Most of these theaters were grand and copious enough to qualify as palaces; some were even atmospheric. More than half survived the ravages of the nineteen seventies, when the wrecking ball, the architectural equivalent of the guillotine, snugged up under many a darkened marquee. During that period I briefly struggled to keep alive another movie palace, the St. George Theatre, 2,672 seats on Staten Island’s north shore, another story, the basis for this blog and the book that will eventually stand behind it. Meanwhile, back to the Foxes.
A friend writes that he has now visited two of what he considers the big three Fox theaters: Atlanta, St.Louis and Detroit. He’s thinking of major Fox theaters still standing. From another perspective, there are five “sister” Foxes, all linked by their designer, C. Howard Crane, which would make an entirely different list (Brooklyn, Atlanta, San Francisco and Detroit), but alas, glorious as they all were, two of them no longer stand. The Brooklyn Fox went down long ago to make way for a Con Edison building, and the San Francisco Fox was demolished after a gala last-night “party,” movingly described in a video that includes a lavish tour of the doomed house; the video takes you all the way to the wrecking ball phase, if you can stand to watch it.
I’m choosing to stick with my friend’s picks, the three major Foxes that survived. So here, for your pleasure, are: the Atlanta, the St. Louis and the Detroit Fox(es), past and present. Long may they stand, as they have so far, miraculously.
While a lot of movie palaces have ended up as temples or churches, The Atlanta Fox actually started out as one; a temple for a fraternal group, the Shriners. Back in the waning glory days of the 1920’s, the Shriners broke ground to build a lavish temple/HQ in Atlanta, but their dream was too elaborate for them to afford. Enter William Fox, who plugged in the additional bucks to finish the project, opening the Fox as a full-blown movie palace on December 25, 1929, a little less than two months after Wall Street, according to the famous Variety headline, laid “an egg.” (The egg that Wall Street laid would end William Fox’s empire, which has a lot to do with the fates of all the Foxes, from Amarillo to Witchita).
The Fox bankruptcy (Fox stock plummeted from $119 a share to $1 after the Crash) pitched ownership of the lavish Moorish/Egyptian atmospheric back onto the city of Atlanta, which auctioned it off for a paltry $75,000, not much for something that took $2.75 million to build. But the movies, and traveling live shows, not to mention big bands, were how a lot of people got through the Depression; so the theater did just fine then and afterwards, until the nineteen seventies when, like so many other single-screen theaters, the bottom fell out.
In 1974, Southern Bell, the regional arm of AT&T, approached the owners of the theater with an offer to buy, with the intent of tearing the theater down to build the parking deck for a new headquarters on the site; but here’s where civic pride and celebrity muscle kick in. Lynyrd Skynyrd and (unlikely bedfellow) Liberace, in company with the newly-formed Friends of the Fox, persuaded the City of Atlanta to find a way to hold the wreckers back, which it did, finally refusing to issue a demolition permit. Returning briefly to Lynyrd Skynyrd, their first live recording, One More from the Road which later went platinum, was based on concerts given at the Atlanta Fox.
Many consider the saving of this movie palace as the template for not-for-profit theater revivals nationwide. To this day, the Atlanta Fox is reportedly the only major theatre in the country to have a full-time restoration staff.
Described by a now-defunct local paper as having “...a picturesque and almost disturbing grandeur beyond imagination,"the Fox’s original architecture comprises two styles: Islamic (building exterior, auditorium, Grand Salon, mezzanine Gentlemen's Lounge and lower Ladies Lounge) and Egyptian (Ballroom, mezzanine, Ladies Lounge and lower Gentlemen's Lounge).The Egyptian Ballroom echoes a temple built for Ramses II at Karnak, while the mezzanine Ladies Lounge features a replica of the throne chair of King Tut (all the rage in the twenties) and makeup tables that reveal tiny sphinxes. The 4,665-seat auditorium replicates an Arabian courtyard, complete with a night sky of 96 embedded crystal "stars" (a third of which flicker) and projected clouds that slowly drift across the "sky." Apparently, a rumor that one of the stars was actually a piece of a Coke bottle was confirmed in June 2010 when two members of the theater’s restoration staff (that’s when it’s good to have one!) conducted a search above the auditorium ceiling.
What does St. Louis have to offer? The Fabulous Fox as it styles itself now, was designed in “Siamese/Byzantine” style, a close twin to its Detroit sister. (Both were flagships for the Fox chain). In the lobby, a pair of huge gold griffons flank the grand staircase, and deep red faux marble columns ring the mezzanine level. From every corner statuary peeks out—including a group of large gilt maharajahs. What are maharajahs doing in a Siamese/Byzantine palace? (What, for that matter, is a Siamese/Byzantine palace?) Opening its doors in 1929, with 5060 seats, at a cost of five million dollars, around 71 million in today’s bucks, St. Louis’ Fox had a good run.
However, like its four other Crane-designed sister Foxes in Brooklyn, Atlanta, San Francisco and Detroit, the St. Louis Fox was in bad shape by the seventies, reduced to showing mostly Kung Fu to sparse audiences. After hard times, it was rescued by one Mary Strauss, a hard-working wife of a real estate developer. Mary persuaded her husband to buy the theater with a consortium of friends in the early eighties, and restored it for two million, in under two years. That’s important in the annals of movie palace survival — no time for vagrancy or leakage to set in. She recalls, “Almost everything that Leon and I approached was not ‘What are the obstacles?’ It was ‘Why can't we try?
"Being an artist growing up, I think I knew how to approach a project. One of the things that Leon and I did was we went in the summer of 1981 to a League of Historic American Theatres ramble in Ohio. We met people, we networked....What I learned is everything can be reproduced and fixed if you find the right person.” The Fabulous Fox opened in plenty of time to host home-town rocker Chuck Berry on his 60th birthday in 1986.
If it weren’t for MoTown and a steady diet of Blaxploitation films, the Detroit Fox might not be standing. But it’s a good thing it is:
“On the side walls at the orchestra level are Moorish arches extending to the balcony. Above is a colonnade at the balcony level with nine vermillion scagiolia columns matching those in the lobby. The columns support decorated arches and behind the first three are grilles that conceal the bays containing the 2,700 pipes and other effects for the organ. The areas between the other columns are filled with tinted mirrors. The walls are topped with a cornice decorated with lion and human faces set among geometric designs and sunbursts.
The ceiling is designed to resemble a round tent with an oculus supported by spears. The tent drapes slightly and is covered with acoustical felt bearing a stenciled design. The ceiling of the oculus is blue with a globe chandelier of colored glass suspended from a starburst design. The chandelier is 13 ft (4.0 m) in diameter weighs 2,000 lb (910 kg) and contains 1200 pieces of glass.” (The previous is direct from Wikipedia — just too rich not to simply put quote marks around.)
Said to be the largest surviving movie palace of the 1920’s, the Detroit Fox has 5,048 seats (5,174 if removable seats placed in the raised orchestra pit are included). Here’s something to ponder: in the orchestra section alone are 2898 seats. That’s more seats than many palaces have, in total.The Detroit Fox hosted a lot of biggies in its time. For a Martin and Lewis promo of their (then) up and coming movie, Money, check out Cinema Treasures entry, specifically in the “comments” column where Bob Furmanek left us a little treat.
I’d like to close with a sad tip of my hat to William Fox, an enterprising immigrant (weren’t all the moguls?) whose greatest talent may have been in picking movie stars; Theda Bara comes to mind, entirely a Fox invention. William Fox’s life didn’t end well, because, as Vanda Krefft (The Man Who Made the Movies: The Meteoric Rise and Tragic Fall of William Fox), observes, “Ultimately, Fox would venture too far away from what he really wanted to do—shifting too much of his attention toward business and away from art, engaging in questionable stock market deals, and trusting people he knew he shouldn't trust. As a result, in 1930, he lost control of his two namesake companies, Fox Film and Fox Theatres. He never recovered, either personally or professionally. After that, history turned its back on him and began its long, sad process of forgetting.”
Or, as Shakespeare said, “What’s in a name?”
Robert Endres, long-time friend and veteran projectionist (most recently and for a long time at Radio City Music Hall), gave me the notion to write this blog post, by mentioning his visits to each of three Foxes:
“One of our engineers,” he remarked, “has done some screenings at the Atlanta Fox and loves the theatre and the crew. He’s roamed the theatre and has some great shots of things like the switchboard. I didn’t get to see a movie there, but did get to hear a bit of Bachman Turner Overdrive in concert there after touring the booth.” Booth tours are Bob’s privilege, always.