Fox Theatre hopes to negotiate with its ‘Phantom'

Fox Theatre officials said they have been having “ongoing conversations” with longtime resident Joe Patten for about two years on whether the 83-year-old man can remain living in a stately apartment hidden in the historic venue.

Speaking to reporters for the first time since issuing a new lease to Patten, Fox Theatre general manager Allan Vella said Wednesday that the conversation “is not a new one for Joe.”

Vella said Patten’s friends and family have asked Fox staff members to check on him more frequently in the past two years. Most recently, a staff EMT was called to the apartment to take Patten, a diabetic, to the hospital.

“It’s really our experience that he is declining,” Vella said at a 4 p.m. news conference held at the Fox.

Patten, formerly the theater’s technical director, has lived in a 3,640-square-foot apartment rent-free for 30 years. The lease, signed in December 1979, said he could remain there for life.

That lease could be terminated if Patten became permanently disabled for 180 days or more and a panel of three doctors said he should be hospitalized.

The lease also could be terminated if Atlanta Landmarks, the nonprofit that runs the Fox, does so by a two-thirds vote.

That’s what happened at a closed meeting Monday afternoon.

The board issued Patten a new lease, one that says he can live there “as long as he is able.”

Vella said that means “when Joe needs significantly more care,” such as live-in aide.

The issue is one that Vella said the board hoped to deal with on a one-on-one basis with Patten, the man known as the “Phantom of the Fox.”

Instead it’s turned into a public matter.

Vella said Fox officials will be giving Patten his new lease in the next day or two and remain hopeful that he will sign it. A Fox spokeswoman said theater officials have not heard from Patten since Monday.

Patten’s attorney. Emmet Bondurant, told the AJC he’s interested in what’s negotiable.

“If something reasonable were proposed, and what we have there is not reasonable,” he said.

The new occupancy agreement states that the apartment “is not the appropriate venue for medical or personal care assistance of the nature of ‘assisted living.’”

The agreement, obtained by the AJC, also prohibits any Fox staffer or an employee’s family member to enter the apartment without the theater’s prior written consent.

That’s the main reason Patten told WSB Radio on Wednesday he would not sign the lease.

“I don’t agree with it at all. There are too many loose ends,” he said.

Bondurant told the AJC he received the new occupancy agreement last Friday and took it to Patten’s apartment around 4 p.m. that day. He did not say whether Fox staff had been called to check on Patten more often in the past two years -- but pointed out that no employees have complained about having to do so.

Patten is upfront about his diabetes, even telling reporters trying to talk to him Wednesday afternoon that his blood sugar was dropping and he needed to get up to his apartment to eat. Patten must climb about 70 stairs to reach his apartment. It does not have elevator access.

In a family statement issued by Patten's nephew, Greg Patterson, doctors had cleared him to return home after spending time in the hospital and in a rehabilitation center this summer because of complications from his diabetes.

"If we felt that he was in declining health, we too would encourage him to seek appropriate living arrangements to suit whatever health needs he has," Patterson said in the statement.

Escalating health issues and the ability to move around without assistance are two things that confront people who have aging friends and family members, Clara Axam, secretary for the Atlanta Landmarks board, told reporters Wednesday.

There’s a major difference with Patten, she said: He lives in a public building and he lives in the Fox Theatre.

“We’re hurting because of the decisions we’ve had to make,” she said.