Considering my proximity to Hollywood, and my work in early Los Angeles history, I should know more about the stunning movie palaces of the 1920s and 1930s.
Ha! One would think.
But on the optimistic side, at least acknowledging I know Jack Diddly about movie palaces reiterates there is always something to learn. And learn I did when I went on a field trip to the historic Fox Theater in Atlanta. I’m in town for the annual American Alliance of Museums Conference, and the Fox field trip was offered as an optional excursion.
One I almost didn’t make, by the way, because I mis-read the excursion start time, so I was running (literally – down the street) late. But I made it, and am I thrilled I did.
Because the Fox is quite unassuming from the outside… Two domed minarets flank a castellated gable, and on one tower hangs the electric “Fox” marquee. But take the first step into the entrance loggia, and you’ll have to remind yourself over and over again to close your mouth. Because from that first step you are entering the glamorous world of 1920s Art Deco inspired by ancient Turkey and Egypt.
A choice made when the Fox was first built. Or I should say: when planning for the Fox started, back in 1922. The Atlanta Chapter of the Shriner’s organization – a sub-group of the Freemasons – known as the Yaraab Temple had purchased the plot of land where the Fox currently stands so they could build a new mosque and meetinghouse for their growing society.
During the planning sessions for the new building, the Shriner’s decided to include a playhouse. They could rent it out to keep money coming in, and provide the community a theatre venue in what they already knew would be a spectacular space.
Deals were signed; funds were raised; and construction started in June 1928. The architects – from the firm Marye, Alger, and Vinour – kept with the Shriner’s Muslim influence by designing a structure modeled on a Middle Eastern mosque with added Art Deco flourishes.
Turkey, the Holy Land, and African Nubia were all inspirations, as was the decidedly non-Islamic Ancient Egypt. But in 1922, a relatively unknown archaeologist named Howard Carter discovered King Tut’s tomb, and the whole world went Ancient Egypt crazy. The architects capitalized on that interest by incorporating Egyptian tomb wall motifs, hieroglyphs, and statuary in the structure.
But while construction progressed, the Shriner’s quickly came to a horrifying realization: they were going to run out of money. And the building wasn’t even half-finished.
Enter William Fox. Founder of Fox Films (today’s 20th Century Fox), Fox had plans to build exotic movie palaces all across the country to cement his growing empire, and Atlanta was on the list. Fox approached the Shriner’s and offered to sign a 21-year lease for the theatre. The Shriner’s accepted, and they finished the building in time for the theatre’s doors to open in December 1929. The Shriner’s had a sweet deal too, since they got to keep their meetinghouse rooms and offices.
A sweet deal that quickly turned sour. By 1932, William Fox was flat broke, and he sold off all his business interests when he filed for bankruptcy. The movie palace closed. And it had only been open for 2 years.
The Fox changed hands several times until a group of theatre owners incorporated as Mosque, Inc., took over and used the Grand Egyptian Ballroom (a Shriner’s meeting hall) as a space for concerts and performances.
As for the Shriner’s, they were allowed to stay on as tenants of the Fox Theatre until the late 1940s when Mosque, Inc., finally kicked them out. Mosque, Inc., itself pulled out in the 1960s when the appeal of the formal movie palace faded, and the Fox changed hands again until it was fully closed in the 1970s.
Not that it would stay closed forever. Save the Fox started in 1974. And today the historic theatre is a venue for Broadway productions while the Shriner’s former spaces, like the Egyptian Ballroom, are used for special events.
A good thing too since complete abandonment of the Fox Theatre would be a travesty. The gorgeously appointed building with its Moorish archways, elaborate grillwork, leaded glass lamps, painted tile facades, and rich, velvety feel bespeaks comfortable and understated luxury.
But the room with it all is definitely the main theatre. Flanking each side of the massive stage is a mock Middle Eastern town façade. With fake stone walls, castellated parapets, domed towers, and columned balconies, the look instantly reminded me of the Disney animated film, Aladdin. An illusion only reinforced by the massive proscenium arch over the top of the stage, itself fronted with columns and capped by wrought iron lanterns.
Above – a cobalt-blue sky shimmering with stars. No, seriously. The ceiling is painted a glowing blue with white twinkles of paint reflecting stars. Taking a seat inside this massively large theater feels like sitting outside on a quiet evening in the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, complete with circulated breezes of cold air.
Yep, the Fox Theatre had air-conditioning. A full 5 years before the White House had it.
And it goes on and on! The entire complex is huge, with ladies and gentlemen lounges, galleries, ballrooms, offices, suites, and dressing rooms, not to mention outdoor terraces and gardens. Good thing we had a guide: I would still be trying to find my way out. And everyone from the most famous celebrities to British royalty to the American presidents passed through the Fox’s elaborately decorated doors, making it THE hotspot of the South…
Okay, I made that up, but I don’t know of any other site that hosted Elvis Presley, Bob Hope, Liza Minnelli, Whoopi Goldberg, Prince Charles, and former President Jimmy Carter, to name only a tiny, tiny, tiny fraction.
Trust me. I know. I saw the hallway of portraits. Hundreds of famous visitors. Hundreds.
Such history really is a priceless treasure. There is no way to experience the past than to be surrounded by it, and immersed in it. Only then can we really see and understand what defines us, and what came before us.
And remember it.