FIRE CAN’T FOIL ATLANTA’S FOX THEATRE
TEC Recovery Experts Learn Why “There’s No Business Like Show Business!”
By Larry Mainers
Atlanta’s Fox Theatre, dubbed “The Fabulous Fox” by the city’s fanatic patrons, has been described by reviewers as a “beautifully outlandish, opulent and grandiose monument to the heady excesses of the pre-crash 1920’s.”
For decades, the classic motion pictures have packed this lavish palace of entertainment. The acoustics, combined with the auditorium’s rich ornamentation, made the Fox the highlight of the New York Metropolitan Opera’s spring tour.
And yet, notwithstanding such a glamorous history, the Fox was targeted for destruction.
Only through the valiant efforts of Atlanta Landmarks, Inc., a small society of Atlantans committed to historic preservation, and their “Save the Fox” fund-raising campaign, was the Fox saved.
To think of the Fox on fire, or taking the mortal blows of the demolition ball, is not unlike a vision of Mecca, Jerusalem or the Vatican crackling in flames. Yet, that’s what almost happened. And were it not for Atlanta’s finest (the Fire Department), a few exceptionally alert people, and the TEC disaster recovery team, the fabulous Fox — one of three of its kind in the whole world — would today be not much more than landfill.
“The Fox Is On Fire!”
On April 15, 1996 at 3:00 AM in the morning, Jesse McCurrie flopped into bed, like a rag doll, exhausted after a typical day as Sound Manager of the Fox, Three hours later, he was startled by a frantic phone call from his sister — “Jesse! The Fox is on fire!” (Something old and electrical had gone awry in the attic.)
He ran from his apartment just across the street from the Fox, in his bathrobe and pajamas, clutching a camera.
As the glass elevator descended, it hit him: with revulsion and alarm, he looked out across the street to see a huge plume of gray smoke defiling the low-lit early morning sky and flames roaring 50 feet above the roof. He mumbled prayerfully, “Please, don’t get the theater. Please.”
Fire trucks were already roaring to the scene, sirens screaming, breaking the sacred silence of the dawn. “Who called the fire department?”
McCurrie learned fast that it was Joe Fatten, who was up and out of his bed at 5:00 a.m. to pull the alarm box handle on a nearby utility pole. Fatten, known by some as “Phantom of the Fox,” for helping restore and rebuild the Fox’s monstrous Moiler pipe organ, was the hero once again, thanks to the fact that he lives at the Fox and has three bloodhound’s sense of smell.
Jessie McCurrie stood on the sidewalk, half-stunned, taking dozens of photos, as the four-alarm fire engaged 100 of Atlanta’s best, who attacked the flames with the passion of a charging army.
Water sprayed from two ladder trucks on the exterior, and on the inside, on the fire wall that separated the theater from the blaze.
The Atlanta landmark was soaked with 5,000 gallons of water a minute, according to Lt. Wayne Cox. “This was equivalent to a literal tidal wave,” said Cox. “I’ve been in two of them when I was stationed overseas in the navy.” In four hours, the fire was out. The Fox was saved.
The glorious tribute that the Atlanta Fire Department received soon thereafter from the patrons, the media, the man on the street, and well-wishers near and far was well-deserved.
The AFD saved the beloved theater from burning into a heap of rubble.
THE TASK OF RECOVERY
So much for phase one. Now to the equally formidable task of restoring the Fox. TEC’s president, Larry Mainers, and two of his key management people, Bill and Debbie Williams, learned of the disaster on the local news. They all rushed to the scene to offer help, finding added motivation as season ticket holders! Mainers was thus invited to meet with Assistant General Manager Jay Constance, Production Manager Paul Ackerman, and Jesse McCurrie.
Here was the deal: Make this soaking, smelly, sordid mess look like it never happened. Clean and restore all of the high-tech electronics and oh, just one little twist, have it done by 6:00 PM tomorrow night. Why? So that the great Broadway hit, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dream Coat, could go on as scheduled. The Fox’s management was obsessed with doing whatever it took to avoid disappointing their faithful ticket holders. Talk about optimism!
The fast-as-a-fox management team had already engaged a full-service restoration and carpet cleaning company to come in at once for a non-stop assault. They worked like ants on amphetamines.
Now, what about the massive bank of electrical, computer and sound equipment? What about the speaker columns, lighting and projection equipment exposed to smoke, soot and water?
TEC’s Larry Mainers had no time to waste. He had his Disaster Recovery Director, Bill Williams, bring in an advance team of recovery experts. A meeting was held with department managers of the theater — from the front to the back of the house.
A determination was made as to exactly what house equipment was absolutely essential to go on with the show. Technicians were given assignments in order of importance.
A base of operations was set up under the stage in one of the many honeycomb-like chambers that performers use prior to shows. Equipment was set up for the restoration work, which included chemical cleaning, drying and testing. Crews assembled chemical baths, clean air machines, and electrostatic discharge (ESD)-free work areas. Air ionizers were brought in along with ventilation blowers to ensure clean air for both TEC employees and exposed equipment. This HEPA filtered system is essential for clean air. Clean air is an absolute in prevention of recontamination. As a by-product, it also provides clean air for electronic restoration technicians to work.
The first order of business was to remove all EDP equipment from the burned front offices. These charred pieces once formed the accounting and subscription service. Without these functions the Fox was at a loss to continue its business operation. Safety-trained movers with Hazwoper 40 Certification entered the building just hours after the fire was extinguished. With hard hats, boots, and flashlights they went from room to room searching for computer equipment. Once identified and tagged, electronic components were moved to the restoration site.
Twenty-four electronic restoration technicians were rushed to the theater to dismantle, clean, and test lighting panels, sound mixer boards, amplifiers, telephones, projection units, spotlights, controller units, personal computers, servers, scanners, uninterruptible power supply (UPS) systems, speakers, and many other pieces of equipment.
TEC crews were grouped according to their specialty and were assigned equipment needed by showtime. Some TEC experts were flown in from various cities on the east coast to ensure that the show would go on. By 3:00 PM that Monday afternoon, a full complement of experts were hard at work. They worked throughout the night and into the next day as if on a military mission. In the morning, several fresh technicians came to support the overnight crew.
To the delight and astonishment of the Fox management, the Broadway crew and the cast, everything was ready in time. The show was a sellout. Outside of a very light lingering smell of smoke, everything looked as it was before. No one was disappointed.
Even after the show’s opening, the high-tech restoration continued, as computers from the front office, many of them melted down from the heat, were either restored to service or had the hard drive pulled so that information could be reclaimed in a Cleanroom. Media and document restoration was performed between Tuesday and Friday. Some of the historical hand-written documents restored were considered priceless.
Equipment that was deemed irreplaceable was meticulously cleaned and restored that week, including the ‘Cloud and Stars Machine,’ an original 1923 electrical/mechanica1 apparatus that produces the twinkling star and moving cloud effect on the Fox’s domed ceiling. Also an original in-house phone system was cleaned and restored to use. Numerous other stage pieces were carefully renewed, some of which have been in use at the Fox since its opening day.
“It’s a rare and wonderful experience,” said Mainers, “to participate in restoring a historic landmark that means so much to the local community and to the great entertainment industry. I’m grateful ... I’m honored to be a part of this incredible undertaking. When I come to the Fox with my family, I can’t help but remember those special faces of Jesse and Joe, Jay and Paul, and all those fire-fighting heroes, and how we all played our own parts ... offstage.”
Larry Mainers is the President and Chairman of Technological Environment Cleaning (TEC) International.
This article adapted from Vol. 9#3.
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