Christmas Day. 1929. An excited crowd lines up along Peachtree Street for the grand opening of the Fox Theatre. The sold-out crowd watched the premiere of Disney’s first cartoon starring Mickey Mouse, Steamboat Willie. (Edgar Orr, Courtesy of Fox Theatre Archives)
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Fox Theatre turns 90 on Christmas Day

First Christmas featured Mickey Mouse and fake snow - for 15 cents

The Fox Theatre will be closed on Christmas

And who can blame her?

After nine decades, a break is in order.

On Wednesday, the iconic lady of Peachtree Street will mark 90 years as one of Atlanta’s landmark entertainment venues and historic and cultural landmarks.

“It is nice to celebrate her 90th,” said Allan C. Vella, the president and CEO of the Fox. “It is significant because there are not a lot of old venues around today that are still relevant. This industry tends to tear down things that they don’t see as relevant anymore. That was not the case with the Fox.”

The Fox Theatre opened quietly enough on Dec. 25, 1929, just four months after the Stock Market Crash and the beginning of the Great Depression.

For 15 cents — or 75 cents for the good seats — the crowd watched the premiere of Disney’s first cartoon starring Mickey Mouse, “Steamboat Willie,” as well as the feature film “Salute,” a story about the famous Army vs. Navy football game, starring George O’Brien and Helen Chandler.

The sold-out crowd also listened to the tiny Iris Vining Wilkins play the Mighty Mo organ, at the time the largest theater organ in the world, while Enrico Leide, a concert cellist and conductor of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, led the Fox Grand Orchestra in “This Shrine of Beauty.”

At the end of the screening, snowflakes — bleached cornflakes — fell from the ceiling.

Flashback photos: The Fox Theatre, 1929-2019

Today, more than 650,000 people flow through the Fox annually to see up to 250 performances.

Earlier this month, the Fox was recognized as the highest-grossing venue in the world over the last decade based on its size. The live entertainment trade publication VenuesNow tapped the 4,600-capacity Fox for selling 5.28 million tickets to 1,845 performances.

Since 2010, the Fox Theatre hosted the Broadway in Atlanta debuts of “The Book of Mormon” and “Hamilton,” as well as hundreds of concerts including Widespread Panic, Aretha Franklin, My Morning Jacket, David Byrne, Al Green, Vampire Weekend and, in 2016, what turned out to be the final performances of Prince.

Personally, Vella said his most memorable experience at the Fox was the Jan. 10, 2014 tribute to Greg Allman.

“It meant a lot to host it and Greg was very appreciative,” Vella said. “We were all celebrating a man and his legacy. It was almost like a party for someone you knew personally.”

Allman, who was living in Macon when his band, The Allman Brothers, came of age, died in 2017.

Exterior of the Fox Theatre on Peachtree Street in Atlanta. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

When the Fox opened in 1929, its beauty didn’t go unnoticed in the pages of The Atlanta Journal, which described it as “a picturesque and almost disturbing grandeur beyond imagination.”

It was, and remains, an opulent mishmash of Egyptian motifs and Moorish culture, inspired partly by the discovery of King Tut’s tomb seven years prior. The bejeweled “Aladdin” curtain sparkled with rhinestones and sequins and $30,000 to make.

A scarab, a symbol for the sun god Ra and thought to ward off evil, is depicted on the Egyptian Ballroom’s balcony. It is surrounded by the wings of Osiris, the ancient Egyptian god of the underworld, afterlife, and resurrection.

In 1962, The Fox Theatre was among the first theaters in Georgia to voluntarily desegregate — two years before the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was passed.

In 1976, after years of financial problems and the city’s changing demographics, the U.S. Department of the Interior made the Fox a National Historic Landmark, saving it from the wrecking ball. (Courtesy of Fox Theatre Archives)
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

In 1976, after years of financial problems and the city’s changing demographics, the U.S. Department of the Interior made the Fox a National Historic Landmark, saving it from the wrecking ball.

“We are not just cinder blocks and dry-wall. People are still astonished when they walk through the doors,” said Vella, who has been at the Fox for 13 years.

Vella said that the Christmas Day acknowledgment of the Fox’s anniversary will kick off a year’s worth of celebrations and special performances, including the return of the Broadway smashes “Hamilton,” and “Hello Dolly,” and the acclaimed Alvin Ailey Dancers, as well as concerts by Diana Ross and Ron White, as well as a few surprises.

“The future is very bright at the Fox,” Vella said.

One thing will be missing in 2020 though: “The Nutcracker.”

The Christmas Eve performance on Tuesday will end the ballet’s 25-year run at the Fox. It will move to the Cobb Energy Center next year.

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