ATLANTA (AP) — Joe Patten, affectionately known as the "Phantom of the Fox," spent much of his life restoring, preserving and living in Atlanta's fabulous Fox Theatre — twice saving the historic landmark from fire and demolition.
Patten died at a hospital age 89 on Thursday, surrounded by his family and friends, listening to his favorite organ music. He recently had a major stroke, fell into a coma and never woke up, his nephew Greg Patterson said.
It was Patten's love of pipe organs that was his entry into the Fox.
Growing up in Lakeland, Florida, Patten became interested in theaters and pipe organs. He was enchanted by the Fox on his first visit as a young man in 1946, but he was disappointed its great pipe organ, known as "Mighty Mo," wasn't working.
He later moved to Atlanta and, in 1963, he and a small group of friends persuaded the theater's general manager to let them restore it.
"It was my intent to get everything in this theater working as it was originally designed to," he told The Associated Press in 2010.
That began a close relationship with the Fox that would last the rest of his life.
The Fox, built in the late 1920s as a Shriners mosque, is lavishly decorated with minarets, arched doorways and terrazzo floors. With lights that mimic stars twinkling from the deep blue ceiling, the auditorium evokes an ancient Arabian courtyard.
When the Fox was threatened with demolition in the 1970s, Patten and others formed the group Atlanta Landmarks to raise money to save it. Their effort was successful and the board of trustees in 1979 asked Patten to convert unused office space into an apartment and live there as a caretaker.
Under the terms of that lease, Patten agreed to spend at least $50,000 to renovate the space, and the work would be considered his rent for the term of the lease, which was set to expire after his death.
But in 2010, the trustees voted to end his lease, prompting Patten to file a lawsuit. Many people in the city rallied in support of Patten, and the trustees reached a settlement with him in June 2011 to allow him to live out the rest of his days there.
Shortly after Patten moved into the apartment, he became the theater's technical director, a position he held until he retired in 2001. He knew the theater so well that people sometimes said he seemed to exit one door only to reappear right away in another location, earning him his affectionate nickname.
That intimate knowledge of the building also helped him save the Fox a second time when a fire started early on the morning of April 15, 1996. He's said to have helped firefighters locate the fire and get there quickly.
A door in the bedroom of his spacious, multi-level apartment leads to a passageway and stairs to a former spotlight platform that served as his personal box, from which he watched countless shows over the years.
In the interview with AP in 2010, he relished telling stories of time spent with a young Angela Lansbury, helping the Rolling Stones sneak out a side door after a concert to ride to the airport in an ambulance and giving then little-known Jay Leno a ride in some of the old cars Patten collected.
Patten's nephew, who lived in Florida, visited Patten in Atlanta every spring break and summer from the time he was 12 into his 20s. He has fond memories of his uncle taking him on late-night walks around the theater when no one else was there.
"I'd slide down the bannisters and he'd encourage me to do it, and he'd do it himself occasionally," Patterson said.
Preserving historical places and artifacts in their original state was very important to Patten, who wanted later generations to be able to experience the same wonder he did when walking around the Fox, Patterson said.
A statement from the Fox thanked Patten for his years as a dedicated caretaker and recognized his role in preserving the theater.
"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.
His family plans to hold a private funeral, with a public memorial to be planned later.
This story has corrected the venue's name to the Fox Theatre.