Joe Griffin Patten, "The Phantom of the Fox"

1927 - 2016

Written By Hal Doby and Robert "Robbie" Irvin, May 23, 2016, updated January 11, 2017.

They called him the Phantom, the Phantom of the Fox!

Like his well-known Parisian counterpart, he lived for decades in an ornate metropolitan theater. He had intimate knowledge of every light, rope, walkway, and the catacombs in his cavernous Eden

But unlike the fictional figure said to haunt the Paris Opera House, this Phantom was real, an ardent, somewhat solitary, supremely gifted man named Joe G. Patten. Until shortly before his death on April 7th, 2016 at age 89, Joe Patten had lived in rococo slendor in a sprawling 3.600 sq.ft. private apartment inside Atlanta’s historic Fox Theatre.

Over the course of his long love affair with the Fox, Mr. Patten was its Technical Director from 1974 until his retirement in 2004. He became as revered a fixture of the city’s cultural life as the theater itself. He restored its magnificent pipe organ to back to its long-lost glory and twice saved the entire building; initially from demolition in the 1970s and again in 1996 from a serious fire.

Joe Griffin Patten was born in Lakeland, Florida on February 9th, 1927. As a child, Joe lived at the northwest corner of South Florida Avenue and Lime Street, the present location of the Bank of America building. His maternal grandfather, Edwin C. Flanagan, and his uncle, Edwin C. Flanagan Jr., both served as mayor of the City of Lakeland. Patten Heights Street, which connects South Florida Avenue and Lake Hollingsworth Drive, is named for his father's family.

Joe Patten's family attended First Baptist Church in Lakeland. At a young age he became fascinated by the church's pipe organ. Joe became friendly with a man from Jacksonville who regularly serviced the church's organ. By watching the organ technician, Joe learned about the inner workings of the instrument. Joe spent much of his youth at the Polk Theatre, where he learned about the workings of movie projectors. Joe began servicing pipe organs as a teenager at other churches in the Lakeland area. After the outbreak of World War II, he also had a summer job at Lakeland Army Airfield, cranking PT 17 Stearman “Caydet” primary training aircraft.

Following graduation from high school, Joe enlisted in the U.S. Navy in 1944. He was assigned to the Naval Hospital in Bethesda, Maryland for the duration of The War, where among other duties, he mantained and operated the hospital's audio-visual equipment.

After Joe's passing, an interesting story surfaced. During the War years, Joe's best buddy became involved with a woman he became engaged to. The three of them all were very close. While Joe remained stateside, his pal went off to fight the good fight. During that time, Joe and the woman found themselves in love with each other and the woman decided to end her engagement so she could marry Joe. Before she could do that, the buddy was severely wounded and the decision was made for him to return to Florida and be mustered out of the armed forces. This put Joe and the lady in a very awkward position. They made the choice to end their relationship so the lady could marry her fianceé as that was "The right thing to do".  To our knowledge, no other woman captured Joe's heart.

After leaving the armed forces in 1946, he returned to school, entering the University of Florida, where received his degree in Electrical Engineering. Joe soon began working for Westinghouse Electric, installing and servicing X-ray equipment. He lived in Jacksonville and Miami before he took up residency in Atlanta, Georgia in 1953.

Mr. Patten was an avid automobile and motorsports enthusiast. He owned several classic automobiles and has been extremely active in various car communities in Georgia and Florida. Joe raced cars on the beach in Daytona in the days of pre-NASCAR in the early 1950s, prior to the now legendary circuit being constructed there. He, along with Red Vogt, and other notable builders of the early racing era, transformed stock Oldsmobile cars into racing machines for drivers such as Truman “Fonty” Flock, his brother, Tim Flock, and Glenn “Fireball” Roberts. 

One rather intriguing car story of the Joe’s stems from his years down in Caracas, Venezuela. The story varies a bit from those who tell it, but the main facts remain the same in all of the tellings. Joe was sent there by his employer, Westinghouse to install X-Ray equipment in Venezuelan hospitals. He was there with a number of his Westinghouse team members, who were also avid racing and hot rod fans.

Joe had a very high powered 1958 Chevrolet Del Rey Coupe that actually was his Westinghouse company car he drove daily. He ultimately took the Chevy with him to South America to use on his assignment there. After work hours, the group would eventually wind up on a bar that was frequented by other automotive enthusiasts. It was there Joe encountered another racing entrepreneur one evening who was a huge Ferarri fan and owner. After talking to this man, who believed Ferarri was far superior to an everyman's Chevy, Joe was challenged to a race between Joe’s Chevy Bel Air and the man’s Ferrari. Since this person had political connections, a ten mile stretch of a newly built expressway was closed off and utilized to stage the contest.

Joe’s challenger was vastly over confident and did not feel threatened by Joe in the least. When the race began, Joe was able to realize a firm lead from the very outset. The contender was suddenly shaken up. He made bad gear shifts and fell dramatically behind. The Ferarri was never able to catch up. Joe emerged the victor by a wide and a staggering length. It amazed all who watched the race, many had wagered rather heavily on the outcome.

According to some of the stories, Joe was challenged two more times by this man and each time, Joe soundly defeated the man and his Ferrari each time. The man wanted to buy this Joe’s amazing Chevrolet, with its 348 cu. in. V8 power plant and “triple deuce” carburation at any cost. :Large cash offers were made, as well as a trade for various automobiles, including the losing Ferrari as well as other hot automotive properties in the man's stable of automobiles. Joe was not interested and did not budge.

One day, the man phoned Joe one day to invite him to the opening of the new Mercedes Benz dealership in Caracas. In the center of the showroom there was a turnstile with a gorgeous, red 1956 Mercedes-Benz 300SL Gullwing Coupe on it. It truly caught Joe’s eye. Joe pointed to it and said he would trade the Chevy for the 300SL. Joe purchased the Chevrolet from Westinghouse, threw in a Land Rover Defender he had been using to hunt big game in the interior areas of Venezuela, and the deal was made.

This awesome Mercedes was an instant automotive classic that was the epitome of sports cars of the era (and the 20th Century). It became Joe’s new everyday car and formed the basis for his classic car collecting interests. The market price for a new 1956 Mercedes 300SL $10,928. An astounding sum for that time. For comparison, Joe's Chevrolet retailed new for around $2,500. Joe kept the Mercedes well into the 1990s then finally sold it as it was becoming too hard for him to get in and out of due to the very wide door sills.

From his first visit to Atlanta in 1947, Joe Patten became entranced with the Fox Theatre. The Fox's Mighty Mӧeller organ, the second largest theater organ in the world, had fallen into serious disrepair by the mid-1950s and was virtually in an unplayable condition. Joe was a member of the Atlanta Chapter of the American Theater Organ Enthusiasts (later renamed the American Theater Organ Society or ATOS). They approached Noble Arnold, the General Manager of the Fox, with a proposal for the ATOE to undertake a total restoration of the massive instrument. 

A deal was stuck where the group would provide the manpower at no cost, if the Fox would provide the materials needed to return the organ back to working order. Once the work was completed, ATOE would be allowed to hold club meetings at the Fox during periods when the theatre was not presenting a movie or other performances. Mr. Arnold saw this as a great opportunity to have the organ repaired at very little cost and readily agreed to the agreement.

The restoration process began with an inventory and thorough assessment of the instrument. For some unexplained reason, the organ's pipe chambers had become filled with trash and debris that had to be removed. During the assessment, it was determined that a primary reason for the organ's failing state was due to a design or installation flaw. As I understand the history of the Fox, as the building's construction was beginning to wind down, it was discovered that there was a small amount extra cash on hand. It was decided to put that money into useful enhancements to the auditorium and stage. One of those enhancements was the addition of screw-driven lifts in the orchestra pit, where the organ would reside, and on the stage.

When the organ console was installed, it operated the various mechanisms via a large network of wires that ran from the console. With the organ now on an operating lift that was used to take the console up and down over twenty feet, the main cable that housed literally hundreds of wires, flexed considerably and was allowed to rub against the concrete floor, as it moved back and forth. Over time, this constant flexing and friction against the floor slowly began to compromise the very small gauged wires in this network of cables that was well over two feet in diameter. Over seven miles of wires had to be replaced and re-routed to the chambers to address all of the dead notes. At that point, less than half of the notes would actually play because many of the multitudes of individual little wires that connected the console to the pipes had eventually broken.

With his technical background, Joe devised a remedy where this main cable was sheathed in a protective heavy plastic casing and not allowed to touch the ground, thus eliminating that type of damage from ever happening again.

The work was performed over a ten month period, primarily done late in the late night and well to the early morning hours, when the theatre was not in operation. Once the decision was made by Joe to cut the main cable and start from scratch, nearly everyone who had been participating in this tedious and back breaking work jumped ship. Because of the odd hours, and seemingly insurmountable challenge, suddenly not a lot of people were able to contribute their time to restoring the organ. Consequently, the follow through effort was accomplished almost entirely by Joe and a couple of loyal helpers. 

Finally in November of 1963, the organ restoration was completed. The organ was to be re-premiered on November 22, 1963, but that was suddenly cancelled when President John F. Kennedy was assassinated that afternoon in Dallas, Texas. The event was postponed until Thanksgiving Day, the following week, with Bob Van Camp at the console. From that point on, until his retirement in 2004, Joe Patten was the permanent caretaker of the organ.

Here is a video report from WSB Television (Channel 2, Atlanta's NBC affiliate at the time) by one of the Stations lead reporters, Ruth Kent.  She is interviewing Bob Van Camp, who was the Fox Organist well into the 1980s. Van Camp was also a radio personality on WSB Radio that had a weekend radio show in the 1960s that featured music recorded at the Fox of the Moller organ. I may be jaded, but I feel that during my time at the Fox, Bob Van Camp was the master of the Moller organ. I had only heard one or two other maestros that rose or exceeded his proficiency and mastery of the organ. Fortunately, while he left us in the late 1980s, there are recordings of his abilities.

This video is dated "1963". In it, he mentions he plays the organ on weekends. Therefore, since they do not mention the completion of the restoration, I have to believe this was recorded in December of that year. It is just over nine minutes long and Bob goes into detail showing what the Mighty Mo can do. While the audio is "television grade", you can still hear the wonderful things Mo can do. The report was made for WSB's morning program "Today In Georgia" that aired immediately after NBC's very succesful "Today" show. The format of the show was similar to the network show, but focused on local people, places, things, and events around the Metro Atlanta area.

For an encore, here is a video of  behind the scenes with organist and President (and CEO) of the American Theater Organ Society Ken Double and the Fox Theatre's Mighty Mo' organ  It was made in 2014 and has some nice shots of riding up with the organ and Mr. Double talking about playing theater organs.

In 1965, Joe travelled to Chicago, Illinois to purchase a unique piano. It was a Baldwin Grand Piano originally installed in the Piccadilly Theatre in Chicago. The piano had been connected to the theater’s Kilgen 4 manual, 19 rank theatre organ so it could be operated from the organ console remotely. The piano sat in the open on the right hand side of the auditorium in a faux Opera Box. On the opposite side of the theater, a harp sat in box across from the piano. The theater had opened in 1927 and according to Cinema Treasures while the piano was fully operable, it was never played until the last day the theater was open in 1963.

Joe purchased the piano with his own money. He traveled to Chicago to perform the uninstall of the piano himself, then brought it back to the Atlanta Fox in order to interface it with the Fox’s Mӧeller organ. Joe utilized his inherent talent, skills, and design prowess to create a custom electro-mechanical pneumatic action to make the remote capability a reality. In a short period of time, the work was complete and audiences were thrilled and amazed at how the piano now seemed to play all by itself,  while all the time, Bob Van Camp was in control of it from the Mighty Mo’s console. It was dubbed the Phantom Piano!

Joe's big love in his life was pipe organs. At first, it was directed at church organs, but later he was focused on theater organs, particularly the large pipe organs of the massive movie palaces that during the 1950s were rapidly being razed during that era. Joe was a founding member of the Atlanta Chapter of the American Theater Organ Enthusiasts, later renamed American Theater Organ Society, or ATOS.With his fellow associates, they continually attempt to save and salvage many theater organs across the United States.

A great example of the Atlanta ATOS' efforts is the Grande Page theatre organ. It was the first of the Page Company’s crown jewel, four-manual organs. It was originally installed in 1927 at the WHT radio studios of the Wrigley Building in downtown Chicago. It was said to be the largest such organ ever built for a radio studio. It found itself being moved from several places, then finally winding up on the hands of the Atlanta Chapter.  After negotiations, it was placed in what is hoped to be it's permenant home at the Stephenson High School in Stone Mountain, Georgia. After years of work and a fundraising effort that raised over $70,000 for the installation and restoration, the organ was dedicated on April 3, 2014.  (it should be said that Joe did not participate in the organ's restoration due to his health issues.)

Fox Theatre's former "Organist At Residence" and close personal friend of Joe Patten, Larry Douglas Embury,
giving Joe a piano lesson on Joe's 1906 Chikering "reproducing" grand piano.

While Joe Patten had a great knowledge of the mechanics and operation of pipe organs, Joe would never attempt to play any of them, even the Mighty Mo at the Fox. He preferred to sit back in the logé of the Fox balcony and listen to his friends, Bob Van Camp, Hector Olivia, John McCall, and Larry Douglas Embury perform. When asked about this, Joe said he felt he could never attain the proficency needed to master playing the pipe organ, so her preferred to simply listen to others play them.

Joe remained an active member of the American Theater Organ Society. He continued to participate with the ATOS up to the time of his death.  Joe had hosted a recital for the ATOS in his apartment just a month prior to his passing. In addition to Joe being a founding member of the Atlanta Chapter, he was a recipient of its Lifetime Achievement Award and recipient of the Pioneer Award from the American Theatre Organ Society. 

In the early 1970s, Joe purchased the East Point Theater. It was located on a on  Main Street in East Point, Georgia, right across the way from Russell High School. It was a 600 seat, post-war, suburban cinema situated in a block long row of commercial buildings. There was nothing exceptional about the East Point, as it was a non-descript standard neighborhood cinema with a bit of an art deco motif.  It was his intention to renovate the cinema and operate it himself once he retired from Westinghouse.

Once the renovation was completed, Joe planned to move out of his College Park home and reside in what was once the theater's office space located above its lobby. In addition to operating the cinema, Joe also acquired the store space next to the theater and planned to make that an ice cream emporium to further compliment the theater and its revenue. Joe began a very ambitious renovation project that was to convert the standard auditorium interior to an atmospheric style auditorium, very similar to that of the Atlanta Fox Theatre, albeit on a much smaller scale. A much smaller version of the Fox organ, a three manual Mӧeller organ was found that Joe acquired and installed into the building.

Prior to this time, the writing was on the wall that it looked like the days of the Atlanta Fox were numbered. Joe and his ATOS friends quietly began to look for places they could relocate the Fox’s Mӧeller organ to, but could not find anything that was acceptable. Finally, Joe simply spoke up and said “Well, we’ll just have to save the whole building!” In 1974, the axe finally fell when Mosque, Inc. announced the Fox was slated for demolition. The property had already been sold to the Bell Telephone System to be its corporate headquarters for its Southern Bell division. The area the Fox Theatre occupied was to become an open air parking lot.

Joe Patten became one of the three most respectable and realistic advocates for the saving of the Fox. Joe was able to arrange a meeting with the new mayor of Atlanta, Maynard Jackson, who agreed to give them a six month moratorium to come up with a feesible plan to save the Fox.

Joe and his three friends became the founders of Atlanta Landmarks, a non-profit organization created expressly to save the Fox Theatre from destruction. He contributed a lot of time, effort, and substantial money from his retirement fund into the group. Joe personally funded a feesibility study at a cost of tens of thousands of dollars to prove the Fox Theatre could sustain itself as a omnibus theatre operated by a non-profit group. He was instrumental in forging the deal that made Atlanta Landmarks the new owner of the Fox Theatre. Joe became the Secretary of Atlanta Landmarks as well as the Technical Director of the theatre, a position he held until 2004 when he retired.

Returning to the East Point Theater, during 1974 and 1975, his attention was taken away from the East Point Theater by the Fox Theatre, Work on the East Point continued in spurts as the Fox began to absorb more and more of Joe’s attention. In 1978, the Atlanta Chapter of the ATOS was to host the National American Theater Organ Society's Convention in Atlanta. The gathering was to be centered at the East Point Theater. Work became frantic to complete the renovations so the theater could host the event, but it was far from complete just weeks before the event was to take place. The hard decision was made to move the convention from the East Point to the Fox Theatre. After that, all work on the East Point effectively stopped.

By 1980, Joe was spending so much time at the Fox, he decided to abandon his plan to eventually live at the East Point Theater. Joe leased the East Point to the famed and renowned recording engineer from the U.K., Eddy Offord, who had engineered the early recordings of many progressive rock groups such as Emerson Lake & Palmer and Yes, amongst others. When Joe made the decision to sell the East Point, Mr. Offord agreed to purchase the theater. The East Point Theater changed hands at least two more times. In the late 1980s, the shopping center the theater was located in suffered a major fire. The overall shopping center was heavily damaged, however the theater was mostly spared, because of the overall damage to the shopping center, the decision was made to raze the entire complex. The property was purchased by the Metro Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority (MARTA) Once cleared of the debris, the land was used as a staging area during construction of MARTA’s rail system. Once that was completed, the site was refurbished and is now currently a park and playground.

 Once Joe made the decision to abandon his plans for the East Point in 1980, he began to make plans to relocate closer to the Fox Theatre. Atlanta Landmarks Board of Directors made a very unique offer to Joe.  After much discussion, Atlanta Landmarks offered Joe Patten a lifetime lease to occupy an apartment inside the building at no cost to him for rent or utilities. This offer was made not only for Mr. Patten's benefit, but also for the theatre itself, as it had been deemed that someone should be inside the building at all times for safety and logistical reasons.

The space to be used for the apartment was originally intended to be the Yaarab Temple’s business offices. It had a very odd layout with steep stairs to get to the secondary portion of the space. This made it untenable for public access and thus Atlanta Landmarks deemed the area unusable for their purposes. It had a private entrance that led to Ponce deLeon Avenue, next to the original grand entrance, but once again that was composed of a very large and steep stairway. The overall condition of the space was rather poor and required a total renovation thanks to several serious roof leaks. Prior to the  Fox being saved, the area was once used as the management offices for the Georgia Theater Company with the odd areas being used for nothing more than a storage drop-off point.

An agreement that was drawn up that required Mr. Patten to use his own funds to convert the area into a multi-level 3,600 sq. ft. apartment. The agreement placed a minimum of expense at $50,000 with that amount being covered by Joe Patten himself, but it took almost double that amount with some funding coming from anonymous donors. The Fox’s Restoration Director, Rick Flinn, designed and supervised the renovations. With the move into the Fox Theatre, it was Joe's intention to live out the rest of his life in his Fox Theatre apartment.

In the 1980s, Lakeland Florida residents began to restore the Polk Theatre. The 1,400 seat theatre was built in 1928. Like the Atlanta Fox Theatre, the auditorium was createed in the atmospheric style to give the illusion of being outdoors in a renaissance revival style courtyard. The atmospheric theater has a mezzanine, a high balcony, a permanent backdrop of a "Venetian piazza," an orchestral pit, and terrazo floors. The blue ceiling features high twinkling stars with clouds. The air-conditioning system, one of the first in the nation, employs a pump that uses artesian well water to chill the building. The Atlanta Fox uses a similar water-based system.

During the 1960s and 1970s the Lakeland became an increasingly suburban town. The downtown district became less of a destination for shoppers and entertainment. Unlike most other movie palaces, the Polk managed to stay operational into the early 1980s, but at the same time, due to its age and the need for a complete restoration, The Polk was facing the threat of demolition. In 1982, a group of concerned citizens banded together to save the theatre from being razed due to low attendance. Local citizens formed a non-profit group that purchased the theatre for $300,000.

Joe became aware of the plight of the Polk and as he did with the Fox, he volunteered his services. Joe advised the Lakeland group on preserving the Polk Theatre, using the knowledge he gained from the East Point and Fox Theatres. He donated two film projectors he owned and personally installed them with the help of  Scott Hardin, the Fox Theatres projectionist. At the time this was written (2017) the projectors were still in use and the Polk is thriving.

Because of Joe's vast knowledge of the Fox and in his capacity as the Fox's Technical Director, he enjoyed free access to every part of the Fox. He knew many passageways not commonly known to even staff personnel. Joe could easily move from one part of the building to the other without notice. Joe could enjoy watching shows at the Fox from a former spotlight platform located in the highest point at the rear, house left side of the auditorium, just below the balcony canopy. He gained access to that platform through a stairway passage that could be accessed from his apartment.

The sound idea of having someone at the Fox proved to be invaluable in April of 1996, when a fire broke out in a retail space restaurant area. Joe smelled smoke and called the fire department before any alarm sounded in the building. The fire had started in an electrical junction box and destroyed the front left corner of the building that was occupied by a restaurant, Fox management offices, and the ticketing office. The fire consumed all of those spaces. Joe’s expertise and knowledge of the building was used to determine where firefighters needed to be placed inside the building to prevent the fire from spreading to other parts of the complex. The fire took several hours to extinguish. All told, it took nearly three millions dollars to repair the damage that the building suffered. Had Mr. Patten not been at the Fox, the entire building might have easily been destroyed beyond repair.

Joe Patten held the official position of the Fox Theatre Technical Director for thirty years, from 1974 until 2004, when he chose to go into semi-retirement. Despite his retirement, Joe remained on the Atlanta Landmark's Board of Directors as a technical advisor with full voting rights as a board member.

Joe also developed a deep love for airplanes and learned to fly, soloing in a Temco Swift aircraft that he had bought. This is somewhat unique, in that a Swift was considered a very difficult plane to fly for a novice pilot. Later he also acquired a Meyers 200, one of the most coveted single engine light aircraft of the day. One of the stories that was told at Joe’s memorial service was he was offered a Lockheed P-38 Lightning along with two new motors for it in a crate for a mere $50. Joe passed on it because he told this person he didn’t have anywhere to put it!

Following his early accomplishments with the Fox, Joe resurrected his automotive enthusiasm and began to collect many interesting acquisitions. He became enamored with the introduction of the modern edition of the Chevrolet Camaro and again, as a company car, bought his everyday 1971 Camaro from the company and over the years turned it into a real power house of a street machine. His good friend, Bradley Dennis, who had been a racing consultant for General Motors, installed a “detuned” 350 cubic inch L88 racing engine, acquired from the Daytona garage of legendary Henry “Smokey” Yunick. Other transformations were made to the chassis and suspension, which was outfitted with large stabilizer bars. It handled beautifully and Joe enjoyed driving it at rather ultra-high speeds along the expressways of a sprawling Atlanta.          

Eventually, he embarked on traveling the countryside and collecting classic cars. Among them, numerous sterling examples from Mercedes-Benz, Rolls Royce, and a couple of vintage Cadillacs. He would go on to drive his own cars to auto shows, once venturing as far as Pebble Beach, California. Mr. Patten regularly displayed his cars at many car events, two of which are a 1937 V-12 Rolls-Royce Phantom III with Mulliner Sedanca DeVille Coachwork (A Rolls Royce Phantom II with Park Ward coachwork was featured in the legendary James Bond film, Goldfinger) He owned a pair of black 1941 Cadillacs; both were “Sixty Specials”, a coupe and a sedan. Joe continued his lover of Mercedes Benz with various cars he used as his daily transportation. His last Mercedes he owned was a 1969 6.3 SL roadster.

In 1994, Joe shipped his Rolls Phantom back to England where he and his young nephew, Greg Patterson, participated in the Rolls Royce Round Britain Rally, sponsored by The Rolls Royce Enthusiasts Club, that celebrated the 90th anniversary of the car maker. While most participants only joined in for small sections of the tour, Joe and Greg took part in the entire rally that toured around the circumference of Britain, stopping at various places that were historically important to the marque. The entire tour took 21 days to complete. At the conclusion of the Rally, Joe's Phantom won the highly coveted Ble Rolls Royce Round Britain Rallyheim Trophy.

This is a video that was produced in 2008 documenting the 1994 Rolls Royce Round Britain Rally. It is about 50 minutes in length and has Joe talking about the trip to England in it. They humorously call him "Uncle Joe from the States".

At the time of his death, Joe still owned the Rolls, the two Cadillacs, and the Mercedes Roadster. While he was not able to drive in the last years of his life, Joe enjoyed having his friends drive him around in his cars. They were all regularly maintained meticulously for use up to the last two years of his life.

In 2010, at age 83, Mr. Patten was forced to wage his greatest preservation campaign on his own behalf: In old age, in a development that may properly be called Oedipal, he battled eviction at the hands of the very organization he had established.

Joe suffered a mild stroke due to complications from Type 1 diabetes that up til then, he had kept under great control. Fortunately, he did not suffer any long term ill effects from the stroke, however the incident became a point of contention that  members of the Fox staff and Atlanta Landmarks Board of Directors took advantage of by attempting to force Joe out of his home of over 30 years and into a structured care facility. This misguided action on part of Landmarks prompted a highly public scandal that resulted in a lawsuit and public protests to "Save the Phantom of the Fox."  

The ordeal quite literally broke Joe Patten’s heart and spirit. You could see how badly it upset Joe. At one point, Joe even publically said “I should have let the building burn down in 1996”.  An emergency ruling was asked for to keep Joe in his apartment. The judge ordered both sides into negotiations to work out a solution to the matter which did eventually led to an agreement that allowed Joe to remain in the apartment for the rest of his life.

There was some sense on both sides of the issue that a satisfactory agreement had been made, although what was agreed to was restrictive on what Joe could do. As time progressed, the Fox management began to ease up on some of those restrictions and gave Joe a bit more lattitude in what he could do. At the same time, they began to give Joe awards and tributes for his years of dedication to the Fox Theatre.

As far back as the 1980s, Joe's back began to give him problems. By 2011, it had turned into a serious mobilty issue for Joe. It was very hard for Joe to go up and down the stairs inside the apartment. Going outside via his private staircase entrance was even more daunting. More and more, Joe was being seen in a wheelchair being pushed around by his caregivers. Because of that and the Fox's restriction that prevented him from using the elevators inside the Fox, Joe got to a point he rarely left his apartment. He was a virtual prisoner due to his mobility issues inside his own home. Finally after the Fox's negative feelings for Joe began to be temptered, the Fox management eventually offered to let Joe use the elevator off the Salon and Ballroom, as long as it was pre-arranged and he was escorted by a member of the Fox staff. 

Another unreasonable restriction was placed upon Joe by Fox management was any person that was a current or past Fox employee had to be "pre-approved" by Fox management to visit Joe in the apartment. With Joe being involved with the Fox since the early 1960s, a majority of his friends were subject to that restriction. Compounding that was Joe's inability to easily leave and re-enter the apartment, so instead of Joe going to see friends, they had to go see Joe. In his latter days, Joe did not have many visitors mostly because of this restriction. While the agreement said "approved", it merely a politically correct phrase used to prevent people from visiting Joe. Fox Staff members were told not to have anything to do with Joe nor to even speak to him. Management even went so far to forbade the house organist, Larry Douglas Embury from visiting Joe despite Embury being a long time personal friend of Joe's. 

During the scandal, Joe took on a personal assistant to aid him with his daily routine. Several months later, the aid was joined by and eventually replaced with a person who had trained medical skills and began to act as a private caregiver, making sure his health was closely monitored.  While his mobility issues were becoming problematic, Joe's mind was as sharp as ever. He enjoyed listening to music, watching videos, and other diversions.

During the scandal, it was brought to my attention that Joe's audio equipement was in serious need of service. I introduced my friend, Steve Bringhurst to Joe because Steve is one of the most accomplished electronic technicians I know. Like Joe and I, Steve loves high fidelity audio and is in heaven when he is working with that type of equipment. By that time, Joe's retirement funds were very limited. It was deemed he could not afford to spend the money to have his high end audio equipment repaired. I approached Steve to see if he would be interested in helping out my friend Joe by seeing what he could do to repair his audio equipment. Steve, who is retired and lives in Jacksonville Alabama, gladly agreed to go see what he could do. I took Steve and his husband Pete Wentzel (who already knew Joe) to visit Joe at the apartment. When we got there, Joe was up in his "Music Room".  On a side wall, Joe has a display of several X-Ray tubes.  After saying hello, Steve looked down at the tubes and began to state which tube was what and how it worked. Joe was gobsmacked. He pointed to Steve in amazement and said; "You are the first person ever to correctly name and describe all those tubes!" They were instantly bonded together!!!

Steve Bringhurst in Joe's Music Room working on Joe's Audio System.
On the table are the two main McIntosh amplifiers.
Behind Steve is the rest of Joe's audio system. Besides the table is Joe's collection of X-Ray tubes.

As Steve tells it, Joe has simple taste. In the words of a Mercedes Benz commerical, Joe wants 'The Best or Nothing". Joe's main audio system was composed of McIntosh components. Long before Apple used the name McIntosh for their line of computers, there was (and still is) the McIntosh Audio Company. Most people are not aware of McIntosh because they make very esoteric and exclusive equipment that costs several thousands of dollars, even for their entry level equipment. You'll never see any McIntosh equipment at Best Buy or Target!!!  Joe's equipment was decades old  and while in good condition, is still capable of creating incredible sound, Joe's equipment had become long in tooth and in desperate need of a proper overhaul. I was stunned to hear how badly the equipment sounded. After much thought and discussion, Steve decided that he would set up a work bench in the Music Room and overhaul the audio system there with Joe looking on and assisting as he could.

The system in the Music Room was designed as a quadraphonic 4 speaker system. "Quadraphonic" or "Quad", as it was called, was developed in the mid-1970s and predates home theater sound systems by about 15-20 years.  Joe's system employed two McIntosh monophonic amplifieres for the front two channels and a lower powered two channel McIntosh amplifier for the rear "surround".  The first step was to overhaul the pre-amplifier, then Steve was able to get the rear amp going adequately in a short period of time. Steve then repurposed the rear channel amp for use as a stereo only system while he rebuild the two mono amps. Steve would visit Joe every Thursday to work on the system and his visits were very much looked forward to by Joe.

The Main Room's audio system was also in bad shape and no longer working. Joe had been using a pair of Altec Lansing theater amplifiers that were both broken. Steve made the decision they were not as valuable nor anywhere near as good as Joe's McIntosh equipment in the music room, so instead of repairing the two very large industrial-grade amplifiers, Steve brought some of his personal audio equipment over for Joe to use and left it there for the rest of Joe's life.

It took about two years for the main McIntosh audio system to be rebuilt. Neither Joe or Steve was in a real hurry to complete it and they both were having a very good time during it's overhaul. Finally the day came when the work was complete. Joe looked at Steve and asked him to please keep coming to see him. That was one thing Steve really wanted to do as well. The friendship only became stronger and stronger as Steve was the only person to go regularly to see Joe. Steve continued to visit Joe and was there when Joe passed on.

Steve Bringhurst (Left) and Joe Patten (Right) sitting in Joe's main room of his apartment.
Steve would come prepared with a list of videos to show Joe from the Internet.

Friends of the Fox gathered at Joe's apartment for our traditional Christmas Brunch in 2015.

L-R Standing; Hal Doby, Valerie Buckley (Joe's weekend caregiver), Beth Ruddiman, Riley and Paula Taylor, Robert Rivera (Joe's primary caregiver), Rob Woodyard, Ed Kuehn, Pete Wentzell. Seated L-R; Joe Patten, Steve Bringhurst

Elsewhere I talk about a volunteer group that was founded in 1980 called Friends of the Fox. It was a volunteer restoration group that performed projects at the Fox from 1981 until 1993. During that time, it grew to around 120 members, then at the conclusion of work at the Fox, it had dwindled down to around 25 people. A group of about 15 core members continue to get together for a quarterly Saturdy Brunch at various eateries in Atlanta. We invited Joe to join us in 2010, to which he gladly accepted the invitation. He would come with his friend Robert Foreman II or one of his caregivers on a regular basis. It was always a treat to have him with us and the restaurant staffs would be delighted to have him there as they treated him like a king!

As stated previously, the Fox's management's attitude towards Joe did eventually shift to a more pleasant and accomodating nature. The ice began to thaw when Joe was invited to the Fox Staff annual holiday party, something that had not been done for a number of years. They eventually bestowed awards upon Joe for his service and dedication to the Fox. I guess time does heal some wounds and makes the heart more fond of people. When the Fox held an outdoor block party to celebrate the 85th anniversary year of the building, Joe was in attendence and he was constantly greeted and thanked by many of the attendees.

In 2015, Joe’s journey into legend began as his medical needs steadily increased. Over the years, the part time caregiver became Joe’s full time primary caregiver. A secondary weekend person was added so Joe would have daily care. Over the last year of Joe's life, there was a visible change in Joe that signaled he was in his twilight. The sparkle was fading from his eyes. Memories of the past could no longer be recalled. Joe became more silent and became harder to be drawn into conversation. We were told by Joe's primary care giver he had told him that he was ready "to go".

Joe with his 89th Birthday Cake. Friends of the Fox Alumni threw an improptu birthday party for Joe in his apartment.
It was our last time with Joe.

During the last weekend of March, 2016, Joe suffered a seizure and was taken to Crawford Long / Emory Midtown Hospital. The doctors sedated Joe in order to prevent any discomfort. While sedated, Joe contracted pneumonia and was placed on a ventilator. On April 2nd, Joe suffered a stroke. It took several days for the doctors to realize the extent of the brain damage, which was determined to be catastrophic.

During Joe’s stay in the hospital, it was becoming evident that there was going to be only two possible outcomes from this health crisis. One was he would die. The second was the doctors would make the determination Joe was too infirm to return to his apartment and would need to live out his life in a nursing home. Joe's family and friends all agreed going into a nursing home was something Joe would not want. When the doctors informed the family of the severity of the stroke, it was quickly agreed that it would be Joe's wish to not prolong Joe’s life. The ventilator was removed at 4:30pm on Thursday, April 7th.  He was surrounded by his family, his two caregivers Robert and Valerie, and close friends including Steve Bringhurst and myself.  A CD of Cameron Carpenter's album Revolutionary was playing in the background as Joe peacefully breathed on his own for just over an hour before he took his last breath at 5:40pm. His passing was very peaceful and he did not suffer.

After Joe passed, the family and friends carried a collection of helium balloons that we sent to Joe while he was in the hospital to the gate of his apartment and released them into the heavens. After meeting with 11Alive TV's reporter, we all went down to the Varsity, one of Joe's favorite places to get food, to have chili dogs, chili burgers, onion rings, and frosted orange drinks in his honor. We all agreed that Joe would have loved that gesture.

In summary, let it be said that in his own words. “No one is indispensable.” However in the final analysis, it can easily be said that in this instance he is somewhat incorrect. If this amazing man had not been in the picture and a catalyst to rally the many hard working people who loyally contributed to a common cause in saving the Fox, the building would no longer be there to enjoy for generations to come.

As a postscript, a number of people have been asking what is to become of Joe's apartment and belongings? The new lease aggreement gave the family four months from the time of Joe's passing to remove his belongings from the apartment. His sister Patti kept as much of Joe's belongings that held importance of his life  and distributed within the family. Once everything was accounted for, the decision was made to liquidate the majority of Joe's furniture through an estate sale. Because the estate sale took some time to plan, the Fox staff generously allowed the family to have about two additional months to clear out the apartment. During that time, the Fox began to do work in the apartment, performing several maintenance tasks that had been put off while Joe was alive. Once the estate sale concluded in August, the apartment was emptied and given back to the Fox staff.

I have no idea what is to become of the space as that is up to Atlanta Landmarks. Because of it non-ADA compliant street entrance, Unless it is entered into from the Grand Salon, I do not see it being a public space, especially the upper floor where the music room, two full baths, and two bedrooms are. There was talk of using it as a Bridal Suite for newlyweds to use during marriage ceremonies held at the Fox.

Only time will tell.

Return to the Biographies Menu