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Park Springs Members Enjoy Fabulous Fox & Varsity!

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On 17 July, 22 Park Springs Members visited two of Atlanta’s historic icons—the Fox Theatre and the Varsity Drive-in. Bill Stauss, one of the Park Springs residents who participated in the trip, shared this report:

“To appreciate the Fox Theatre one must know its history and how it came about – including its rise to fame, its downfall and its rebirth and rise to glory.

The building was intended to be the Yarrow Mosque, the official meeting place and headquarters of the local order of the Shriners fraternal organization, a subgroup of the Masons (formally known as the Ancient Arabic Order of the Nobles of the Mystic Shrine).

The Yarrow Temple was founded in Atlanta in 1889 by the Capital City Club. By 1911, the Shriners had started to outgrow their meeting spot in the Masonic Temple on the corner of Peachtree and Cain streets, and by 1919, the Yarrow Temple had more than 4,000 members, most of whom were Atlanta’s most prominent business men, and they started to make plans to build a new mosque.

In 1922, the Yarrow Temple purchased the Peachtree Street site (where now the Fox Theatre is located) for $225,000. In 1924, the group started initial plans for a new mosque – bigger and better than any mosque in Asia. However, after a review of initial cost estimates, they decided on a smaller structure and one that could also be used by the general public for concerts, plays and events. It was also to include a first class organ of magnificent design.

This concept was developed by former potentate Henry Hinz, son-in-law of Asa Candler, Founder of Coca-Cola. This facility would give the Shiners an income stream to help offset the building’s operating expenses. The first floor could be used for public events and the Shriners could meet on a very elaborately designed second floor.

The final design was developed in 1927 by the local firm of Marye, Alger and Vinour who cleverly expounded on the Shriners’ Middle Eastern theme with a dramatic interpretation of a mosque. The theatre ceiling included moving clouds and 96 stars – with a third of them having heat sensors that make them dim and brighten. The interior featured elements from Egypt, Turkey, Morocco, Persia, Spain and Arabia.  With an estimated cost of over two million dollars, the Shriners started soliciting pledges from their members.

At this time, the golden age of the movie palace was at its peak. The proposed grand and glorious theatre space being built in Atlanta caught the eye of William Fox, the movie magnate. He had a grand plan to build a super movie palace empire across the country and he approached the Shriners about leasing the auditorium, and Fox entered into a 21-year lease of the theatre auditorium estimated to net them $3,000.

The Shiners plowed ahead, laying the corner stone on June 14, 1928. Within six months, they ran out of money and they issued another $1.5 million in bonds and also decided to modify the design by eliminating the third floor. The building included total air conditioning, a luxury which was installed in the Fox five years before it was installed in the White House!

Fox erected a huge marquee on Peachtree Street flanked by a pair of minarets and prepared for the opening performance on December 25, 1929. The performance began with an eye-poping demonstration of the gigantic Moller theatre organ, which rose as if by magic from the orchestra pit. A performance by the Fox Grand Orchestra was then followed by Walt Disney’s first sound cartoon, “Steamboat Willie,” starring Mickey Mouse and a glorious sing-a-long with the organ. This was followed by 36 dancing Sunkist Beauties who became a regular feature of the Fox. Fox Movie-tone news was next, then the featured film, “Salute,” staring George O’Brian, Helen Chandler and Stepin Fetchit. The price of admission ranged from 15 cents to 75 cents. Everything was looking up for Atlanta and for the Fox Theatre.

The times suddenly changed, The Fox’s opening performance occurred less than two months after the stock market crashed in October 1929, and economic hard times fell on the Atlanta area. The theatre quickly became entwined in the country’s devastating economic depression. The Shriners realized that the financial pledges their members had made would go unfulfilled.  By 1932 William Fox was bankrupt and in June of that year, Lowe’s pulled out of the lease agreement. The Fox Theatre closed after only 125 weeks of operation. The mortgage was foreclosed in December 1932, and the Theatre was auctioned off on the steps of the Fulton County Courthouse. The property was sold for $75,000 to the highest bidder, Theatre Holding.

Theatre Holding Company soon collapsed and the City Of Atlanta took over the building for non-payment of taxes. Over the years, the city contracted with many different organizations to show movies, hold dances, provide a meeting place for public events and local school functions. It was also a stage for many rock concerts. By 1974 and after enduring rock shows, kid’s movies and a series or low rent movies, the Fox Theater’s exotic aura had lost its luster and the owners had grown weary of the high maintenance cost. That same year Southern Bell offered to purchase the property for the construction of a new office building. The Fox owners agreed to sell and also agreed to completely demolish the building and level the site which would initially be used as a parking lot. The Fox Theatre was scheduled to be locked up on January 2, 1975, after the showing of “The Clansman” staring Richard Burton.

The contractor filed for a demolition permit. The request caught the eye of Arial Conell, a professor of architecture at George Tech, and chair of the Atlanta Civic Design Commission. When he learned of the proposed Fox demolition, he stopped the permit application and immediately established an organization called Atlanta Landmarks Foundation, whose mandate was to save the Fox.

The “Save The Fox” campaign caught the attention of the entire city and money started pouring in. Financial commitments were reached ahead of schedule and the Fox was reopened for outstanding classical performances in June 1978. Restoration has continued with a permanent restoration crew working daily. This was a great achievement by the people of Atlanta.

The Park Springs group then took a short ride to the Varsity Grill. The Varsity, located adjacent to Georgia Tech University campus, is the World’s largest Drive-in grill  and an Atlanta landmark since 1928. It is most famous for hamburgers, chili dogs, fried onion rings, fried pies and FAST service.  The “Whaddayahave, Whaddayahave,” call is the constant chorus one hears above the crowd noise when you walk into the Varsity. Most people living in Atlanta have visited the Varsity during their first year of residence. A good time was enjoyed by all.”

By Bill Stauss

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