This weekend, our wonderful students will be performing at The Fabulous Fox Theatre as part of our Destination Performance Series! As with all our destinations, the Fox has a long and fascinating history. Read on to learn more!
About the Fox Theatre
The Fox Theatre (often marketed as the Fabulous Fox), a former movie palace, is a performing arts venue located at 660 Peachtree Street NE in Midtown Atlanta, Georgia, and is the centerpiece of the Fox Theatre Historic District.
The theater was originally planned as part of a large Shrine Temple as evidenced by its Moorish design. The 4,665-seat auditorium was ultimately developed as a lavish movie theater in the Fox Theatres chain and opened in 1929. It hosts a variety of cultural and artistic events including the Atlanta Ballet, a summer film series, and performances by national touring companies of Broadway shows. The venue also hosts occasional concerts by popular artists.
When the Fox Theatre first opened, the local newspaper described it as having, “a picturesque and almost disturbing grandeur beyond imagination”. It remains a showplace that impresses theater-goers to this day. The principal architect of the project was Olivier Vinour of the firm Marye, Alger and Vinour.
The original architecture and décor of the Fox can be roughly divided into two architectural styles: Islamic architecture (building exterior, auditorium, Grand Salon, mezzanine Gentlemen’s Lounge and lower Ladies Lounge) and Egyptian architecture (Egyptian Ballroom, mezzanine Ladies Lounge and lower Gentlemen’s Lounge).
Originally designed as the Yaarab Shrine Temple, the headquarters for a 5,000-member Shriners organization, the $2.75 million project exceeded the Shriners’ budget, so they leased the auditorium to movie mogul William Fox, who was building theaters around the country at the time. The theater opened on December 25, 1929, just two months after the stock market crash. A week later, on New Year’s Day, the Shriners inaugurated their new “mosque” in their part of the building, which contained executive offices, a large lounge, a ballroom/banquet hall, kitchen, practice hall, and locker-shower room. Under the terms of the lease, they remained as paying tenants until 1949.
According to the National Park Service, “the Fox Theatre closed only 125 weeks after it opened. Members of the Yaarab Temple could not meet their [mortgage payments], and by 1932, William Fox was bankrupt.” After the mortgage was foreclosed in December 1932, the entire complex was purchased jointly by Paramount Pictures and Lucas & Jenkins, a Georgia company that owned a hundred theatres.
In 1939, the movie most associated with Atlanta and the South, Gone with the Wind, premiered at the now-demolished Loew’s Grand Theatre rather than the Fox. Although GWTW was produced by Selznick International, it was distributed by Loew’s Incorporated as part of a deal with rival studio Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. The parade down Peachtree Street for the movie’s premier coincidentally started just outside the Fox because the movie’s cast was staying across the street at the Georgian Terrace Hotel.
During the 1940s, the Fox acquired strong management and became one of the finest movie theaters in Atlanta. It was also at this time that the Egyptian Ballroom became Atlanta’s most popular public dance hall and hosted all the important big bands and country and western swing bands of the era. It was notable at that time for being the only theater in Atlanta allowing both white and black patrons. However, there was a separate black box office, entrance, and seating; the segregation wall in the middle of the second dress seating still remains, and the “colored” box office window stands unused at the back entrance. These are left in place for educational and historical purposes. The theater was integrated in 1962.
During the 1970s, several elements collided to bring about the Fox’s decline – white flight, the rise of suburban multiplex theaters, and changes in how films were distributed. In 1974, Southern Bell, the regional arm of AT&T, approached the owners of the theater with an offer to buy and with the intent of tearing it down and building the parking deck for a new headquarters on the site.
Saving The Fox
A group was formed to save the theater and it was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in May 1974. The ensuing public outcry and massive campaign, including such entertainers as Liberace and Lynyrd Skynyrd (recording their first live album there and debuting guitarist Ed King’s replacement, Steve Gaines, to the world), among other celebrities, resulted in the city refusing to issue a demolition permit. Ultimately, a complicated deal was brokered that prevented the Fox’s demolition. The Southern Bell Building (now AT&T Midtown Center) was built on land adjacent to the theater on the building’s west side in conjunction with the construction of the North Avenue MARTA station, with its parking deck built on the north end of the property at the corner of West Peachtree and 3rd streets. The U.S. Department of the Interior subsequently named the Fox a National Historic Landmark on May 26, 1976, citing its architectural uniqueness.
After the Fox was saved from demolition, a lengthy and expensive restoration process began. Much of the original décor had survived and new pieces were created with the help of old photographs. Today, the Fox appears much as it did when it opened, with some additions that were in the original plans but had to be scrapped in the 1920s due to financial constraints. Other changes have been made to bring the building up to current safety codes.
The Fox is now the only remaining movie palace in Atlanta. The Loew’s Grand, Martin Cinerama, Georgia Cinerama, Paramount Theater, and the Roxy Theater, all once-famous Atlanta movie palaces, are gone, and others that opened in the 1960s have since been converted to multiplexes. The Fox Theatre, now run under the non-profit Atlanta Landmarks, Inc., hosts a multitude of cultural and artistic events, including the Atlanta Ballet’s annual Nutcracker performances, a summer film series, and performances for various national touring companies of Broadway shows. Because of its origins as a movie house, the Fox has a shallow stage by theatrical standards and is unable—without extensive but temporary alterations—to accommodate some of the set pieces required by modern large-scale shows such as The Lion King and Miss Saigon.
In June 2006, the theater installed a $130,000 digital cinema video projection system, which debuted with a showing of The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe on June 26, part of the Summer Film Festival. The sing-alongs that precede each feature are still shown by the Brenograph Movie projector which was installed in 1929.
The Egyptian Ballroom and the Grand Salon are rented regularly for corporate and private functions, including banquets, fundraisers, weddings, trade shows and conventions. They are also both popular spots for proms for many area high schools. Notably, Oxford College of Emory University hosts its annual Fall Formal in the Egyptian Ballroom.
Every year since Atlanta Landmarks assumed management in 1975, the Fox has generated an operating surplus. An estimated 750,000 people visit the Fox every year.
The venue was the site of Prince’s final performance, held one week before his death on April 21, 2016. In May 2017, Aquarium Rescue Unit frontman Col. Bruce Hampton died after collapsing onstage at the Fox during a concert celebrating his 70th birthday.
Elvis Presley played at the Fox Theatre in 1956, Bruce Springsteen played it in 1976, 1978 and 1996, Bob Marley and the Wailers performed there on December 12, 1979, in support of his Survival Tour and Pearl Jam played there in 1994. Georgia musicians the Allman Brothers played at the Fox Theatre in 1980, Ray Charles in 1983, James Brown in 1985, R.E.M. in 1989, the B-52’s in 1989, the Black Crowes in 1992, Alan Jackson in 1992, Widespread Panic in 1993, Collective Soul in 1996, Outkast in 2001, the Zac Brown Band in 2009 (released on the live album Pass the Jar), Mastodon in 2017, Manchester Orchestra in 2018, and Monica in 2019.
The Mighty Mo
The Fox features a four manual (or keyboard) 42-rank pipe organ nicknamed the “Mighty Mo”. It was custom built for the Fox by M. P. Möller, Inc. in 1929 in Hagerstown, Maryland. With 3,622 pipes, it is the second-largest theater organ in the country, behind the Wurlitzer at Radio City Music Hall in New York City and was the largest theater instrument built by Möller.
As a true theater organ, as opposed to a church organ, Mighty Mo boasts pipes that range in size from 32 feet (nearly 10 meters) tall to the size of a small ballpoint pen, and is designed to imitate the sounds of a full orchestra. Besides the pipes, it also contains a marimba, xylophone, glockenspiel, drums, sleigh bells, a gong, and even a six-foot (1.8m) grand piano (originally from the Kilgen organ in Chicago’s Piccadilly Theatre); plus a large variety of silent movie sound effects (such as various car horns, thunder and rain effects, bird whistles, etc.). The organ is remarkable for a theater organ because it also includes 12 ranks of pipes for a church organ, known as the “Ethereal” division. Thus the organ can be played as a church organ as well as a theater organ. It is noteworthy that the Mighty Mo is among the shrinking list of instruments which remain installed in the theaters for which they were designed.
Larry Douglas Embury was the theater’s permanent Organist in Residence from 2002 until his death in February 2016. In that capacity he presided over the Mighty Mo in performances during the Fox’s summer film festival and the Atlanta Ballet’s annual production of The Nutcracker. In September 2002, he hosted “Fox at the Fox,” a concert commemorating the twenty-second anniversary of the death of the great concert organist, Virgil Fox. Fox had played a famous series of “Fox at the Fox” concerts on the Mighty Mo at the Fox Theatre in the 1970s.
The Egyptian Ballroom
The 4,665-seat auditorium, which was designed for movies and live performances, replicates an Arabian courtyard, complete with 96 embedded crystal “stars” (a third of which flicker) in its ceiling and a projection of clouds that slowly drift across this “night sky.” A longstanding rumor that one of the stars was a piece of a Coca-Cola bottle was confirmed in June 2010 when two members of the theater’s restoration staff conducted a search from within the attic above the auditorium ceiling. 
The Egyptian Ballroom is designed after a temple for Ramses II at Karnak while the mezzanine Ladies Lounge features a replica of the throne chair of King Tut and makeup tables that feature tiny Sphinxes. The Islamic sections feature a number of ablution fountains, which are currently kept dry.
Throughout the Fox there is extensive use of trompe-l’œil; “wooden” beams are actually plaster, paint that appears gold leaf is not, areas are painted and lit to appear to receive outside lighting, ornate fireplaces were never designed to have working chimneys, and what appears to be a giant Bedouin canopy in the auditorium is plaster and steel rods designed to help funnel sound to the farthest balcony.
1. “National Register Information System”. National Register of Historic Places. National Park Service. January 23, 2007.
2. “Fox Theatre (Atlanta)”. National Historic Landmark summary listing. National Park Service. Archived from the original on October 4, 2012. Retrieved June 21, 2008.
(See also: site search results, and “Fox Theatre–Atlanta” page on www.nps.gov)
3. Swartz, Kristi E. (July 2, 2010). “Myth no more: Coca-Cola bottle part of Fox Theatre’s starlit sky”. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
4. “Fox Theatre”. National Park Service. Retrieved October 26, 2018.
5. Foreman, Bob. “Joe Patten’s Fox Theatre Apartment”. Retrieved October 26, 2018.
6. Jean-Laurent, Annabella (August 20, 2014). “Traces of the Past: Segregation at the Fox Theatre”.
7. “NHL nomination for Fox Theatre”. National Park Service. January 28, 1976. Retrieved December 20, 2015.
8. “Prince’s final concert was in Atlanta”. WSB News. April 21, 2016. Retrieved September 19, 2020.
9. Mele, Christopher; Stevens, Matt (May 2, 2017). “Bruce Hampton, 70, Jam Scene Patriarch, Dies After Collapsing Onstage”. The New York Times. Retrieved April 22, 2019.
10. “Larry Douglas Embury Bio” Archived April 22, 2017, at the Wayback Machine Duoarts2.com
11. “Larry Embury at Fox” (PDF). The Organizer (November 2002). Archived from the original (PDF) on December 29, 2009.
12. “Fox at the Fox” program, September 2, 2002.
13. “Fox Theatre (Atlanta)”, Wikipedia