The Fox Theatre in Atlanta hit a major milestone on Christmas Day 2019 by celebrating its 90th anniversary. The nearly century old theater marked the occasion with a slew of holiday shows including performances of The Nutcracker and closing out the year with a two-night stint from Widespread Panic.
Throughout this next year, the Fox will honor its anniversary with more than 200 events including five weeks of Broadway hit Hamilton and performances from iconic artists such as Diana Ross. But the former movie palace has not spent its entire history thriving.
The Fox Theatre opened two months after the stock market crash in 1929 and according to Fox Theatre, Inc. president and CEO Allan Vella, the venue “immediately fell on hard times.”
“A theater that cost $3 million to build in 1929 got into trouble immediately out of the gate,” Vella tells Billboard. “After about 125 weeks after we started the theater neglected to pay its property taxes, etc, and was sold on the courthouse steps for $75,000. The theater did not operate as expected for the next several decades.”
The venue was set to be demolished by the owners in the 1970s when preservationists and the Atlanta community stepped up to save the Fox, which has now been placed on the National Historic Registry as a National Historic Landmark. The theater’s tumultuous history and successful return played a huge part in the Fox Theatre, Inc.’s (the non-profit that has run the venue since 1974) decision to give back to the community that saved it from extinction.
“The reason we’re able to sell 5 million tickets this last decade is because the entire state supports us. The Fox is part of people’s history and we’re a memory maker. It might be that they saw their first REM show here or it might be because they had their prom here in one of our ballrooms,” says Vella. “There isn’t anybody in Atlanta who doesn’t take some small bit of credit for saving the theater. Everybody feels responsible for the Fox, which makes it really special.”
As a way to give back, the non-profit created the Fox Theatre Institute, an outreach program offering historic preservation and operations expertise, consultation, and education to performing arts venues in Georgia and the region. Started in 2008, FTI provides historic preservation grants and guidance, offers professional development through seminars and strategic planning, and manages a statewide booking consortium, which encourages collaboration among arts presenters in Georgia and the region.
“For a long time, other historic theaters would call us and ask for advice. We have some preservationists onsite that help us with stenciling and applying gold leaf and plaster repair,” says Vella. “We would get a lot of questions from ‘How do I find the original paint color of this plaster’ to ‘how do I find a contractor to work on a 90-year-old elevator’ or ‘how do I run a box office or form a board.’ So we formalized a way to help others.”
Since its inception, FTI has given away more than $1.8 million in grants to other small and historic venues in Georgia. In 2019, it gave away an unprecedented $800,000 in grants due to severe hurricane damages throughout the state. For 2020, Vella says they have allotted $500,000 for grants and expects that amount to grow in the coming years.
“We believe these theaters can help and grow communities and make them more sustainable and liveable. It’s not just about the theater and the entertainment. It’s really about the whole community,” says Vella.
In addition to giving away grants, the Fox created an organization that helps find content for the same small theaters called Georgia Presenters.
“What works for the Fox Theatre in Atlanta, doesn’t necessarily work or is viable in a small community in Georgia. So we help find them programming and content. Then we help route some of those shows and help underwrite some of those shows as well, which is really beneficial for those theaters in those communities. Because if they are dark, they don’t do any good,” Vella tells Billboard.
The 4,665-seat Fox Theatre does not operate based on contributed revenue and entirely sustains itself, but its mission to share does not stop outside of its four walls. The organization promotes shows at Atlanta’s Cobb Energy Center, Sandy Springs Performing Arts Center and recently partnered with the brand new Gateway Center Arena in College Park, Georgia to book all their non-sports content.
“We don’t consider any of these venues our direct competitors, but we do consider them colleagues and friends in our community,” says Vella. “We want to generate money to maintain our core mission, which is to preserve and share the theater. But then as part of that sharing concept, we want to share with other venues around the state and give back to Georgia.”
Atlanta’s Fox Theatre will continue to roll out names and dates for its 90th anniversary celebration in the coming months.