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GPB airing Fox Theatre documentary Christmas night 87 years after opening

This is posted on Wednesday, December 21, 2016 by Rodney Ho on his AJC Radio & TV Talk blog

Don Smith in 1979 created a one-hour documentary for WAGA-TV celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Fabulous Fox Theatre, which had been saved just two years earlier by Atlanta preservationists from demolition.

Now 37 years later, the Emmy-winning producer has returned to the iconic theater for another documentary, this time for Georgia Public Broadasting. Called "The Legend Lives On: Atlanta's Fox Theatre" the one-hour program will air Christmas night at 7 p.m. on the 87th anniversary of the theater opening in 1929.

The good news: the Fox Theatre has been a profitable operation for decades. It's now a showcase architectural image whenever television shows need recognizable shots of Atlanta.

The documentary follows the Yaarab Shriners, who spent $3 million to build the Fox at the most unfortunate time: the start of the Great Depression. The organization sold it for a mere $75,000 three years later. Another group in the mid-1930s was able to turn the Fox's Egyptian Ballroom into a successful dance club and live shows on the main stage kept the place afloat into the early 1960s.

Our flashback photo gallery of the Fox Theatre through the years. 

You can see the trailer here. There was no embed code. 

But suburbanization and urban blight caused a succession of neighboring theaters to struggle on Peachtree Street including the Loew's Grand, site of a glitzy "Gone With the Wind" opening in 1939. (It was damaged by fire in 1978 and eventually torn down.)

The Fox Theatre was in deep trouble in the 1970s and many people in Atlanta didn't seem to care in a city where planners seemed to be focused more on the future than the past. Smith said he was able to dig up plenty of new material from fresh interviews he made over 15 months regarding that time period.

He provided more context regarding Southern Bell, which has often been cast as the bad corporate villains who would have taken over the space where the Fox stands.

Smith, who has produced numerous TV programs for GPB in recent years, talked to leaders of the "Save the Fox" campaign and original members of the Atlanta Landmarks Inc., the non profit which raised $1.8 million to ensure the Fox would not be knocked down. It continues to run the operation. He spoke with Bill Bugg, who Smith dubbed "the unsung hero of the salvation." Bugg helped find the landowners who sold adjoining alternative property to Southern Bell for its headquarters.

He was able to spend time with Joe Patten, the long-time technical director nicknamed the "Phantom of the Fox" before he died earlier this year. The documentary includes footage Smith shot in 1979 of Patten when he was negotiating the deal to live there rent free in an apartment he would stay in until his last breath. "I feel like living here," he said at the time. "I think I earned my way." Smith also showed video of Patten's beautiful inner sanctum, which was a museum of sorts of Fox memorabilia, after he passed.

The 76-year-old producer also talked to venerable local concert promoter Alex Cooley two weeks before his sudden death in late 2015. Cooley in the 1970s convinced Fox management to host rock acts such as the Eagles, Bruce Springsteen and David Bowie. His concerts brought in a younger audience that sparked the "Save the Fox" campaign.

"I was really fond of Alex," Smith said. "When he died, the friend in me hurt. As a producer, I was really upset. I wanted to do a documentary about him!"

The second half of the program focuses mostly on how the Fox is run today, with comments from long-time employees and admiring fans. Mike Mills of R.E.M. and John Bell of Widespread Panic provide testimonials as performers.

"The theater is endless," Smith said. "There's always something else you can see, like the screening room in the basement or every level of the dressing rooms."

Smith, who worked for 10 years at CNN and oversaw "Talk Back Live" at CNN Center for a time, hopes the documentary will provide fodder for a new generation of Fox acolytes to continue the legacy of those who have kept the building viable over the decades.

"I hope I left a reasonably subtle but effective message: 'Young people: over to you!' " he said.


"The Legend Lives On: Atlanta's Fox Theatre," 7 p.m. Christmas Day, repeated 8 p.m. Monday, December 26 and 7 p.m. Tuesday, January 3, GPB

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About the Author

Rodney Ho covers radio and television for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.