Allan Vella talks 'Save the Fox' celebration

Theater's CEO looks back on 40 years of history and community support

Allan Vella says almost everyone has a Fox Theatre story, what he calls the connection to the successful campaign to save the historic Midtown theater back from demolition in 1974. "When I came to Atlanta, everybody I ran into had a Fox story, everyone contributed, everyone had a family member who helped out," says Vella, the theatre's president and CEO.

In honor of that work, and the decades of restoration and cultural relevance it began, the Fox has announced a yearlong celebration — including the return of old friends (Lynyrd Skynyrd), new faces, and one block party. We recently spoke with Vella about the coming anniversary celebration, the Fox's long legacy, and its even longer history.

How did the Fox end up where it was in 1974?

Obviously the theater had its challenges stemming back to the day it opened. It opened on Christmas Day, 1929, two months after the stock market crash. And after 125 weeks of operation, the theater — which cost $3 million to build — was sold on the courthouse steps for $75,000. It was bought back by several members of the Shriners and they operated it and then obviously it kind of went on and people were moving out to the suburbs and there was the dawn of the multiplexes and television became very prominent in everyone's homes.

But the Fox Theatre has been part of the cultural core of Atlanta ... I think we've always been part of that and I'd like to also say that I think ourselves, along with the Woodruff Arts Center, have really been the bookends of Midtown.

Growing up, my mom would always tell me that my grandfather was involved with the campaign back in the '70s. It very much feels like a grassroots movement, people recognizing that the theater was worth saving.

Well you're right. I'll give you an example: I worked in Detroit and I was the general manger of the Fox Theatre there for a number of years and one family saved the theater and everyone was very appreciative. But when I came to Atlanta, everybody I ran into had a Fox story, everyone contributed, and everyone had a family member who helped out. So if it was students getting involved or sororities — and then there were kids who collected pennies at their school and contributed them and then there were some major anonymous donations that were very significant once they saw the groundswell.

Tell me about the highlights from this coming celebration.

Jeff Foxworthy was important to us because he was always a great supporter since he was in high school. Actually in his yearbook he wrote, "Save the Fox." He even said at our press conference, "If God says you only have one more show and then you're done, you're coming home," he said, "I want it to be at the Fox."

We wanted to do the block party because we thought, "Wouldn't it be fun to turn everything inside out?" We're really kind of an indoor venue. When my daughter was like 4 or 5 years old she told me, "We're not inside, daddy, we're outside" — because she saw all of the stars. We thought, "Let's turn the theater inside out."

Take me through the planning — how did Lynyrd Skynyrd return?

Back in 1976, Lynyrd Skynyrd helped come to our aid by having a series of concerts here that were recorded for the live album One More From the Road that took place here in the theater and Skynyrd made a financial contribution to the "Save the Fox" campaign. So we asked them if they would consider coming back and they were actually in the planning phases to celebrate the 40th anniversary of that album and they said, "Absolutely, we'd love to do that."

Are there any other highlights from the Fox's last few decades that you think of as real treasures from the theater's legacy?

I think hosting the Metropolitan Opera was one of the bigger moments for the theater throughout its history and I mean, that was obviously another generation, but folks that are on our board that were here at that time talk about how that was a citywide event and no one dared miss it. And the Metropolitan Opera loved coming to Atlanta and they were treated like royalty.

I also think the first time Phantom of the Opera came to Atlanta was a real watershed moment for us. It really put us on the Broadway touring map as well, and proved to North America that Atlanta was one of the leading Broadway touring maps in the country and we still remind everyone of that. We set the highest gross for a single week of touring Broadway ever, with Book of Mormon — and that was during an ice storm.

Do you remember what your reaction was, walking into the Fox for the first time?

It instantly moved me, in terms of how beautiful the restoration was. The stars on the ceiling were magnificent. When I first noticed the clouds were actually moving across the sky, I was shocked and then even more shocked to find out that that was 1929 technology that was still in the works. We call it "the grand sense of occasion." You're not just going to the local amphitheater or arena wearing shorts and a T-shirt in a cinder block building. So, immediately it kind of gets in your blood.

And then really the staff, I think, left the biggest impression on me, because the culture here amongst the staff was so good, that they treated the guests like they were walking into their home and then they guarded this theater like it was their home.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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