The Phantom, the Fox and the Braves

The Phantom of the Opera opened in London in 1986 and on Broadway in 1988 and went on to become the longest running and financially successful musical. A touring company began in Los Angeles in 1991 with a scheduled stop in Atlanta. When the tour was announced, we bought tickets to see the show in the Fox Theater on October 4, a Friday night.

In 1986, the Atlanta Braves finished last in the Western Division of the National League, a position they held every year, except one, going into the 1991 baseball season. Their futility was measured by averaging 97 loses per year over that time. Braves fans began to sprout all over the country as Ted Turner's super station, TBS, broadcast most of the games to a national audience that watched as the Braves began to win more games than they lost.

The Fox Theater on Peachtree Street in downtown Atlanta is one of those theaters that has been forced to reinvent itself more than once. Like many movie houses of the 40's and 50's, it was excessively ornate and hard to maintain as suburban theaters pulled patrons from the central cities. The Fox was saved from the wrecking ball by a community rallying to raise funds, renovate and secure a National Historic Landmark designation for the building in 1976. The Fox met the Phantom in the early fall of 1991, neither expecting to have to accommodate the Braves.

September saw the Braves move closer to the top spot in their division behind the Los Angeles Dodgers until on September 27th, the Braves, who were 3 games behind with 9 remaining to play, began a winning streak of 8 games that did not end until the division title was claimed. Fans at the games had adopted a “war chant” and a “tomahawk chop” motion with their forearms during the season that was reaching manic proportions during the winning streak. It seemed that the whole city had taken up the cause of a team that sought to be the first worst to first baseball team.

We lived in Birmingham, where the Braves were causing some interest, and were not the biggest baseball fans, so it did not really bother us that we would be away from TBS on the night that the Braves would pass the Dodgers for first place. I believe today that we were alone in those feelings as we entered the Fox. The lobby was congested with people listening to the early innings of the baseball game and the chops were moving across the lobby like a stadium “wave”. Transistor radios and tv's were everywhere in that lobby as people kept up with each pitch and many of them were not turned off as people took their seats and listened to the overture.

During the first act, every break in the music allowed the buzz from the game to be heard above the performance. Even in the darkened theater, you could still see the tomahawks as the Braves fell behind. When the Braves went ahead to stay in the late innings, everyone in the theater was aware that something was happening even though the first act was building to its crescendo. The performers did a remarkable job of “the show must go on” even though the distractions were obvious to everyone.

I have attended plays were management felt the need to announce all manner of things, from last minute cast substitutions to inclement weather notices but the only time I have ever seen a baseball score announced was that Friday night in Atlanta. When everyone was seated for the second act, a lone figure walked out onto the stage to announce to all that the Braves had won. He not only gave the score but gave a recap of the rally that created the victory. The cheers and chops rolled through the Fox Theater.

Community involvement is palpable whether it be from a sports team or saving an old theater as a part of a city's character. I doubt that the Georgians who organized to save the Fox in 1976 could imagine the decorated balcony facades as a backdrop for “tomahawk chops” but also have to believe that they would be pleased to see the results of their labor. The Braves continued winning baseball games before finally losing in the final game of the World Series and the run of the Phantom continued to be interrupted by the city's enthusiasm. The Fox finally put televisions in the lobby of the theater in an effort to keep the show on track. It was the only time the theater made such a concession.

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