

Despite the fact the Fox was generating a small profit through Alex Cooley's concerts, in early 1974 Mosque, Inc. felt the time had come to get rid of the Fox. They felt that in order to sell the Fox, it had to be demolished so a new business could be built there. The chairman of Mosque, Inc., John Stembler, declared their intention to demolish the Fox to sell the property "broom clean", a term used in the real estate industry to indicate the ground had been cleared and was ready for new construction.

Southern Bell, a division of the Bell Telephone System of AT&T was looking to purchase a very large parcel of land in Atlanta on which to build its new headquarters. In late 1974, Bell purchased the Fox Complex with the intention of purchasing the rest of the block it resided on for its new headquarters. The part of the block where the Fox sat was to be repurposed into an open air parking lot for a skyscraper that would sit next to it. Ironically, a number of the grand movie palaces had been demolished in order make room for parking lots, and this looked to be the final fate of the Atlanta Fox Theatre.

Mosque's sale of the Fox to Southern Bell was a private matter and out of the public eye. There had been news reports that the Fox was going to close and demolished, but while people were upset over this, it did not really hit home until after the sale to Southern Bell was completed and the demolision permits were granted by the City of Atlanta. Many people never really knew that Southern Bell already owned the Fox.

On January 2nd, 1975, The Fox Theatre was scheduled to finally be shuttered after the 9:25pm showing of the Richard Burton / Lee Marvin / O.J. Simpson film, "The Klansmen". almost all of the people that showed up for the last show were there out of shear love for the building. After the movie, general manager Mike Spirtous took those who were interested in a last tour of the building. Once the tour was concluded and the patrons shown the exit door, the lights were turned off  and the doors were locked for what was thought to be the final time.

When it was announced in the newspapers that the Fox was going to be officially closed, then torn down, the public outcry was deafening. In retrospect of what happened before, during, and after the entire "Save the Fox" effort, it is my opinion that had it not been for Alex Cooley's concerts at the Fox, the Fox would have almost certainly been lost. I truly believe it was the Youth of Atlanta that generated the spark that ignited the public's demand that the Fox be saved. I think due to the popularity of the concerts Mr. Cooley presented, it served as the argument that the Fox could continue to serve as an operating venue of performing arts for the city.

Something else that is not talked about often is that while Atlanta has been called "The City too Busy to Hate" for its incredible growth during the Twentieth Century and it's large multi-racial composure, it is also a city that has torn down quite a large number of houses and buildings in and around Atlanta that held architectural or historical significance. So many buildlings that many people had deemed important were long gone by 1975 and now the most wonderous of all the buildings in Atlanta was now in peril. For the Fox, it was the convergence of a "perfect storm" that brought together people from all walks of life that drew a line in the sand that demanded the Fox be saved.

This is where I need to stop and talk about Southern Bell. Many people saw Southern Bell and Mosque, Inc. as the villians in this situation. That was far from the truth. Mosque had been loosing money from the operation of the Fox for a number of years and like any business, they wanted to cut their losses. Granted, it did make a profit in 1973 and 1974, but that was seen by Mosque  as somewhat of a fluke and they expected that would be short-lived.  Since no one had shown interest in large theaters, Mosque felt the only way to rid themselves of the Fox, was to sell it as a noting more than real estate. Thus in their minds, the building had to be razed in order to make way for a new structure. 

Between the 1950s and the mid-1970s, Movie Palaces were seen as relics of the past. Many felt they had no real historic or architectural importance. A lot of people at that time did not care if they were saved or torn down. There was no effort on anyone's part to save any of the other movie houses in Atlanta before the Fox was in peril. Mosque approached Southern Bell to buy the Fox, Mosque convinced Southern Bell that razing the Fox was in the best interests of everyone, including the City of Atlanta.  

From this, you might think that I am making Mosque, Inc.into the villian of this story. In some ways, perhaps year, but in others, they were only doing what many others had done in past decades around the country. There were thousands of theaters in the downtown districts across the nation and hundreds that could be considered to be true movie palaces. By 1975, thousands of theaters had been razed and there were now under 200 palaces that still stood. There were 5 theaters in William Fox's chain of theaters that are now called the "Super-Foxes". The San Francisco Fox was razed in 1963 to make way for a grocery store and the Brooklyn Fox was shuttered in 1968, then razed in 1970 to make way for an office building. While people lamented the loss of palaces around the country, not much of a public outcry was made on their behalf to save them. 

While Mosque was villified, it was even worse for Southern Bell. They found themselves in what was becoming a terrible publicity situation. Hundreds of people were sending their bills with "Save The Fox!" written on the bills and their checks. People began to picket Southern Bell offices, Protest lines were continually lined up in front of the Fox on Peachtree Street.  In all fairness to Southern Bell, once they realized that people were passionate about saving the Fox, they wanted to do everything they could to save the Fox while at the same time, still getting their new headquarters and minimizing their losses from the debacle. 

When the news got out of the Fox's impending doom, several grass roots efforts appeared trying to save the building. Through the public outcry, many suggestions, offers, and efforts were put on the table to save the Fox. Among some of the offers made, a well-known pornographer offered to purchase the Fox for four and half million dollars and then donate the Fox to the city of Atlanta. Because of the societal angst against pornography, despite the generousity, the offer was quickly refused as the money was deemed "dirty". State Legislators held public meetings at the Fox trying to come up with ways to save the building.

Joe Patten, along with his friend Robert L. Foreman Jr., and their associates were hard at work trying to come up with a way to save the Fox. They privately met with Atlanta Mayor Maynard Jackson.  During the meeting, Mayor Jackson agreed to suspend the demolition permit for six months in order for them to organize and come up with a plan that would save the Fox. After the meeting, they formed Atlanta Landmarks, Inc, a non-profit organization dedicated to the preservation of Atlanta's architectural treasures.

Very quickly, Atlanta Landmarks became the lead organization everyone lined up behind in the quest to Save the Fox. While the saving of the Fox has been its foremost primary mission, it was concieved that should other important landmarks be threatened, an attempt to save them could be done under the auspices of this new non-profit organization,but its primary focus was the Fox Theatre. The first order of business was to have a feasibility study made. It is said Joe Patten personally financed a professional study performed at a cost of around $250,000. As the study was in progress, Atlanta Landmarks began to work on finding a way to, as the rally cry proclaimed; "Save The Fox!"  

After a lot of research, a creative deal was conceived and agreed upon by the City, Southern Bell, MARTA, and Atlanta Landmarks. Southern Bell had wanted to aquire the entire city block. the Fox sat on one-quarter of that property. Southern Bell had purchased the Fox, but when the public outcry to save the Fox began, Southern Bell stopped dead in its tracks and suspended its actions to purchase the rest of the property. Part of that area had been scheduled to be dug up by MARTA (the Metro Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority) in order to construct its North-South light transit rail system that was going to run underground below the Downtown and Midtown areas. 

Robert Foreman Jr. came up with the idea of Atlanta Landmarks purchasing the other 75% of the "Fox Block" and offer Sourther Bell a simple land swap. But it was not a straight-forward process which is why Southern Bell had not already purchased the rest of the block. Upon investigation, the remaining property was composed of around 18 individual tracts of land, owned by several different people and companies that were spread out all over the United States and Europe. 

Foremand and Atlanta Landmarks was able to negotiate and arrange the purchase of the properties for slightly over one and a half million dollars. With Atlanta Landmarks "owning" the remaining 75% of the block, Southern Bell was quite willing and eager to exchange the deed the Fox in return for the deeds for the rest of the block. By making what turned out to be some very minor alterations to thier plans, Southern Bell would be able to build their headquarters with a portion of it directly on top of the MARTA lines.  Ironically, the property next to the Fox would now be an open air parking lot, which was to have been the fate of the Fox property! 

As the land swap deal was being worked out, the feesability study was completed and presented to the City and the public. The report concluded that the Fox could not only survive and pay for itself, but it could also make a modest profit if it were run as a non-profit omnibus center for performing arts. Instead of just movies, it would present a wide range of offerings such as opera, ballet, theater, pop music concerts, and last but not least, movies. The Fox could make its way to profitability. Everyone took a deep breath and rejoiced!

The final issue was to figuring out how to fund the one and a half million dollar purchase of the property. First National Bank of Atlanta, Citizens & Southern, Trust Company Bank of Atlanta, National Bank of Georgia, and Georgia Federal Savings agreed to come together and loan Atlanta Landmarks the needed money. While each bank could have easily afforded to loan that amount, it was decided that by spreading the liability across all five banks, should Atlanta Landmarks fail, it would not result in a catastrophic failure to a single bank. 

Like any other mortgage, there had to be collateral. After all, Atlanta Landmarks was nothing more than a brand new group of citizens with no history or experience in theater management. To the rescue came Southern Bell, who agreed to co-sign the note and guarrantee any lost interest payments. Finally Mosque, Inc. agreed to also co-sign and use the deed to the Fox as collateral. The loan was formalized and the properties were assigned to their new owners on June 25, 1975. 

The final purchase price of the remaining property on the "Fox Block" was 1.8 million dollars. Atlanta Landmarks agreed to pay off the loan in one single payment, due in three years. There would be interest payments every three months of approximately $360,000, starting in June of 1976. The loan was made with the very strict understanding that each payment had to be paid exactly on time. Should one payment be missed in as little as one day, the Fox would be instantly foreclosed upon and in a matter of days, the suspended demolision permit would be re-approved and the building razed. It was estimated should that had happened, the Fox would have been wiped away in under a month's time! While many today may find that strict timeline impossible or a scare tactic, this indeed was the case. 

By my estimates, Atlanta Landmarks paid approximately $2,520,000 with the seven interest payments. The final payment for the principle was 1,800,00. All told, the final purchase price of the Fox Theatre, including interest, closing costs and legal fees totaled just shy of 5 million dollars.

Atlanta Landmarks took possession of the Fox the same day the loan was closed. Because it had only ceased operation under seven months prior, plus the Fox's sound structural design, there were less things wrong with the Fox than there were right, it did not take a long amount of time to return the Fox to an operational status. With Ted Stevens as the Fox's new General Manager, The Fox opened its doors to the public on September 14, 1975 when the American Institute of Architects sponsored a public tour of the Fox as a fundraiser for Atlanta Landmarks. People flocked to see the Fox and over 4,000 people lined up for the tours, which took about three hours to complete. Finally, on October 29, 1975 the Fox commenced regular performances with the first event being a benefit concert for the Fox by Linda Ronstadt. From that that day forward day, the Fox has always remained profitable! 

Benefit concerts were regularly held along with movies and fund raising events such as tours of the complex. Before and after events, Atlanta Landmarks volunteers would stand in various places with buckets so people could donate money to go toward saving the building. Performers such as Linda Ronstadt, Jack Benny, Liberace, Kate Smith, Lynard Skynard, Helen Hayes, Mitzi Gaynor, Cloris Leachman, Van Cliburn, Arthur Fiedler, and many others gave benefit performances and donated their time to help the "Save the Fox" campaign.  As a regular staff member at the Fox during performances, I can't remember a concert where the performer would stop and say "I can't believe they were going to tear down this place!"

At first, no one in the Atlanta Landmarks organization had ever undertaken an effort like Save the Fox. Everybody was scared to death over the strict loan agreement. The threat of missed interest payment and then sudden demolision of the Fox was very real. As the first interest payment approached, the Fox was standing on its own two feet and it was readily apparant the citizens of Atlanta were not going to let the Fox down. This went beyond donating money as people would simply show up at the doors and ask "what can I do to help?" People volunteered time and skills to help bring back the Fox back to a better condition. I was one of those people and I soon found myself doing all sorts of labor-intensive odd jobs. I painted hand rails, scraped glued-down carpeting off of cement amd tiled  floors, removed drop-ceilings that had been put up when some rooms were used as GTC offices, and boy I did a lot of painting!

1976 was the year the United States celebrated it bicentennial of its revolutionary war and its founding. As part of that celebration Prince Charles of England made a public appearance in the United States and planned a visit to Atlanta. As part of the festivities, a grand banquet was planned to be held in the Egyptian Ballroom of the Fox. To help prepare for this momentus occassion, Ted Stevens asked his friend Rick Flinn to come to the Fox and help with the preperations. Rick's help was invaluable and once the event transpired, he was invited to join the Fox Staff on a permanent basis. Thus he was given the title of the Fox's first Restoration Director. He served in that position for over 18 years.

In 1977, Ted Stevens stepped down as General Manager and was replaced by Alan McCracken who served as GM until 1981. Members of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (I.B.E.W.) volunteered time and materials to help renovate the Fox Theatre's electrical service. Volunteers of the Atlanta Technical School begin to volunteer services to help the Fox as well. 

All of this hard work was paying off. Each of the interest payments were easily met ahead of time. As for the big looming principal payment, the money was being raised to take care of that too. At the start of  1978, there were a large number of challenge pledges that had been made which amounted to a lot of money. Beachamp Carr contacted the challenge sponsors with the news that on paper, their challenges had been met and it was time to pay up. To their credit, every pledge was quickly made and on February 27th, 1978, the Fox's mortgage was completely paid off. Finally, the Fox was indeed saved! Hector Olivia, a renown organist, was going to give an organ concert as a benefit to the Fox, he was allowed to make the public announcement of this great achievement.

The Save the Fox movement was an emmense success. It is attributed as a gleeming example of what can be done to preserve other theaters as well as other architectural treasures. In time, other Fox Theaters as well as other Movie Palaces have been saved by public non-profit campaigns. The two other surviving Super-Foxes, the Detroit and the St. Louis, were both purchased by private individuals and have been restroed back to thier prior glory. The Atlanta Fox now tries to assist other theater groups by sharing information and resources. In saving the Fox, it is credited with causing a renewed interest in saving other buildings in the midtown area. The Fox, the Ponce Apartments, The Georgian Terrace, and the Cox-Carlton Hotel have all since been designated National Historic Landmarks and are the only four building that have been designated this distinction that all reside directly next to each other as neighbors.

This concludes Part Four of our story. Please continue on to read the conclusion of the History of the Fox Part Five Rebirth 1980 - to Present Day.

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