The Fox Theatre is truly a marvel of the early Twentieth Century. The amazing technologies of the day were used to maximum effect to create a fantastical place that rivaled even the wildest imagination. Movie palaces like the Fox were once considered to be the jewelboxes of architecture, but over time they lost their "shine" and then became percieved as proverbial white elephants to their owners and communities. In the 1950s, the palaces had truly lost their appeal and the decision was made to get rid of them. Sadly, the palaces lived in dense cities clusters where the property they sat on was usually much more valuable than the palaces themselves. Fortunately, the Atlatna Fox Theatre was not located on prime downtown real estate unlike other Atlanta movie palaces. That delayed the prospect of its destruction by at least a decade, but eventually it did. It quite nearly succumb to the wrecking ball had it not been for the actions of the concerned citizens of Atlanta that loved the Fox so much.
What is a Movie Palace? Today, the term is used liberally to describe any old movie theater that had any sort of ornamentation. In the early twentieth century, the term was used to describe huge cinemas that usually seated 2,000 or more patrons in a building that was lavishly decorated, usually in the gaudy over the top European Palacial style. There were a few expections to that and the Atlanta Fox Theatre is certainly one of those. During their heyday there were over 4,000 true movie palaces that were situated in the dense metropolitan cities of America. After World War II, people began to leave the cities for life in suburbia. A major effect of this was that after work, people would choose to quickly leave for their suburban homes and not stay in the city after work. This took a huge toll on the movie palaces as they quickly began to loose massive amounts of money. Prior to the 1950s, the movie studios owned or cotnrolled most of the cinemas in the United States. The movie palaces were certainly the crown jewels in their portfolios and what losses they incurred were made up by the profits of the much smaller, more efficient, and very simple decorated suburbian cinemas. In the late 1940s, the Supreme Court deemed the movie studios ownership and control of cinemas to be monopolistic in the famous "Paramount Decree". The court forced the movie studios to sell off their cinemas in order to terminate what was called "Vertical Integration". Once the cinema chains were owned by smaller entities driven to generate profits from their investments, swift moves were made to cut expenses and make their theater chains more profitable. Usually the first things to go were the movie palaces. In under a decade, the number of movie palaces plummeted from over 4,000 to well under 500. That trend continued well into the 1970s, leaving fewer than 150.
Since the 1970s, there has been a revival of the great movie houses. A movement begun to restore not only the movie palaces, but smaller "community" cinemas that were once important social centers for their communities. But by the time people began to recognize the historical importance of the uniquely American Movie Palaces, only a precious few remained.
When you tour a movie palace, it is very important to look at it from the perspective of back when the Palaces were built.Movie Palace existed for three purposes:
The first was to allow the film exhibitor to show as many people a single performance in order to maximize profit. When motion pictures debuted in America, the most popular method of viewing these very short films was by a device called a Nickelodeon, developed by Thomas Edison's company. A person dropped a nickel into the boxed contraption and looked into a viewer. Only one person could look at a time. Pretty soon, large halls of Nickelodeons were popping up all over America. This required a number of machines that required a lot of maintenance plus they required one film for each machine. In Europe, usings a single projector to show a single film to an audience was adopted. It took little thought to realise this was a much better way to exhibit films. The larger the audience, the more profit was to be had. At it's zenith, there were movie palaces that seated over 7,000 patrons.
The second purpose was to boost their master's egos. Nearly all the original movie moguls were originally impovrished immigrants from Europe. They were self-made men and started with nothing and in a short time, their hard work and determination had made them millionaires. The well established upper societies looked down at these people (The Neuvo-Riche) and considered the "Flickers" to be nothing more than low-brow entertainments for the lower classes. The film moguls wanted the perception of their film industry to be elevated from Nickelodeon status to an acceptable artistic form. It was thought by placing motion pictures into highly luxurious surroundings and giving their presentation the same treatment as the established fine performing arts, this would do much to improve its reputation.Finally the movie palaces provided a magical escape for its patrons. Movie exhibitors lured their patrons into their palaces under the premise that they would be literally be transported away from their hard existance for a few hours of relief. They would be treated as royalty and the well-to-do upper class. The moment they stepped into a movie palace, they could forget the strife that lie outside its doors and enjoy a pampered existence of being in a magical kingdom. The concept certainly worked as the palaces were insanely popular.
The Atlanta Fox Theatre is what I call a reluctant movie palace. When it was originally concieved, it was not intended to be movie palace at all. It was originally envisioned to be the headquarters for the Ancient Arabic Order of the Nobels of the Mystic Shrine, known today as simply the Shriners. The Atlanta Shrine Mosque was designed to be one of the largest, if not the largest, Shrine Mosque in the world at the time. As part of that, the Shriners wanted to have an auditorium large enough to hold the entire local membership for meetings. Since the entire membership would only meet a few times a year, it was envisioned that the auditorium could serve a second purpose as a civic auditorium for the citizens of Atlanta to enjoy. At that time, Atlanta's Municipal Auditorium was already open for business, but it was more suited for such things as circuses, rodeos, livestock or farm shows, and wrestling matches. Atlanta did not have a refined civic auditorium that could seat over 2,000 for such entertainments as opera, ballet, choral or symphonic performances. The Shriner's auditorium was envisioned from the start to serve that purpose. Keep in mind that the Shrine organization was extremely popular and a good number of its memebers were some of the most influential politicials, movers and shakers of Atlanta. The group was extremely community minded and saw the idea of a huge civic auditorium as something that would benefit the City of Atlanta.
As they developed their plans of building their "Mosque" as they called it, it continually became more elaborate and more expensive. The Shriners demanded a building that would "Out Baghdad, Baghdad" with no real consideration to its cost. However, as the Mosque went from an idea, to concept, to reality, the costs to construct the building continued to escalate to a point where it was unrealistic. One of the methods employed to manage that expense led to the Shriners leasing the auditorium for use as a motion picture cinema. When he heard about this, William Fox was highly interested to add the Auditorium to it's Fox Theater cinema chain. In the minds of the Shriners, this was a win-win scenario as with a long term lease in hand, it could be used to show the group had a dependable income in order for them to aquire a mortgage to complete the building project.
Shortly after construction commenced in 1928, they realized there was still not enough money to complete the building as it was designed. The new lease agreement required the auditorium to be operable by January 1, 1930. Due to that, they were forced to make major cuts from the building plans which caused portions of the Shriner's portion of the building to not be constructed as they wanted it to be. Incredible as it may sound, the portion of the complex facing Peachtree Street was envisioned to be temporary. It was planned to be partially demolished and rebuilt as originally planned once the mortgage was paid off. Thanks to the ravages of the Great Depression, not only were their future plans never realized, but the Shriners lost ownership of the building at the depth of the Depression in 1932. Also due to the destructive effect the stock market crash effected William Fox and the Fox Studios, Mr. Fox was removed as the corporation's head early in 1930, then the lease of the Atlanta Fox, along with many other Fox Theaters, was handed over to one of its largest creditors, Loew's Inc. While it retained the Fox name, it was only a true Fox Theater for less than eight months!
This virtual tour covers a lot of territory, some of which today is no longer accessible to the public under any circumstances. During my tenure with at the Fox between 1976 and 1992, I often carried my trusty Canon AE-1 and A-1 cameras with me most of the time to document various restoration projects and the various areas of the Fox I worked in. During that time I had access to the working regions of the Fox complex. In 2004, I returned to the Fox when I began a one year involvement with the Atlanta Preservation Center as a tour guide of the building. During that time, I was able to get some spectacular and much-improved images with my Professional Canon EOS Digital cameras. I am very proud to say the vast majority of images I am using for the tour are images that I shot.
I am dividing the tour into segments that coincide with the different sections of the Fox. The first segment of the tour is of its exterior. The next segments of the tour are what you would see on a walking tour of the Fox. During my tenure at the Fox, this is what was often referred to as a "Beauty Tour" since it presents most of the areas the general pubic sees when they visit the Fox for an event. In addition to the Auditorium, this includes the Egyptian Ballroom and Grand Salon. The final segment of the tour delves behind the scenes to the non-public areas the public never sees and showcases some of the technical aspects of what makes the Fox the wonder it is.
In addition, I am now able to present a tour of a most special portion of the Fox. During the time the Shriners occupied the Fox to around 1939, there was a section of the building deemed to be the business offices of the Shrine Potentate and his Recorder. By the time Atlanta Landmarks took ownership of the Fox, this space had become practically un-usable. In 1980, this area was renovated and converted into the personal living space for Mr. Joe Patten, the one man most singularly responsible for saving the Fox Theatre even before there was talk of a wrecking ball touching it's walls. Mr. Patten lived in the apartment from 1981 to the time of his death in 2016. Mr. Bob Foreman III and myself have photographed the apartment during the lasts years Mr. Patten was alive and we can now present this as part of my tour as I felt since it was Joe's personal living space, it was not appropriate while he was alive or lived there.
This virtual tour is composed of information I learned from my research of the Fox along with the experiences I had during my 17 years of service at the Fox working there as both a volunteer and member of the paid staff in addition to my brief time with the Atlanta Preservation Center. Other information was had through connversations with people involved with the Fox that include Joe Patten, Rick Flinn, John McCall, Bob Foreman III, and many others.
Lastly more information, including some historical photos were gathered by Janice McDonald during her research phase of writing the book: Images of America: Fox Theatre. This book is now available from local Atlanta retailers where books of local interest are sold, Barnes and Nobles Booksellers, and Amazon.com. Ms. McDonald graciously presented these photos to me to share with you on this site.
This section of my Fox tribute website was originally posted in 1996 and has been in continual revision ever since. I hope you enjoy it.