Saturday, May 30, 2015

How Atlanta's Fox Theatre Is Celebrating 40 Years Since Gregg Allman, Lynyrd Skynyrd & Others Saved It

When Gregg Allman got the call to join more than a dozen acts in a Lynyrd Skynyrd tribute concert in late 2014 at Atlanta’s Fox Theatre, he quickly signed on, and not just because he and the band are long-standing members of the Southern-rock brotherhood. The “One More for the Fans” show not only honored Skynyrd, it was also part of a yearlong celebration of the 40th anniversary of the Fox’s rescue from the wrecking ball.

Today, the Fox is one of the country’s busiest theaters, hosting private and community events, Broadway road shows (Motown: The Musical opens in August) and concert tours (it ranked No. 2 on Billboard’s 2014 Boxscore tally of theaters with fewer than 5,000 seats). But the gilded Peachtree Street edifice, which opened as a movie palace in 1929, was nearly razed to make way for a corporate high-rise in 1974.

That year -- with the “Save the Fox” movement barely rolling in a city where historic preservation efforts had seldom slowed the bulldozers of progress -- the Gregg Allman Band performed at the theater. It was one in a string of early rock shows that suggested the potential viability of the Moorish-styled showplace.

“We played the Fox a couple of times over the years to keep it from getting torn down,” says Allman, 67. “You know, people ‘rise up’ in Atlanta,” he adds (borrowing the Falcons’ NFL slogan). “People love that place, and they should. It’s so perfectly tuned. It’s magical.”

On November 12, 2014, Allman returned to the stage alongside Trace Adkins, Charlie Daniels, Peter Frampton, Cheap Trick and Lynyrd Skynyrd’s current lineup to interpret tunes from the Skynyrd songbook. The acts passed under a directive -- “Play it pretty for Atlanta” -- painted over the stage entrance.

It’s a line the late Skynyrd singer Ronnie Van Zant voiced during the fierce 1976 Fox concerts that were recorded for his band’s landmark live album, One More From the Road. The set included the track “Free Bird,” which became an FM radio staple and a top 20 hit on the Billboard Hot 100.

The next year, Van Zant and two other bandmembers perished in a post-concert plane crash in South Carolina. But even by the time of that tragedy, prospects for the Fox were looking up.

Concerned civic leaders did rise up, forming the nonprofit group Atlanta Landmarks. In 1975, the group negotiated a land swap that led Southern Bell (later AT&T) to abandon its development plans for the theater site and build its headquarters behind the Fox instead. The nonprofit then borrowed nearly $2 million from five Atlanta banks and led a $3 million fundraising campaign.

While it could be argued that the Fox wasn’t officially “saved” until 1978, when Atlanta Landmarks paid off the mortgage (six months ahead of schedule), this 40th anniversary dates to June 21, 1975, when the nonprofit assumed control of the theater’s operations. The Fox has operated in the black every year since its reopening, according to theater vice president/GM Adina Erwin.

Today, the 4,665-seat Fox hosts 250 performances each year, and the theater and its rental facilities attract more than 750,000 guests annually. A $3 surcharge on each ticket goes toward the $1 million spent annually for upkeep of the 85-year-old edifice. A national landmark since 1976, the theater remains a focus for historic preservationists. On March 30, it hosted sessions of the National Main Street Conference of the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

Erwin notes that the theater’s nonprofit owners also pay it forward. The Fox Theatre Institute, launched in 2008, shares restoration expertise and -project grants with historic theaters across Georgia.

Even with impressive attendance numbers and national recognition, Fox management planned the “Legend Lives On” anniversary celebration -- including a gala for supporters held March 14 and a block party set for June 7 -- to strengthen its ties to Atlanta’s ever-growing -metropolitan area.

“We recognize that Atlanta is a big market, a transient market and very different than it was in 1975,” says Erwin, 43. “Although we reach a lot of different audiences in this market, we don’t reach them all.

“Because we were saved by the community, we want to make sure that we stay in touch with the community and engage with the community, and that the community continues to have an affinity for the Fox and what we stand for,” she continues. “We thought that this was a good opportunity to take a look back, to engage in the current time as well as to reach out to audiences for the future.”