The Atlanta History Center recently extended its “Atlanta in 50 Objects” exhibit through year-end. Its concept is self-explanatory, and the display offers a great snapshot of the city’s history. But naturally, my curiosity immediately gravitated toward which musical icons made the cut.
Exhibit Co-Curator Don Rooney explained that the selections were based entirely on community submissions, which amounted to over 300 nominations. Of those, the Fabulous Fox Theatre ranked near the top of the list. The Egyptian architecture-inspired showpiece is represented by a “Save the Fox” t-shirt from its 1975 preservation campaign. Last fall, the Fox celebrated its 50 millionth attendee. Marketing Director Jamie Vosmeier estimates more than half of those have come since that campaign.
It’s hard to fathom how this landmark came so perilously close to a date with the wrecking ball, but Vosmeier confirms it was spared only by “the largest grassroots effort to that date to save a theater.” Originally designed as a Shriner’s temple, by its Christmas 1929 opening, The Fox was repurposed as a grand movie palace. Eventually, live performances entered the picture. “Elvis played two shows there back in 1956. You can’t get more rock & roll than that,” Vosmeier laughs.
Vosmeier credits recently departed rock promoter Alex Cooley with fueling the Fox’s 1970s revitalization. “Alex was the mastermind; he saw its value as a rock & roll space and made people care about it again. Everyone has a Fox story — ‘I came here to see x,’ whether it was a Disney movie, Aerosmith, James Taylor. That’s when you see the passion come out. It’s an 87-year-old building that’s still relevant to rock & roll.” This theme was reinforced after our conversation, when tragedy left the Fox as the venue that hosted Prince’s final two performances.
Three days each week, the Fox conducts hour-long theater tours with backstage access and plenty of anecdotes — no doubt including “Phantom of the Fox” Joe Patten, who restored its renowned “Mighty Mo” pipe organ and lived in the theater for 40 years until his recent death.
The exhibit’s other musical entry is less straightforward. Rooney acknowledges votes for the Allman Brothers, the fondly remembered Great Southeast Music Hall, and the billboard for Jermaine Dupri’s So So Def record label that for years graced the I-85 landscape. The History Center aggregated several nominations spanning Atlanta’s influential and burgeoning hip-hop scene and chose Outkast as its standard-bearer.
The display includes a spectacular photo by Zach Wolfe of Andre 3000 reclining on the floor of Little 5 Points’ legendary Wax n’ Facts Records, as well as a framed copy of Outkast’s eleven-times platinum “Speakerboxxx/The Love Below.” It’s a fine symbol of the duo’s world domination. (I’d make a strong argument for “Hey Ya” as THE signature song of the new millennium to date, but the purist in me thinks the more city-specific “ATLiens” or the wildly inventive “Aquemini” would have made for a better representation.)
“Atlanta in 50 Objects” is a quite entertaining speed tour through local history, even if I can’t shake the feeling that music deserved more than two nods out of fifty. I’m sure every subject matter zealot has their quibbles; however, I’ll be looking to place my own stake in the ground in coming weeks….
Glen Sarvady is Georgia’s official Music Explorer. He has lived in Atlanta for more than 20 years, and has written about music both locally and nationally for at least as long. More recently, he has written regularly for the music/arts publication Stomp & Stammer as well as GeorgiaMusic.org.