The Four-H Club and Billy Crystal

Back in the early 1970’s when I went to Georgia State in Atlanta, I lived on 12th Street in an area called Midtown, about a half a block from the Piedmont Street entrance to Piedmont Park. I shared an apartment with a friend in a dumpy building where my brother also lived. We were about a block and a half from Peachtree Street, where we often walked to the little grocery store on the corner.

The entire area from around 10th Street to 14th Street was a haven for the counter culture. The stores were old, single-story buildings. The closest thing to a high-rise was Colony Square on 14th Street.

We spent a lot of time at my brother’s apartment. His neighbors were pretty characteristic of the area. The girl who lived across the hall went to work every morning with her hair up and in a nice, respectable dress. When she came home she took off her disguise and became a hippie. Every time I think of her, I think of the hippie girl on the Muppets. Once when someone told her that an acquaintance had had a baby, she said, “Cool, was it a chick or a dude?”

A couple of working girls lived upstairs. There was also a flamboyantly gay guy either upstairs or sharing the apartment with the hippie girl. It was all kind of like one big, happy family. One day when I was alone at my brother’s apartment, a young man in a suit knocked on the door and asked about the girls. I kind of glanced out into the parking lot to see what he was driving. In those days, there was an urban legend that all the undercover police cars had the same three-letter prefix – GFN – because the city got all the tags at one time. I didn’t see that tag. He didn’t look like a cop or a customer, but all the same, sorry, I don’t know anything about any girls. He game me a kind of small, odd smile and left.

One night there was some commotion down the street at the Piedmont Park entrance. We all walked out to see several police cars parked down there with their flashing lights, and lots of people standing around. A kid came walking up the sidewalk from the park towards us, with his hands in his pockets and his shoulders hunched. He kept looking over his shoulder back down to the police cars. When he reached us, he asked if we knew where he could get some skag. It was the first time I had heard that term, but I figured out pretty quickly what it was.

The police were always around the neighborhood, driving and flying their helicopter. In our apartment building, we had to make sure we closed the blinds so that you could look down through them, not up, because most nights the police flew their helicopter around shining their spotlight down into the street and parking lots. If you left the blinds in the wrong position, your bedroom was flooded with light when they flew over.

Back in those days, that’s what Midtown was: hippies, hookers, heroin and helicopters.

I hadn’t been back to Midtown since those days, although I spent several years in the ‘80s’ living across the downtown connector (where I-75 and I-85 make their way through town) while I went to graduate school at Georgia Tech. Leah hadn’t been back there since the 80’s, when we were both in Atlanta but never could seem to get together.

Billy Crystal changed all that a couple of weeks ago. We had made reservations to see his “Spend the Night with Billy Crystal” show at the Fox Theatre. The Fox is on Peachtree about a mile from where I lived on 12th Street. The show started around 8 pm on a Thursday. We didn’t know what kind of traffic to expect, so we ended up arriving early. To kill a little time, we exited at the Howell Mill Road exit to look at the little house where I stayed while at Tech.

Nothing was the same. There was a large shopping center a few blocks from where I had lived, and a multi-unit apartment or condo where the little house had been. Only the street name was the same, Tallullah Street. We drove down Northside Drive (Highway 41, rolling down which I was not born in the back seat of a Grayhound bus) to 17th Street, then cut over towards Peachtree.

Leah was afraid of going to that area. Neither of us knew what to expect, There we found high rises all around, with runners, dog-walkers, guitar players, and all sorts of young, urban hip folks. We didn’t go visit my old 12th Street apartment, but I looked on Google streetview. High rises. No hippies. No obvious hookers. No obvious drug use. I’m pretty sure the police don’t shine their spotlights into these high rises, either.

Well I guess that’s the way it is, you leave a place for 30 or 40 years and people change everything all around.

Everything except the Fox, that is. The Fox Theatre is the last of the old movie palaces surviving in Atlanta. This is an image from Wikipedia of the side entrance.

Here’s the front from our visit.

The Fox was originally intended as a Shriner office building, but ended up being too expensive. It was bought and turned into a movie theater, which opened on Christmas Day in 1929. It went through ups and downs for years and was almost demolished in the early ‘70’s, to be replaced by a parking lot for Bell South. A group was formed to save it, and it has done pretty well ever since.

I had been inside only once, for a performance of the Nutcracker in around 1984. It seemed smaller than I remembered, but still very impressive. This edifice is right above one of the forward exits.

The exterior and much of the interior has an Moorish style. The auditorium is supposed to look like an open courtyard with a starry sky overhead.

You can’t see the stars in the above image, but you can just make out a few here.

Here are a couple of other stars.

We had pretty good seats. I estimate we were about 40 feet from Billy Crystal his own self. We could easily have thrown a tomato from our seats. You can see one of the two chairs he and his co-hot, Bonnie Hunt, used.

We were impressed by the Fox. We also liked Billy Crystal’s show. It was a casual recounting of his show business career, with an emphasis on a few particular aspects, including his relationship with Mohammed Ali. It all seemed spontaneous, but obviously, since he has done the same show many times in many places, some material gets recycled. But we hadn’t seen it, so we enjoyed it.

We especially enjoyed the part where he pretended to be Howard Cosell commentating on the Trump presidency. We thought it was pretty funny, and pretty much spot-on, but remember, this was an almost entirely white, older audience in Atlanta, Georgia. One fellow across the aisle looked unhappy, although his wife was laughing. One bit about Hillary Clinton drew about equal amounts of applause and boos. I’m sure Crystal knew what to expect out of this crowd, and I had to respect him for giving it anyway.

The show was two and a half hours, but didn’t seem nearly that long. Leah thought we should have moved up towards the front as people were leaving the show, until someone came to kick us out. Maybe we could have bargained for an autograph.

3 thoughts on “The Four-H Club and Billy Crystal

  1. Love this story! Hippies, hookers, heroin and helicopters. That sums it up, doesn’t it. Sounds like an interesting journey back to the old days, but of course all has changed. Ah, the modern world. How cool that you saw Billy Crystal. He is such a funny man. And that theater is grand. I love the open courtyard look. What a great fun evening!

  2. Robin — It was a fun evening. We are talking about maybe going to another performance at the Fox, this time maybe leaving early enough to find a decent place to eat in Midtown.

    Karen — It is an impressive place. Even the bathrooms are impressive. It’s a real shame that the other movie palaces have been demolished. Here in Rome we have one old theater which was not nearly as elaborate at the Fox but which puts the modern multiplex to shame.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *