ATLANTA | Behind the faux Moorish splendor of Atlanta’s historic Fox Theatre lives the “Phantom of the Fox” — a beloved local figure who twice helped save the landmark from destruction and now is battling to stay in the place where he has lived for more than 30 years.
Joe Patten, 83, occupies a spacious dwelling nestled beneath the theater’s onion-shaped dome. His original lease, drawn up in the 1970s after he helped save the Fox from the wrecking ball, said he could live there for life.
Earlier this month his lawyer sued the nonprofit organization that runs the Fox, saying the trustees of Atlanta Landmarks are trying to unfairly evict Mr. Patten.
The conflict has struck a nerve in Atlanta, where Mr. Patten has long been treasured by supporters of the Fox.
“This is my home,” Mr. Patten said in a recent interview. “I would love to live here until my dying day and that’s it.”
There are websites devoted to his cause. His supporters can frequently be seen parading in front of the Fox, urging people to boycott the venue until the trustees agree to reinstate Mr. Patten’s original lease.
“He just evokes the spirit of the past that you can’t find,” said Gordon Dyker, who waved a sign and urged passers-by to support Mr. Patten before a recent show. “He’s priceless and there’s so many people that love what he’s done for the city, and he’s actually become our friend, and we want to take care of him as best we can.”
The board of trustees voted to end Mr. Patten’s lease Aug. 30, just two weeks or so after he returned home from a short stint in the hospital and a rehabilitation facility following a stroke in mid-July. The lawsuit claims that before the vote, while Mr. Patten was still recuperating, members of the board repeatedly visited and told him he couldn’t return.
The Fox said in a statement that the board has tried for nearly two months “to engage Mr. Patten and his attorney in an effort to negotiate a new agreement that would permit him to continue to live at the Fox Theatre. Unfortunately neither Mr. Patten nor his attorney has accepted any of our efforts in this regard.”
Mr. Patten has declined to sign the new agreement — which can be terminated at any time without cause on 60 days notice — saying he wants to be allowed to stay in his apartment under the original conditions.
Built in the late 1920s as a Shriners mosque, the Fox is lavishly appointed with minarets, arched doorways and terrazzo flooring. The auditorium, which has hosted countless movies, concerts and plays over the years, evokes the feel of an ancient Arabian courtyard, the ceiling painted a deep blue with small twinkling lights that mimic stars.
When the Fox was threatened with demolition in the 1970s, Mr. Patten sprang to its defense. He is a founding trustee of Atlanta Landmarks, created to raise money to save the Fox.
Mr. Patten and his fellow activists succeeded and, in 1979, the board of trustees asked Mr. Patten to convert some unused office space into an apartment and live there as a caretaker, the lawsuit says. Under the terms of the 1979 lease, Mr. Patten agreed to spend at least $50,000 to renovate and convert a rundown office space in the theater into an apartment where he would live. The renovation costs would be considered his rent for the term of the lease, which was set to expire after his death.
Shortly after he moved in, Mr. Patten became the theater’s technical director, a position he held until he retired in 2001.