In the 1970s, Atlanta’s Fox Theatre was slated for demolition to make room for BellSouth’s new headquarters. Thankfully, an ambitious campaign saved the building, which became a premier entertainment venue and achieved historic landmark status. With years of experience under its belt, this phoenix-from-the-ashes success story launched the Fox Theatre Institute (FTI) in 2008 to offer restoration grants to community theaters throughout Georgia.
FTI initially formed to fill a pressing need in Georgia’s communities. Theater managers and likeminded nonprofits frequently contacted the Fox for advice about best practices regarding brick-and-mortar restoration, fixing seats, securing landmark status, fundraising and historic preservation to name just a few recurring issues. The Fox realized it could harness the power of its own success and knowledge, serving as a central information hub for area arts organizations in need.
Along with presenting educational seminars such as emergency preparedness and fundraiser training, FTI can survey theaters in order to recommend artisans and experts for restoration projects. The organization also offers grants to communities for restoration, preservation and future planning.
But while FTI has enabled Georgia towns to renovate and preserve their historic venues, the organization realized it wasn’t enough to simply give grants to area theaters; it needed to bring in talent to fill these newly restored venues. The Fox knows better than anyone that a central theater with robust entertainment options can bring vitality back to communities. After all, the Fox Theatre restoration served as a cultural anchor for Midtown Atlanta, successfully recharging the pulse of Peachtree Street and beyond.
To answer the need for entertainment in small communities, FTI founded statewide booking consortium Georgia Presenters, a vehicle for collective programming. Now small presenters, theaters and communities can join forces and book talent in blocks, bringing larger acts to venues for which it might otherwise be difficult—if not impossible—to tap. To raise awareness for FTI’s restoration projects, the organization has launched an annual Theatre Revival Tour showcasing the newly refurbished theaters. Georgia Presenters has booked von Grey for this year’s tour, which runs May 2, 3 and 4. The band will tour through renovated theaters in Toccoa, Warrenton and Springfield.
In Toccoa, an FTI grant helped commission a historic-preservation plan with a longterm vision for restoring the city’s Schaefer Center for the Performing Arts, including the theater’s façade and original marquee. Warrenton will use the grant to improve the Knox Theatre’s roof and enable momentum on future structural repair and electrical-system improvements. And in Springfield, FTI is adding restrooms to The Mars Theatre and assisting with the renovation of the interior lobby.
FTI’s involvement with past grant recipients has been far reaching, evoking generous action from outside donors. “The grant from the Fox was an impetus that challenged others to participate and help draw the larger matching grant for us,” says Jon Durkovic, Manager of the Grand Theatre in Fitzgerald. The town used its FTI grant to secure and restore a historic Barton theatre organ, and feels a kinship with the Fox and its own historic organ. Durkovic says theirs is played before every film screening, six days a week, and is used for live concerts and events, school programs, summer arts programs, community sing-alongs and more. Fitzgerald can also trace new tourism directly to the Grand’s historic organ.
It’s more than just an instrument, it’s a member of the Fitzgerald community.
When Brunswick’s Ritz Theatre was faced with the daunting task of replacing all of its 58 windows, repainting its exterior and restoring its sign, FTI stepped in with a grant. Heather Heath, executive director of the Golden Isles Arts and Humanities Association, says it was an invaluable partnership that benefited the downtown historic district and community as a whole. The Ritz, Heath continues, has been a landmark in Brunswick since it was built—a symbol of the city’s collective memories of growing up. “Over the years, the façade of the building, including the sign, had become worn and faded,” she says. “We were the ‘ugly step sister’ on the block as the downtown area was being revitalized. The support of the Fox Theatre Institute has brought the Ritz back to be a beacon in the downtown.” Heath also credits the facelift with an increase in attendance and event rental revenue.
Tommy Deadwyler, Georgia Presenters assistant, says sharing success stories and best practices with other like-minded businesses and organizations isn’t something you would see happen in a corporate setting. But ever since FTI began, the Fox has had a focused outlet for paying forward all the goodwill it received back in the ’70s, when it was rescued from near-certain destruction. “The Fox Theatre recognized the community saved us,” says FTI program manager Carmie McDonald, “and we’re sharing with the state from our experiences now.”
Despite its many contributions throughout Georgia, the organization still struggles with public perception. Most people don’t even realize the Fox Theatre is a nonprofit that reinvests in the community, McDonald says. She hopes to see this perception change, and to spread the word about what FTI is doing to help small theaters and—through social and economic means—restore the vitality of communities across the state.
For more information about the Fox Theatre Institute and this year’s Theatre Revival tour, visit FoxTheatreInstitute.org.