The Fox Theatre Institute is helping to revitalize communities by bringing back treasured theatres around the state.
Heart and Soul: Carmie McDonald, left, director of the Fox Theatre Institute; and Michelle Picon, vice president of Rome’s Historic DeSoto Theatre Foundation
By the time Ray Tanner came out of retirement to repair the retro-cool sign for the Ritz Theatre in Brunswick, it had become eye-catching for all the wrong reasons, harboring the nests for several generations of sparrows.
“Over the years, access panels had fallen off, and the birds got in,” says Tanner, a local craftsman who had refreshed its neon 40 years earlier. “All of the old wiring needed to be replaced. It took months of painting and re-finishing.”
The theater opened in 1899 as a grand opera house and became a cinema in the 1920s. While the building never went completely dark, it did go decidedly dank and underused, its iconic sign finally flickering out in the 1970s, when the city stepped in to save it from demolition. Since then, the Ritz sign had become an unintended statement of irony, more rust than stardust, with little to announce besides lean times for downtown business.
“It just looked so sad and emphasized how bleak downtown seemed at the time,” says Heather Heath, executive director of the Golden Isles Arts & Humanities Association. “The sign had once been one of the most reproduced images in the area that symbolized our downtown, but nobody wanted to reproduce it when it was in such bad shape.”
The 2011 project was the glowing exclamation point of a larger restoration initiative, which included refurbishing 58 windows using the original glass, funded largely by the Fox Theatre Institute (FTI), the only comprehensive theater-rescue organization in the United States. From its headquarters in Atlanta, the FTI offers financial support along with other resources – operational counseling to balance art and commerce; networks of the savviest and most painstaking preservationists; a collectivized system for reducing the costs of marquee-worthy headliners – toward the goal of reviving small theaters across the region.
“Local theaters are the heart and soul of a community,” says Carmie McDonald, the Fox Theatre Institute’s program director. “They’re a place for everyone to come together, experience the thrill of an unforgettable show and make lifelong memories.”
In fact, the social life of small towns once revolved around these jewel-box venues – the nocturnal counterparts of the Dairy Queen. With their fancy tiles, ornate moldings and velvet curtains, they had glamorous names like the Ritz, the Regal or the Princess, evoking an era when cars had fins, concession stands had soda jerks, suspenseful sound effects involved a pipe organ and people dressed up to dine out on Main Street. Then came the malls and the multiplexes on the outskirts of the city, and downtown business and entertainment sectors were left with the kernels at the bottom of a popcorn box. So the restoration of these theaters serves a much broader mission than Americana sentiment, McDonald says: theaters function as proven catalysts for community building and economic development.
“When a show sells out, that means foot traffic and consumers lingering to spend money on food and drink and other retail items,” McDonald says. “A theater can be an economic engine and support system for an entire town, not only for artists but also for merchants.”
The Fox itself is klieg-lit proof of this axiom. It was slated for the wrecking ball in 1974 when Atlantans rallied in the legendary “Save the Fox” campaign. They created the nonprofit Atlanta Landmarks and raised funds through a variety of means, including concerts by artists as diverse as Liberace and Lynyrd Skynyrd and drives for pennies from schoolchildren. Around $3 million was raised, mostly from small, personal donations. “That’s what makes the Fox so special,” McDonald says. “It truly is ‘the people’s theater’ because residents of all ages, from all walks of life, came together to save it.”
Today, Rolling Stone dubs the Fox one of the “Best Big Rooms in America,” and the venue has been consistently ranked in the top three theaters in North America for gross ticket sales. “It’s in Midtown [Atlanta],” McDonald notes, “which some people may remember was a derelict part of town until the Fox became an anchor for nightlife, and now Midtown is booming. So we’ve seen what one theater can do. We want to revitalize other communities in that way, one theater at a time.”
In 2008, the Fox celebrated the anniversary of its rebirth by paying it forward, creating the Fox Theatre Institute, McDonald says. The outreach organization looks for theaters that are at least 50 years old and/or listed as historic landmarks, with sound fiscal management and potential as a jump-starter for other businesses. Most grants average around $20,000, with services that include historic paint and plaster analysis; exterior masonry; wood restoration; flooring and roof refurbishing; preservation plans; and other facade improvements.
So far, the FTI has committed more than $1 million in grants, with $315,000 going toward brick-and-mortar needs for theaters across the state, including those in Dahlonega, Fitzgerald, Rome, Athens, Toccoa, Warrenton, Springfield, Manchester and Atlanta as well as Brunswick. It has repaired the historic marquees of the Holly in Dahlonega and the Plaza in Atlanta, and, in Fitzgerald, the group helped restore the original stained glass light fixtures and the authentic Barton organ. The bustling Mars Theatre in Springfield got new restrooms up to code for the Americans with Disabilities Act.
“It’s more than just money that the Fox offers,” Heath says. “It’s also this extensive expertise. They know how to address all of your needs in great, specific detail. They helped us restore the unusual pulley-style frames of our windows.”
On the artistic end of things, the FTI manages Georgia Presenters, a group that uses a sort of collective bargaining power to bring A-list headliners to smaller theaters by negotiating discounted booking fees and supplementing them with grant funds. “It’s all about people working together, from bigger places like Georgia Tech to smaller venues like the Sautee Nacoochee Center, to keep an artist in the state longer, in a way that benefits both the artist and the presenter,” says Tommy Deadwyler, director of the group, which has enabled more than 100 events in 53 venues so far. For example, recent Grammy winner Mike Farris soon will tour in Gainesville, Waynesboro and Fitzgerald.
One of the FTI’s pilot projects was the DeSoto Theatre in Rome, where the paint and plaster of interior moldings was falling to the floor “in sheets,” says Michelle Picon, vice president of the Historic DeSoto Theatre Foundation. The Rome Little Theatre company owned the building and did its best to fix leaks and make basic repairs while developing its artistic productions, but “that was a slow process,” Picon says. In 2008, the foundation formed and bought the building for one dollar, an arrangement that enabled the troupers to focus on their shows while a group of committed residents tackled the restoration of the vestibule.
“The Fox basically took us by the hand and explained that we didn’t have to raise all of the money overnight,” she says. “They told us that if we could start making improvements, the community and donors would see them and come around. They were absolutely right.”
The FTI donated $24,000 toward that effort, which proved ambitious enough in its scope to illustrate the technological lengths to which the Fox will go, just to help a scrappy theater spruce up and survive. With the assistance of Goodman Decorating and British Brush, the FTI conducted a paint analysis that included stripping the paint along with the wooden substrate and analyzing the surface with a hand-held microscope. The FTI then studied the paint using a high-powered microscope supplied by the Fox Theatre and categorized and identified each layer including the substrate, paint and dirt layers. Then the group employed the Munsell color system to match colors under the microscope, while the Rome Little Theatre researched yellowed news clippings about the DeSoto, which was designed in the “Adamesque” style, an aesthetic of clean lines and muted, multi-tone paint schemes. The theater’s ceiling, it turned out, is adorned with the medallions popular in Adam’s Plaster Book, a decorating primer popular in the early 20th century. The end result? The DeSoto’s vestibule now gleams like an Old World palace, inviting enough for conferences and conventions as well as concerts and stage productions.
“See how painstaking the Fox is?” Picon says. “They helped us achieve this remarkable authenticity in all of its historic detail.”
The FTI also encourages community partnerships. The DeSoto acquired a tenant, a church that uses its seating every Sunday, and the stability of that income enabled the theater to take out low-interest loans and secure grants from other sources. Because of that, the DeSoto has also replaced its 500 seats and is working on a new concession and lounge area, heavy on the marble and chrome fixtures. “The Fox grant gave us this amazing shot in the arm that started us on this momentum,” Picon says. “Before the improvements, we were in such disrepair that we didn’t rent out the venue much, and there wasn’t really a system in place. Now our rentals have gone up by at least 75 percent. About 40 percent of the use of the building is for rentals while the Rome Little Theatre uses it the rest of the time, and they’re freed up now from worrying about leaks and building repairs to make the most fabulous productions. Everybody wins under this arrangement, which the Fox helped us establish.”
The Ritz in Brunswick reports similar success, averaging around 3,000 visitors a year, not counting attendance at events, which occur at a dizzying, colorful pace. The Golden Isles Arts and Humanities Association typically presents two events per month, a film and a live performance, in addition to visual art exhibits in the gallery space. “Some months, we presented eight different events, and our rentals are up to around 80 per year,” Heath says. “We were the ugly stepsister on the block, and now we’re Cinderella.”
Susan Bates, owner of Tipsy McSway’s, counts on these events for an uptick at her cash register. “My business will spike by 80 percent on a Friday or Saturday night,” she says. “All of the business owners try to work together for add-on interest in staying downtown. For example, if you show me a ticket stub from the Ritz, you get a free beer. Just recently the Ritz sold out for the annual Georgia Elvis Festival, which was wild. Downtown was crawling with Elvis tribute artists in costume. The Ritz has brought an exciting sort of magic to the quality of life here, as well as a boost in business numbers.”
“When I first moved here 16 years ago from Atlanta, I thought, ‘What have I done?’” recalls Heath. “There was nothing to do. Now it’s vibrant. Exhaustively so, most of the time.”
Curtain Call: Have a historic theater in your town that needs a little love? Contact the Fox Theatre Institute, foxtheatre.org/the-fox-theatre-institute, to learn more about the tools and resources your community can use to restore and revitalize your theater.