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ATLANTA FOX THEATRE COLORED ENTRANCE

For two decades, the annual spring tour of the New York Metropolitan Opera played the Atlanta Fox Theatre.  In 1961, the opera company was used as a lever to force the desegregation of the Fox.  That story and others are told here.
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The Met first played its spring tour here in 1910 and would continue to do so for the better part of eighty seasons.

For the first thirty years, the Met played the downtown Municipal Auditorium, which was designed to be an arena.  Before they would play, the Met required the construction of a stage house, built and equipped to their specifications. 

The principal singers stayed not downtown, but at the first midtown hotel, the Georgian Terrace, across Peachtree from where the Fox Theatre would be constructed sixteen years later. On the hotel portico in 1913 are the bon vivants Enrico Caruso (smoking), Geraldine Farrar, and Antonio Scotti (far right and also smoking).


The singers became the pets of Atlanta Society in a frenzy of receptions, dances, and dinners held in their honor at the Capital City and Piedmont Driving Clubs.  Even the works of music themselves became proprietary, as evidenced in the title of this book, authored by the dramatic critic for the Atlanta Georgian.

In 1947, the Met first played the Fox, which the Met chose over the Auditorium.

The Fox was a super-deluxe Movie Palace, then showing first run pictures, while the "improved" Auditorium (inset) was a WPA barn, unattractive and un-air-conditioned.  Bill Jenkins, who controlled the Fox, was on the local opera presenting board, and the Met was the only stage attraction he permitted to play there, at a sizable loss of revenue to the theatre.


The Fox (which never presented anything but pictures) presented Fortune Gallo's company in 1940, the first opera to play the Fox. The opera house that Gallo built in New York is now known as Studio 54.

The 1946 world premiere of "Song of the South," with Walt Disney himself in attendance, warmed the stage.  

To term the Met's spring jaunt "a tour" would be a misnomer in the current usage of the word.  Shutting down their home base for the duration, the entire company of FIVE HUNDRED, including all the stars, trouped to select (mainly eastern) cities, with the complete New York season's repertoire of sixteen operas, from which each presenting town made their choice.  The Met tour was super-colossal, above Barnum and Bailey in magnitude, and thus a rightful fit for the super-deluxe Fox.

At its peak, the tour required  two fifteen-car special trains to transport the company, which included a hundred-piece orchestra, ninety choristers, forty ballerinas, and all the Manhattan stagehands and artistic personnel. The company disembarked at the now long-gone Terminal Station, located to east of the present Omni Hotel.

To tote the physical production, 27 seventy-foot box cars were necessary, unloaded from a siding (now the Beltline) at the corner of 10th and Monroe, so that the sixty-foot wide rolled drops could be transferred wrinkle-free to trucks, for the nightly change of scenery.  Local 41 IATSE union stagehands Frank Dey, Jr. (left) and Bob Spradlin lash the set together in 1960.

Organized chaos reigned backstage where the majority of the company did not speak English.  Chalkings in large letters on the basement walls read "39th St." (stage right) and "40th St." (stage left) to correspond to the New York house.  Here a singer on Atlanta's downstage 40th Street prepares to enter.  Note the Peter Clark "cut rope" sign.


Stars who played the Fox included Helen Traubel, Lauritz Melchior, Eleanor Steber, Dorothy Kirsten, Blanche Thebom, Ezio Pinza, Rise Stevens, Jerome Hines, Robert Merrill, Geraldine Farrar, Cyril Ritchard,  Roberta Peters, James McCracken, Patrice Munsel, Leonard Warren, Richard Tucker, Sherrill Milnes, Joan Sutherland, Anna Moffo, Renato Tebaldi, Birgit Nillson, Teresa Stratas, and John Reardon.  The local press bent over backwards to cover the annual soiree, with scores of human interest stories as well as (always-glowing) reviews.

"I wish Toscanini was here to play 'Dixie!'" cried out-going Met General Manager Edward Johnson upon receiving a Confederate flag from Atlanta Mayor Hartsfield in 1950.  Johnson presided over the first four Fox seasons.

Johnson was in charge when two events caught national attention. Late trains delayed the 1948 "Carmen" curtain for two hours, and the cast had to play the show in street clothes, to the delight of the crowd.

The next season "handsome" Met tenor John Garris was murdered down by the train yards, in a crime never solved.


The Met General Manager best remembered in Atlanta (and everywhere else) was Mister Opera himself, the Austrian-born Rudolf Bing, or as he once instructed an Atlanta man,  "Call me Mister." 

"Never have I known a place [like Atlanta, said Bing] to become so excited about opera.  Work stopped, sleep stopped, all over the town while the Metropolitan was there.  For years, Atlanta paid us a fraction of what our performances cost us to give, because the Board... would not authorize me to demand a higher fee from such nice people."  Bing  backstage here in 1960:

Bing's only misgiving about the tour was the shallowness of the stages they played, "but [the Fox, he continued] had style, grace, and good acoustics," and it was right across the street from his hotel.  "We had to prepare special inexpensive 'tour sets,' painted drops that could be hung on the wretched stages we played."  Here, superimposed above a plan view of the old Met stage, is the Fox stage.

The depth problem was compounded after the 1953 installation of a Cinemascope picture sheet, set on a 74' by 28' curved steel frame which had to be hauled to the back wall and winched out of harm's way, for the run of the opera.  Dotted lines at center show the relative size of the original sheet, which was flat and could fly straight up.

While Bing (right) was feared and respected, the man most adored by Atlanta Society was Bing's second, Francis Robinson.  He was Kentucky born and had graduated from Vanderbilt, so for him Atlanta was like going home again.

In 1910, a group of  wealthy Atlanta men had formed the Atlanta Music Festival Association, which acted as local presenter and guarantor against possible shortfalls in ticket revenue.  In the depression year 1930, for instance, they had to to cough up seventy-five percent of the Met's fee. Jackson Dick was the Festival head during the Fox years, shown here in 1953 greeting stars Jean Madeira (left) and Roberta Peters at the train station.


The prime mover behind bringing the Opera to the Fox was Mrs. James H. Frazer of the Junior League, that exclusive and restricted social club which contained The Five Hundred most influential and well-to-do Atlanta Ladies.  Frazer contacted Metropolitan Board member and Atlanta socialite Mrs. Harold Cooledge, and she in turn contacted the Met and the dormant Festival. A deal was struck that made everybody happy, and the Fox was adopted by the Junior League.

The Festival men would continue to act as guarantors, and the League agreed to publicize the attractions, sell the tickets, and publish the souvenir program book, receiving as a donation the advertising revenues, about $25,000 in current figures.  All of the Atlanta players, including my mom (with the halo) were volunteers. 


The best Junior League souvenir book cover was illustrated by John Kollock for the pivotal 1961 season.

No shame was attached to vanity program ads which promoted neither Jaguars nor Kroger's.

Patrons were entitled to purchase a pair of season tickets on the condition that they paid to the Festival the sizable annual fee of five bucks (about $70 in 2017) which would guarantee their seating location in perpetuity.  The Fox seated 1500 more than the Met in New York, including fifty standing room, shown below returning from intermission. 

By the fifth year (1951), sell-out seasons had become the rule.  

Mrs. Harold Cooledge and Rudolf Bing, in Atlanta's first sell-out season and his first with the Met, at the Fox front doors.

Patrons from out of town flocked the Fox, as shown in this Junior League chart.

Cautiously, only three operas were presented in the first seasons, but as the demand for tickets increased yearly, more play dates were added, so that by 1960 the Met played a full week of eight different operas.  As this program book title page indicates, what they came for was Opera, and which opera they saw was of small consequence.

Some patrons, it was said, had their lawyers revise their wills to pass onto their children the coveted season tickets.  But whether they attended the Saturday matinee with their heirs in tow,

or attended all seven nighttime attractions,

The Met in Atlanta was first and last a social occasion of the highest order, causing even the most sedate matrons to run, not walk, to the box office.

For many, the intermission was the best part.

In the 1962 season, the Met committed the fatal error of presenting an intermissionless opera.   Atlanta Journal Society editor Edith Hills Coogler summarized the catastrophe in her next day's post mortem (inset).


The stage attractions were top notch, and even with the reduced settings, they were spectacles of great majesty, wonderful to behold.

In 1964, declining motion picture revenue led the Fox to install larger "luxury" seats in the orchestra section, thus reducing its capacity by 528 seats, which only increased the opera ticket madness.


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An advertisement boosting Atlanta shows the crowds approaching "Nabucco," the 1961 season closer.   But all was not well in paradise, as the inset shows:
   
From opening day on Christmas 1929, the Atlanta Fox Theatre was a house segregated by race, as mandated by custom, as well as by State and local laws. 

Black people entered at (1) and purchased their tickets.  They then climbed an exterior stair (2) to reach the 188-seat gallery (3). White people entered from Peachtree Street.

Located next to the Stage Entrance, the "colored entrance," shown then and now, with the ticket window beneath a covered archway, and the uncovered stairway beyond.

The Gallery was physically separated from the Dress Circle by a continuous three foot high cement knee-wall with no openings. Thus the white projectionists, having no access to the passenger elevators (for whites only), had to carry heavy film canisters up the nine floors to the booth.

The Gallery had its own paltry toilets, nowhere near approaching the grandeur of the downstairs Lounges, which the "Negroes" could see only in their dreams.

In the Atlanta of the day, theatres designated "colored" were listed in newspapers beneath all white facilities.

Besides the Fox, separate seating for blacks was offered in other houses including the Municipal Auditorium,  Loew's Grand, the Capitol, the Buckhead, and the Roxy, its neon and seamy side entrance shown here.

Local black newspapers decried black patronization of galleries in white theatres (in favor of black-operated venues) but to no avail, for there was nowhere else to see first-run films.  This Atlanta Independent cartoon of 1921 depicts the back way into the Loew's Grand, terming the traitors "alley bats."

White Atlanta Society could not conceive of integrated facilities, for the only black people they knew were their own servants.  To illustrate their thinking, here is the advance 1947 program proof red-lined by the Junior League to eliminate the word "Negro" in favor of "slave."  In the final version, the dance was referred to as "Moorish," to match the decor of  the theatre. 

Less genteel Fox employees called the gallery by its nickname, "Nigger Heaven," possibly from the 1926 novel describing life in Harlem. 

To desegregate the Fox on a permanent basis, the scheme hit upon by an Atlanta civil rights group was to force the Fox to turn away  "test" black patrons.  The group could then appeal directly to the Met in New York.

Two days after the test, Bing summarily passed the ball back to Atlanta.

Bing had big troubles of his own.  When the staggering construction costs for the new Lincoln Center house were announced, the orchestra demanded more money, resulting in a strike later that year.  Negations led to a settlement.

Three weeks later Bing, still on tour, changed his mind, and his decision made front page news in The New York Times.  The article cites Detroit as an example for Atlanta to follow.

On May 30th, the Atlanta Music Festival promptly responded that they'd never practiced discrimination and reiterated that [the unobtainable] tickets were sold "first come, first serve."

By July, an understanding was reached with the Fox, likely due to the intercession of Mayor Harstfield, who wanted a city "too busy to hate."

The "Colored Entrance" sign was retired, and cuts were made left and right in the Great Wall,  handily opening up the gallery for almost two hundred clamoring white patrons.  From the review of 1962's opener, the intermissionless "Elektra."

By the time the opera left town, the City of Atlanta announced the desegregation of all the downtown movie houses, that "two Negroes each week would be admitted to each of the four downtown theatres until June 1, 1962, after which there will be no restriction."

In 1969 the Met departed the Fox for the new Civic Center, which Mayor Ivan Allen had built specifically to match the original Fox seating capacity of 4512, so to encourage opera patronage by blacks.  The new venue was miles away from Peachtree Street in every sense, and Bing objected, delaying the transfer for a year.



In 1986, the Met shut down the tour for good.  So with neither whimper nor bang, an era ended.


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Opera in Atlanta is alive and well.  To view the excellent upcoming attractions produced by the Atlanta Opera, click here.

To view the complete 1962 Junior League program book, click here.

To see a roster of all Met operas which played the Fox, click here.

Bibliography
Bing, Rudolf, 5000 Nights at the Opera, 1972
Eaton, Quaintance, Opera Caravan: Adventures of the Metropolitan on Tour, 1883-1956, 1957
Fitzgerald, Gerald,  Annals of the Metropolitan Opera, 1883-1985, 1989
Goodson, Steve, Highbrows, Hillbillies and Hellfire, 2007
Hall, Ben, The Best Remaining Seats, 1961
Jenkins, James, Murder in Atlanta! 1981
Kuhn, Clifford, Living Atlanta: an Oral History, 1990
Robinson, Francis, Celebration: The Metropolitan Opera, 1979

Notes and photo credits
Title photo, author's collection.
"The Met first played..."  Atlanta Constitution, May 6, 1968
"The singers became the pets.." Bing's book, Robinson's book, AJC articles, Photo: Atlanta History Center
"The Fox itself..."  Atlanta Constitution, February 4, 1940  Emory archive.
"The world premiere..."  Atlanta Journal, November 12, 1946
"The Fox was a super-deluxe..."  Photo: Henry Groskinsky, Joe Patten collection, inset, Lane Brothers GSU collection.
"To call the Met's spring jaunt a tour..."  Bing and Robinson books.  Photo from web.
"At it's peak.." ibid.
"To tote the physical..."  ibid; interview Lee Freeman IA stagehand, Photo Floyd Jillson from Patten collection.
"Organized chaos reigned..."  Photo Jillson from Patten collection
"I wish Toscanini.."  Atlanta Constitution, April 27, 1950
"Johnson was in charge..."  Atlanta Journal, April 2, 1948
"The next season..." Atlanta Journal, April 29, 1949
"The Met General Manager..."  AJC Magazine, April 14, 1962 "The Man who put Pep in the Met," Katherine Barnwell, Photo Jillson/Patten.
"Never have I known..."  Bing book, Photo Jillson/Patten
"Bing's only misgiving..."  Bing book, plan of old Met from web, new drawing by author.
"The depth problem..."  Atlanta Constitution Fox ad, September 27, 1953, enhanced from web.
"While Bing..."  Photo, 1961 program book, Atlanta History Center.
"In 1910..."     Letter to editor from Jackson Dick, AJC April 29, 1953, Photo: Atlanta Constitution, May 1, 1953.
"The prime mover behind..."  Program book 1949 "A Dream Come True,"  Photo program book 1963.
"The Festival men would continue.."  Program book 1949, Junior League yearbook 1952, Photos, program books 1953, 1965, 1954.
"The best Junior League..."  Emory archives.
"No shame was attached..."  Program books 1952 and 1954.
"Patrons were entitled to purchase..."  Jackson Dick letter to editor op. cit., Photo Jillson/Patten.
"By the fifth year..."  Jackson Dick letter to Editor, Photo Atlanta Journal, March 15, 1954
"Mrs. Harold Cooledge..."  Emory archive.
"Patrons from out of town..."  Program book 1962.
"Some patrons..."  Photo Jillson/Patten
"Or attended all..."  Photo Jillson/Patten
"The Met in Atlanta..."  Photo Jillson/Patten
"For many..."  Photo Jillson/Patten
"In the 1962 season..."  Chamber of Commerce ad, 1963 Atlanta Magazine; review inset, Atlanta Journal, May 1, 1962.
"The stage attractions were top notch..."  Photo Jillson/Patten.
"In 1964, declining..."  Atlanta Journal, December 16, 1964
"An advertisement boosting..."  C&S Bank ad, Atlanta Magazine 1962, inset Atlanta Journal, May 4, 1961.
"From opening day..."  Photo by author.
"Black people entered..."  Drawing annotated by author.
"Located next to the..."  Photo left from web, right, by author.
"The gallery was physically..."  Photo by Trevor Carr.
"The Gallery had..."  Drawing courtesy, Theatre Historical Society
 "In the Atlanta of..."  Atlanta Journal, May 16, 1960.
"Besides the Fox..."  Loew's (Goodson book); Capitol (July 24, 1926 Motion Picture News); Buckhead (Atlanta Journal ad March 3, 1932), Photo Lane Brothers, GSU archive.
"Local black newspapers.."  Goodson book, Atlanta Independent February 3, 1921.
"While Atlanta Society..."  Emory archive.
"Less gentile..."  Cliff Clower notebook, Joe Patten collection; Photo from web.
"To desegregate the Fox..."  Atlanta Journal, May 4, 1961.
"Two days after the test...:  Atlanta Journal, May 6, 1961.
"Bing had big troubles..."  Atlanta Constitution, August 8, 1961.
"But three weeks following..."  New York Times, May 24, 1961.
"On May 30th..."  Atlanta Constitution, May 30, 1961.
"By July..."  Atlanta Constitution, July 25, 1961.
"The Colored Entrance..." Atlanta Constitution, May 1, 1962.
"By the time the opera..."  Atlanta Journal, May 15, 1962.
"In 1969..."  Atlanta Journal, May 17, 1968
"In 1986.."  Photo Joe Patten collection.

Acknowledgements
Joe Patten, Patti Patten, Janice McDonald, IATSE Local 927 members Lee Freeman, Phil Hutcheson, and Cary Oldknow, John Tanner, Garry Motter, Caroline McCart Swaney, Michael Zande, Rick Zimmerman, and Helen Matthews of the Atlanta History Center.  Thanks to the Theatre Historical Society, visit their site by clicking here.




(c) Bob Foreman, June, 2017