The Grapevine Art & Soul Salon

Musings on Being and Becoming Human

Issue 18


Leow's (where "Gone with the Wind" premiered), The Roxy, the Paramount ... one by one they've closed down, leaving the Fox as the last grand theater in Atlanta. The Fox, too, was about to be razed in the 1970s, but the threat created such a huge public outcry that the demolition halted long enough to muster save-the-Fox funds through a campaign involving benefit concerts from famous bands. Finally, the U.S. Government stepped in and put the Fox on the historical landmark registry.

Far too many of Atlanta's once vibrant landmarks have been torn down in the name of "progress," and while that fact makes my blood boil, it also makes any trip to the Fox that much more special. This event was part of the 40th anniversary of saving the Fox as well as the last segment of the Summer Film Festival this year. It just happened to coincide with my birthday (thanks, Dad!).

Entitled "Legends of Silent Film," the program promised to showcase "Mighty Mo," the Fox's incomparable 1929 Moller theater organ. Besides being the second-largest theater organ ever made (and arguably the finest), Mo is one of the few that is still in the building it was designed for. It is a thrilling instrument made to take the place of an entire orchestra and to recreate an impressive array of sound effects to accompany silent screen shenanigans.

As I was overcoming my own familiar rush of dizziness at the top of the stairs in the Fox Theatre's astonishing auditorium, I overheard a comment from one elderly man to another: "It made me feel weak in the knees in middle school, and it still does now." People of all ages have to pause there and adjust for a second before being able to move on and find a seat.

Entering the Fox becomes a rite of passage, like stepping off the street and suddenly finding yourself in 14th century Constantinople, in the middle of a bright blue night with the stars twinkling around a Saracen moon. What dreams are about to be conjured, created, realized? In this case, dreams of the past, reconstructed through films accompanied by an instrument that dominated Atlanta's recent past as the city with the grandest theater organ imaginable, Mighty Mo! Today, the organist-in-residence at the Fox was in poor health, so putting the organ through its paces for this event was the president of the American Silent Film Association, also a highly-accomplished organist. This is one of the most complicated instruments in the world to play.

First, we were treated to a Warner Bros. cartoon on the main screen, using the original 1929 projector. I was part of the last generation to see cartoons instead of previews before movies. Watching Porky Pig before the feature at a movie theater brought back a flood of memories from my childhood and gave me even more pleasure in the surprise and amazement expressed by all the children present at this event. A perfect table-setter!

Our host went through the usual greetings and thanks before describing the organ and showing off its range of sounds. In addition to being a full church pipe organ, Mo has real instruments attached to its keys, ranging from a xylophone and glockenspiel all the way to a full grand piano. It can be made to rumble and whistle-blow like a steam locomotive.

Then it was time for the show. We saw three famous silent shorts, beginning with Buster Keaton's "One Week," which contained one of the most dangerous stunts in all of cinematic history, as well as a locomotive to bring out one of the prolific skills of Mighty Mo. After a brief intermission, we were treated to a Western comedy with Harold Lloyd and got to see some non-politically correct moments (which we were warned about in advance). The finale featured Laurel and Hardy at their finest in "Two Tars," which involved the wrecking and dismemberment of about two dozen classic automobiles (actions that made me, a lover of classic cars, wince).

The movies were not new to me; I've seen them many times during Saturday morning reruns and in film classes where I learned to love them. But what was really special about the day, besides watching these fun-filled films with my dad in such a historic and magnificent venue, with the original film projector and world class instrumental accompaniment, was watching and listening to the children in the audience. Hearing their genuine, unaffected laughter at the antics of a much simpler time and, during intermissions, watching them so full of curiosity, crowding around Mighty Mo to ask questions instead of thumbing through I-phones in the lobby, gave me a renewed sense of hope for the future. I could see clearly that children need to be exposed to such things to hold onto what is human in them.

Every time a landmark is torn down instead of preserved and displayed and, when possible, kept in active use, we lose an opportunity to retain our culture and humanity. A little something dies inside us and we are the lesser for it. It is one of my goals to do what I can to keep history alive. Spending part of my birthday this year in this wonderful place that doesn't seem to lose its allure with the passage of time, where people have made such an effort to hold it in reverence for its beauty and rich evocation of the past, where children are present to marvel over the grandeur of the occasion, with night magically appearing in the middle of day, and with a gigantic organ full of whistles and rumbles and roars and riffs that accompany the most outrageous behavior of grownups on the silver screen ... all this made me smile deep within.

Here are some photos that suggest the mood of the event.

Copyright 2015, Barbara Knott. All Rights Reserved.