TONY BENNETT, impeccable as always in a navy suit with a natty red pocket square, paused in the middle of his four encores and held out his hand, signaling his quartet to give him a moment.
“I tour all over the world,” he told the crowd at the Fox Theatre that November night in 2011. “All the new theaters, they look like file cabinets. You have one of the world’s greatest theaters. You are so fortunate to have this theater.”
The crowd roared with agreement. The stars twinkled overhead in the deep blue ceiling, just as they do for everything that plays at the Fox, from movies to rock concerts to opera to Broadway shows to presidential debates.
Opened in 1929, nearly demolished and dramatically rescued in the the 1970s, the Fox Theatre has been on a roll as it nears its official 85th birthday this year, piling up accolades from the entertainment and venue industries that signal what a unique treasure towers over the corner of Peachtree and Ponce. Not just unique to Atlanta, but nationally.
Honors and awards
The League of Historic American Theatres gave its Outstanding Historic Theatre Award to the Fox in 2011. “In our world, the world of historic theaters, the Fox is not just seen as a large historic theater but as a leader in preservation efforts,” says Ken Stein, League director. “The Fox is one of the finest examples of a well-preserved and well-managed theater in the nation. It really is an extraordinary facility.”
The Fox was named the No. 1 non-residency venue for the decade (5,000 seats or less) by Billboard magazine in 2009, and Top Stop of the Decade by the industry journal Venues Today; both awards were for the sheer volume of annual tickets sales at the Fox, leaving aside its aesthetics and ongoing commitment to preservation.
But even so, David Brooks, Venues Today managing editor, waxes eloquent about more than just boffo box office in talking about the Fox. “The Fox Theatre is in a rare and enviable position to be one of the few must-play venues in North America,” Brooks says. “For many artists, an event at the Fox Theatre is a milestone in their career, and the theater’s reputation for quality production and artistic integrity continues to impress top-level music executives.”
All this is even more surprising in a city frequently known for tearing things down, from the storied Loew’s Grand Theater that saw the world premiere of Gone With the Wind to the upcoming demolition of the 20-year-old Georgia Dome to make way for a new stadium.
“Eighty-five years later, we’re still relevant,” says Allan C. Vella, president and CEO of the Fox.
Actually, more than relevant. “This theater has such a personal connection with the population of Atlanta,” Vella says. “They’ll tell you that their grandparents met in a balcony at a movie and had their first kiss here. They’ll tell you about when we were threatened and they participated in a car wash or a penny-saving campaign to save the Fox.”
Feeding both national and local esteem for the Fox is its well-chronicled, legendary story of birth, decline and rebirth.
The Atlanta Journal referred to the Fox’s “almost disturbing grandeur” when it opened in 1929, a reference to its elaborate architecture and interior design, which blends Moorish and Egyptian motifs. Originally planned and built by the Atlanta Shriners, it was completed (and named) by movie mogul William Fox (who also founded the company now called 20th Century Fox). Although Fox went bankrupt and sold the theater in 1932, it continued as a movie palace and home to annual visits from the Metropolitan Opera for decades.
Going, going …
Numerous societal changes caused the neglected and rundown theater to close in 1974, and demolition crews were warming up when the dramatic Save the Fox campaign captured the city’s imagination, and acts from Liberace to Lynyrd Skynyrd, as well as thousands of fans, pitched in to rescue the building and preserve it as a nonprofit.
“Wow, what if they had torn this place down?” comedian Jeff Foxworthy says on the 2004 Georgia Public Broadcasting documentary The Fabulous Fox. “What a shame, what an absolute shame, because not only the sense of history, but just everything that’s happened from ’76 up till now, how many great things this city would have missed because this theater wasn’t here.”
CEO Vella is proud of the national awards, but he also knows the Fox makes connections with people who are not aware of such honors. “I love watching when that little girl comes into the Fox for the first time to see her first Broadway show,” he says, “and she’s wearing patent leather shoes and a red velvet dress. And she stops at the door and looks around, because she’s never really seen anything quite like this.”
Phil Kloer has written extensively about theater and popular culture in Atlanta for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and tArtsATL.com. His first Fox show was a Rossington-Collins Band rock concert in 1980; his most recent was “The Book of Mormon.”