Keeping Mo Mighty: a Tiny Restoration Job For a Giant Legend

Michael Purser 2022 Crop2 Headshot
2 16 21 Michael Buffing Whole Theater

2 16 21 Fox Theatre ExteriorIt was a special day when I got a phone call from Josslyn Stiner of the Fox Theatre Institute asking if I’d be interested in taking on a very small project at the Fox Theatre here in Atlanta. “Young lady, I’ll take on any restoration project at The Fox,” was how I responded. As she put it, “Mo has left the building for the first time since 1929 and is spending time at spa getting a much needed refurbishing.” They wanted to get things ready so when he returned, the floor would look like it did 91 years ago. But hold on, I’m getting ahead of myself. Before I introduce you to Mo, I need to introduce you to the Fox.

How the Fox Became Fabulous

In 1928, the Shriners were looking to build new headquarters and chose a spot on Atlanta’s famous Peachtree St. Not long after they broke ground, they burned through their budget and realized they needed to partner with someone to complete the project. Enter movie mogul William Fox, who knew opportunity when he saw it. His empire of Fox theaters numbered in the hundreds across the nation, and he needed Southern exposure and a venue to host his movies. He stepped in and got his movie auditorium, and the Shriners got their offices and ballroom for functions and entertaining.

In an omen of things to come, the Fox Theatre opened its doors to anxious Atlanta audiences on Christmas Day, 1929, as the Great Depression was getting traction. The Moorish architecture outside was just a hint of what was to come when you stepped inside. If movies were meant to entertain and “carry you away,” then the Fox Theatre was the vehicle you wanted to depart on.

2 16 21 Fox Theatre Interior 600Once inside the deep entry arcade, you are swallowed up by grand staircases and lobbies that make you feel your position in society just got bumped up a few notches. As your eyes and mind adjust to this luxurious environment, you often feel like you are an owl as your head pivots on your shoulders to take it all in. Before you head into the mezzanine or balcony section, you would be wise to brace your jaw to prevent serious injury when it starts to plummet. As you entered either area, your eyes are drawn upward to take in sights like you’ve never seen before. Above your head it looks like you’re walking out from under a traditional Bedouin tent into a courtyard with castle walls and minarets surrounding you. As you look up at a cobalt blue sky, the stars are twinkling as low puffy clouds slide gently by. Balconies flank either side of the stage and you fully expect a sheik and his princess to appear and offer greetings. As impressive as all this may seem, the real treat comes when you head to the restrooms. Suffice it to say you’ve never relieved yourself in such luxury. There are no low points in a visit to this dreamland.

Within three years after opening, the $3 million building was auctioned off on the courthouse steps for $75,000. It maintained its status as a movie and entertainment theater, and hundreds of thousands still have fond memories of their time spent in that surreal room. Over the years it attracted the headliners of the day: Sinatra, Abbot & Costello, Dean Martin & Jerry Lewis, Doris Day, John Wayne and FDR, to name a few. It became a favorite concert venue. Elvis created pandemonium in the mid-50’s. Springsteen was packing them in for $8.50 a ticket in ’78, before he was The Boss. Also in ’78, the Rolling Stones wanted a break from the mega venues and hosted a concert under the name of The Cockroaches for $10 a pop. More recently it was the site of Prince’s last concert before his untimely death.

It hasn’t always been smooth sailing for the Fox. I mentioned earlier that the number of Fox theaters in the ’20s and ’30s numbered in the hundreds. Today, there’s fewer than 10, and our Fox is lucky to be in that group. Had it not been for a group who had fond memories of their times in the Fox and their willingness to dig in their heels, its Moorish façade and lavish interior would have been replaced with …. a damn parking lot. Yep, I’m not kidding. I swear there are developers that would pave over their granny’s grave to make a few bucks. Thankfully, that didn’t happen.

Atlanta’s 90-Year-Old Rock Star: Mighty Mo

2 16 21 Mo InstalledMo is not only mighty; he’s big. He’s a purebred theater organ made by the Moeller Co. and not some church organ who ran away with the choir director. He was placed on a wooden platform in 1929 that majestically ascends from below the orchestra pit to perform for gob-smacked audiences. His 3,622 pipes are behind the curtained balconies on either side of the stage. For theater organs, he’s second in size only to the organ at Radio City Music Hall. When he starts flexing his musical muscles, it can feel like a railroad train is headed your way. They don’t call him Mighty for nothing.

2 16 21 Mo Thickness Img 3660crop2Mo had never left the building before, but with closure due to the pandemic, the Fox Theatre Institute felt like Mo could … mosey to a spa for some much needed R & R. This exposed the pad he’d been sitting on since day one, and this was the object of our restoration effort. And it was everything you’d think a 90-plus-year-old floor would be that supported such a magnificent beast. The wood is vintage longleaf yellow pine, tongue and groove and a healthy 1 1/2 inches thick. Whatever they put on it in 1929 was still on it in 2021, along with some light wear patterns. There were no sanding marks of any kind, so the floor was well-milled and flat when it was installed. There were a variety of holes, or openings, that had accumulated over the years to allow power lines, pipes and whatnot to feed the beast his power.

‘Live and Onstage at the Fox!’

As with all of my preservation projects, the orders were no sanding and no loss of original material. This is what I developed Passive Refinishing for, so that’s what Jenna Novic, my business partner, and I did. Mo’s platform measured less than 100 square feet, so the work went quickly. Using chemicals and synthetic pads, we removed the 90-year-old coatings, and the quartersawn pine looked every bit as good as it did in 1929. There were a few shadows where additional finishes had been put down over the years, and on the rear of the platform was a very noticeable shadow from excessive original finish that had been allowed to pool. Jenna handles wood repairs, and she tidied up some rough edges on one of the openings with some very nice quartersawn pine that seemed to be made for the repair.

Once we completed our removal of surface accumulations, it was time for the application of a new finish. I’ve had tremendous success working with Pallmann’s Magic Oil in similar situations, and it proved to be the right choice again. We buffed in multiple applications till we got a nice rich luster.

The project had a surreal feel, as all the work was done at stage level in a completely empty theater. Leigh Burns, director of the Fox Theatre Institute, and her workers could not have been more accommodating. Because of COVID, we had the run of the place and were told go anywhere we wanted to in the cavernous building. If the door was unlocked, we just kept exploring. And the few people around were glad to unlock any door and give us a behind-the-scenes tour we’ll never forget.

I’ve lived in Atlanta for 50-plus years and been to the Fox many times for concerts, movies and tours. Each time I go is a memorable time. This old building doesn’t get old; it just gets better.2 16 21 Fm21 Wdwks Mo Platform Before Dsc02540

2 16 21 Michael Buffing Whole Theater

2 16 21 Buffing Oil

2 16 21 Installed After Coating

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