By Ann Boutwell
At noon, the first audience “ooohed and ahhhed” movie mogul William Fox’s opulent palace. The structure’s Art Deco, Moorish Revival style architecture raised the bar for the city’s cultural identity, making it the grandest in Georgia and the southeast.
Over the next eight decades, the Fox Theatre would experience bankruptcy, shattered dreams, shuttered doors and a grave threat of demolition. From learned lessons, the Fox Theatre’s story has evolved into one of the most successful ever told about theater preservation and management in the United States.
One year ago this month, Atlanta Landmarks, Inc., the nonprofit organization that owns and operates the Fox Theatre, launched its newest division – a theater to theater educational outreach called the Fox Theatre Institute (FTI).
The Fox is the only U.S. theater with a full-time restoration department, headed up by Director of Restoration Molly Fortune. FTI provides consulting services to historic theaters in Georgia. It also creates individualize progress plans for rehabilitation, management and preservation.
“The Fox Theatre’s story of survival and success is the catalyst for this movement,” said Adina Alford Erwin, assistant general manger of the Fox Theatre. “We want to share the knowledge that successful restorations of historic theaters have the potential to inspire communities and positively affect their cultural landscape. It’s our goal to create thriving communities in cities throughout Georgia and the southeast.”
FTI discovered a record of 374 historic Georgia theaters through a first-ever comprehensive inventory provided from the Department of Community Affairs, Department of Natural Resources’ Historic Preservation Division and just talking to people. Between 1950 and 2009, 114 of these theaters were demolished. An estimated 260 still stand.
Since its inception, FTI has been working closely with 15 member theaters from across the state: The Rylander Theatre in Americus, Morton Theatre in Athens, Imperial Theatre in Augusta, The Ritz in Brunswick, Gem Theatre in Calhoun, Springer Opera House in Columbus, Holly Theater in Dahlonega, The Grand in Fitzgerald, The Strand in Marietta, DeSoto Theatre in Rome, Emma Kelly Theatre in Statesboro, The Ritz in Thomaston and three in Macon, Cox Capitol Theatre, Douglass Theatre and the Grand Opera House.
FTI completed one of its first-year restoration undertakings, the vestibule of Rome’s DeSoto Theatre, in February. The historic theater opened in August 1929, four months before the Fox Theatre. The deteriorating roof had developed numerous leaks caused by heavy rains, which also seriously damaged the walls and floors. The theatre’s board of directors had the funds to repair the roof, but did not have the money to repair the damaged vestibule. FTI sent Theatre Molly Fortune to the DeSoto to conduct several site inspections before she tackled the paint and plaster restoration in the vestibule.
British Brush, a Rome company specializing in plaster and repair and restoration, agreed to donate its labor hours if the DeSoto could raise the money to pay for the supplies. The DeSoto held a successful fundraiser and paid for the plaster.
“Successful restorations of historic theatres inspire communities and have a positive impact on their cultural landscape,” said Erwin. “The DeSoto is a wonderful example of how a theater restoration plays an integral part in the success of their city’s overall.”
Other recent projects include assisting with replicating historic lighting for the Grand Theatre in Fitzgerald and additional strategic planning for the DeSoto, Fortune said.
As for the Fox, it continues to be a success story, booking more than 325 nights a year, regularly ranking among the top grossing theaters in the world. It is a rare example of a non-profit making money and operating in the black for 30 years.
For more about the Fox Theatre Institute, visit www.foxtheatre.org.