Atlanta’s Fox Theatre turns 80 this Christmas. The story of its birth, near death and phenomenal theatrical history is chronicled in The Fox Theatre — Atlanta: The Memory Maker, now on sale in the lobby before and after performances. Here is an excerpt from Part One: The Origins.
In 1922, a parcel of land along Peachtree Street between Kimball Street and Ponce de Leon Avenue was purchased by the Yaarab Shrine of Atlanta, a fraternal subset of the Masons, formerly known as the Ancient Arabic Order of the Nobles of the Mystic Shrine, and informally known as the Shriners. The group had outgrown their headquarters at Peachtree and Cain streets (now International Boulevard) and intended to build a Yaarab Temple Mosque where they could hold meetings, social gatherings, and fundraising events. To offset costs, the mosque would also be able to host concerts, plays, and events for the citizens of Atlanta.
The Shriners envisioned a facility with room for 7,500 people, several club and lounge rooms, a reading room and library, soundproof practice rooms, storage, a kitchen, office space, ballrooms, and more. Within a month of initiating a $1 million fund-raising campaign in 1925, the Shriners had met their goal.
The Shriners held an architectural competition in 1927 and the winning design came from local architectural firm Marye, Alger & Vinour. Thirty-year-old Frenchman Ollivier Vinour became the mosque’s principal designer. Vinour drew inspiration from the Middle Eastern theme of Shriner rituals and symbolism, as well as his travels to Africa, and postcards and lithographs from Egypt, Sudan, Spain, and the Middle East.
Vinour’s designs exceeded the Shriners’ wildest imagination, but it was expensive to realize. The cornerstone for the Yaarab Temple Mosque was laid on June 14, 1928. Six months later, the Shriners ran out of money.
Afraid they wouldn’t have enough money to build the mosque, the Shriners added a row of “temporary” storefronts to the Peachtree Street side and gave movie palace mogul William Fox a 21-year lease they hoped would cover operating expenses. As part of their arrangement, they renamed the mosque the Fox Theatre and moved the main entrance to Peachtree Street, converting what was intended to be a ballroom into a 140-foot-long covered arcade.
William Fox’s Movie Palace
William Fox intended Atlanta’s Fox Theatre to be the Southeastern jewel in a crown of theatres he operated from San Francisco to Brooklyn. When he signed the 21-year lease in 1928, he was on top of the world.
Unfortunately, 1929 was a very difficult year. First, the Justice Department sued Fox for violating federal antitrust laws for his intent to merge the Fox and Loew’s theatre chains. Then, he was involved in a serious car accident. He recovered to find that the stock market crash had wiped out most of his financial holdings, dashing any hopes of expanding his film empire. Two months later, the Fox Theatre in Atlanta opened.
The exterior was reminiscent of the skyline of a Moorish village with onion domes, ornate arches, and minarets. But what lay inside was even more magnificent. A writer from the Atlanta Journal called it a “holiday gift from the gods of entertainment to Atlanta and the Southeast,” and warned, “don’t go unprepared for the shock.”
Opening day celebrations were scheduled for December 25, 1929. Two shows were advertised: the first at 1:30 p.m. and the second at 8:30 p.m. Each show lasted for several hours and featured Iris Wilkins on organ, the Fox Grand Orchestra playing Sir Edward Elgar’s “This Shrine of Beauty,” Walt Disney’s cartoon Steamboat Willie, a singalong, Fanchon and Marco’s Sunkist Beauties (called “two carloads of feminine pulchritude” by the Atlanta Constitution), Fox Movietone News, and the film Salute, which starred George O’Brien, Helen Chandler, and Stepin Fetchit.
“It makes no difference whether you have been in the Roxy or Paramount in New York or not,” wrote an Atlanta Journal reporter. “If you have seen a moon somewhere, that wouldn’t make you indifferent to your first glimpse of the sun … For this Fox Theatre, in the simplest and least patriotic terms possible, is a bewildering spectacle of sheer opulent magnificence.”
For more information, visit foxtheatre.org.