(CN) – Joe Patten, a Florida native whose fascination with organs, led to a lifetime of restoring and preserving Atlanta’s historic Fox Theatre, has died.
Patten, 89, died at Emory University Hospital on Thursday. His family did not announce the cause.
“Mr. Joe Patten, also known as the ‘Phantom of the Fox Theatre’ entered into rest today surrounded by family and friends and listening to his favorite organ music, family spokesman Vince Dollard said in a written statement.
At the time of his death, Patten had been living in a renovated office space inside the theater for more than 35 years, having moved in during an era when rock bands like The Who, The Rolling Stones and the Allman Brothers were frequently appearing there.
Famously, he once helped the Stones sneak out a side door of the venue after a concert and loaded them into an ambulance for a ride to the airport.
But it was an entirely different kind of music that drew Patten to the Fox Theatre. In 1946, when he was 19, Patten travelled from his hometown of Lakeland, Fla. to Atlanta specifically to check out the theatre’s pipe organ.
Known as the “Mighty Mo,” it was custom made for the Fox Theatre in 1929 for then- exorbitant price of $42,000.
Built by M. P. Möller, Inc. of Hagerstown, Md. Even today, in 2016, it is the second largest theatre organ in the world with 42 ranks, four manuals, and 376 stop tabs.
The only organ bigger is the 58-rank Wurlitzer at Radio City Music Hall, built in 1933.
By that time, aging theatres and the pipe organs many of them housed had become something of an obsession for the young man. At the time of his trip, however, the “Mighty Mo,” was in disrepair and not working.
Crestfallen, he returned home. But he never forgot the Fox Theatre or “Mighty Mo.”
Fourteen years later, in 1963, Patten moved to Atlanta and he talked the theatre’s management into letting him recondition to organ for free if they would provide the parts.
“It was my intent to get everything in this theater working as it was originally designed to,” he told The Associated Press in 2010.
By the early 1970s, Patten was the theatre’s technical director, and it was while in that role that he helped form the non-profit Atlanta Landmarks committee to preserve the storied theatre.
Originally built as a Shriners mosque in the late 1920s, the Fox was decorated with minarets, arched doorways and terrazzo floors.
Twinkling lights in the dark blue ceiling above the auditorium were mean to evoke an Arabian courtyard.
By the time the Landmark committee was formed, however, the Fox Theatre was considered expendable in some quarters, and it was slated to be demolished to make way for the offices of what was then Southern Bell.
In 1979, after the Fox Theatre was saved, the Atlanta Landmarks board of trustees asked Patten to live in it as a full-time caretaker.
Under the terms of that lease, Patten agreed to pay the cost of converting a former office space in the theatre in a home, and his expenditures approximately $50,000 would be considered his rent for the term of the lease.
Patten, a lifelong bachelor, set to work, and by the time he retired as executive director, he had effectively turned the former office space into a three-story condo filled with family antiques and a player piano.
Patten undertook the extensive renovations because his living in the theatre was supposed to be a lifetime agreement.
In fact, by the time he was done, he knew every nook and cranny of the old theatre, something which helped him save it a second time, when it fire broke out on the morning of April 15, 1996.
It was said he guided firefighters directly to the source of the blaze and helped them put it out.
But despite such heroics and the standing agreement, in 2010, the board of trustees voted to ask Patten to leave.
Patten sued the board, and the fight became rallying cry for many in Atlanta.
The board and Patten settled their differences in 2011, and he was allowed to live the rest of his life in the building.
In a statement, the Fox Theatre thanks Patten for his dedication and service.
“Mr. Patten was a man of great character, and his legacy will endure as future generations experience the Fox Theatre for years to come,” the statement said.
In this Tuesday, Oct. 12, 2010 file photo, Joe Patten, 83, known as the “Phantom of the Fox”, who has lived above the historic Fox Theatre in Atlanta for the past 31 years, stands outside the theatre, in Atlanta. (AP Photo/Rich Addicks, File)
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