No Exorcism For The Phantom

Since 1979, Joe Patten has been living above the Fox Theatre in Atlanta. And he is going to stay there, at least for the time being.

The nonprofit that runs the theatre recently negotiated for the 83-year-old to evacuate his apartment, and that controversy became one of the biggest stories of the local news.

Patten, known as the “Phantom of the Fox,” signed a leasing agreement 31 years ago that would allow him to stay put for as long as he lived. That is, unless he became “totally and permanently disabled” and if a panel of three doctors determined that it would be in his best interest to be hospitalized or placed in a nursing home.

Patten is not totally disabled and can climb the 70 steps to his apartment, although he does so with a noticeable stoop. However, the board of trustees of the nonprofit organization that runs the venue voted to end Patten’s lease Aug. 30, just over two weeks after he returned home from a short stint in the hospital and a rehabilitation facility following a stroke.

But this isn’t just a man nobody knows or cares about. Patten saved the theatre, built in the late 1920s, from destruction not once, but twice, and was its longtime technical director until he retired in 2001. He is even credited with restoring the theatre’s “Mighty Mo” pipe organ in 1963.

He gained his nickname for his seeming ability to exit one door in the theatre only to reappear in another location almost immediately.

“One of the reasons he was so valuable to the saving of the Fox is because he knows this building better than any human being,” said Bob Foreman, a longtime Fox supporter and a friend of Patten.

Earlier this month Patten attorney Emmet Bondurant sued the nonprofit organization Atlanta Landmarks, saying the trustees are trying to unfairly evict Patten. Bondurant claimed in the lawsuit that Atlanta Landmarks discriminated against his client based on physical limitations, a violation of the Georgia Fair Housing Act. The lawsuit also claimed that, while Patten was still recuperating from his mid-July stroke, members of the board repeatedly visited and told him he couldn’t return.

“This is my home,” Patten said recently. “I would love to live here until my dying day and that’s it.”

The controversy struck a nerve in Atlanta, where Patten has long been treasured by supporters of the theatre. Supporters have, in front of the building, protested the board’s action and websites devoted to Patten’s cause were established.

“He just evokes the spirit of the past that you can’t find,” said one protestor. “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.”

Patten declined to sign a new agreement that can be terminated at any time without cause on 60 days notice. 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 which 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.”

There’s a reason why this struck a nerve:

Patten, who said he fell in love with the theatre upon his first visit in 1946, happens to be a founding trustee of Atlanta Landmarks.
The nonprofit was created in the 1970s to raise money to save the Fox from demolition. Patten and his fellow activists succeeded and, in 1979, the board asked Patten to convert some unused office space into his 3,640-square-foot living space. Patten agreed to spend at least $50,000 to renovate the area, and the cost would be considered his rent for the term of the lease, which was set to expire after his death.

In April 1996, a fire broke out in the theatre and Patten is credited with pinpointing the fire’s location so firefighters could get there quickly.

The story looks to have a happy ending: On Oct. 27, a judge ruled Patten could stay in his apartment while he and Atlanta Landmarks work out an agreement.

“Both sides are working together to work this thing out, and it’s my hope that they will be able to work it out,” Fulton County Superior Court Judge Jerry Baxter said.

Patten, who waited in a courtroom while the judge and lawyers met, was “tickled to death” after Bondurat explained that he would be allowed to stay.

“It’s wonderful. I was hoping it would turn out like this,” he said, smiling. “That’s exactly what I wanted.”

The Fox Theatre released a statement saying the parties had agreed to keep Patten’s original lease in place “for the time being.”

“It has and it continues to be the intent of Atlanta Landmarks to allow Mr. Patten to live in the apartment as long as he is able,” the Fox said. “We hope that today’s proceedings will lead to a mutually beneficial resolution, which has always been our desire.”