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Americana & Nostalgia

It's Showtime at the South's Grand Dame Theaters

Photo of magnificent theater goes here.

The magnificent Majestic Theatre in San Antonio ,TX, hosts the San Antonio Symphony, touring Broadway productions and and world-renowned concert artists.*

Historic “Grand Dame” Southern Theaters

Continue to Draw Admirers and Patrons

By Kathy Witt

Bats in the belfry. Pigs in the aisles. Jailbirds in the prison beneath the stage. Many of yesterday’s theatres in the South, some built almost as a second thought and others suffering years of neglect, have been reclaimed and lavishly restored to their former glory days.

These historic movie palaces experienced the transition from silent pictures to talkies and the variety of vaudeville to “legitimate theatah.” Now, these Grand Dames have evolved once again. 

Today, they are elaborate sets for Broadway-style productions, ambitious community theatre, puppet shows and concerts. Following is a sampling of venues around the South.

Fort Payne’s Opera House, AL

Fort Payne's Opera House (256-845-6888 or www.landmarksdekalbal.org) 510 Gault Ave., is located in the the northeast mountains of Alabama. It was built during the heady days of the industrial boom. It languished as dusty storage space for a furniture company before a complete restoration elevated it to cultural center of the community.

 Photo of Fort Payne Opera House goes here.

Built during the city’s industrial boom in 1889, Fort Payne’s Opera House is the only one in Alabama still in use.*

The 1889 three-story venue, now used as a movie theatre, live theatre venue and public forum, is on the National Register of Historic Places and the National Register of 19th-century Theatres in America. It is the oldest opera house in Alabama that is still in use and is a showcase for the area’s rich musical heritage.

Peabody Auditorium, Daytona Beach, FL

The architecturally significant, 2,525-seat Peabody Auditorium (386-671-3460 or www.peabodyauditorium.org) 600 Auditorium Blvd., Daytona Beach, was built in the 1920s. It hosted a famous evangelist, a renowned pianist and John Philip Sousa and his marching band before a 1945 fire. 

Photo of Peabody Theater goes here.

After the original structure burned, this "new" Peabody Auditorium, named in honor of benefactor Simon J. Peabody, was dedicated on in 1949, with a concert featuring the U.S. Navy Band.*

Rebuilt in 1949, the venue was recently refurbished to the tune of $2 million. Those upgrades include new cushioned seating, stage curtains, new floor and technical stage equipment and  renovations of the Rose Room Art Gallery.

The money is well-spent, given the list of luminaries who have illuminated the Peabody’s stage: Liberace, Red Skelton, Liza Minelli, Shirley MacLaine, Tony Bennett, Arthur Fiedler and the Boston Pops and London Symphony Orchestra. Acclaimed Broadway musicals and touring productions have included Cats, A Chorus Line, 42nd Street, Chicago and STOMP.

Holly Theatre, Dahlonega, GA

The mountain community of Dahlonega, Ga., is home to the 1946-era Holly Theatre (706-864-3759 or www.hollytheater.com) 69 W. Main St. Once nicknamed “the bat cave” because of the number of bats and pigeons roosting in the abandoned and dilapidated building, this former movie house is now on the National Register of Historic Places. It is recognized as the home of one of Georgia’s best performing companies.

Photo of the Holly Theater's exterior goes here.

The historic Holly Theatre is located within steps of Dahlonega’s historic town square.*

Recent upgrades included the installation of 322 high-back burgundy seats with lumbar support, a renovated balcony and a relocated restroom. The lobby was also expanded and redesigned to sport an Art Deco verve.

And what happened to the skirted banquet table that once served as a concession bar? Who knows, but thankfully it's been replaced with a sleek horseshoe-shaped stand sporting a black, faux granite top.

The Holly serves up a full plate of productions including live plays and musicals, children’s theatre, concerts, films, classes and workshops.

Otto M. Budig Theatre, Covington, KY

The 465-seat Otto M. Budig Theatre at the Carnegie Visual and Performing Arts Center (859-491-2030 or www.thecarnegie.com) 1028 Scott Blvd., Covington, Ky., is a gorgeous space patterned after a French Opera House. Above the stage is a restored mural by famed Kentucky artist and author Harlan Hubbard.

Photo of interior of the theater goes here.

The Northern Kentucky Arts Council saved Carnegie Visual and Performing Arts Center, which houses the Otto M. Budig Theatre, from the wrecking ball back in 1971.*

Before renovations, the theater was a rundown, closed-up room. When its doors were finally pried open, potential "rescuers" of the old theater found a collapsed wooden floor, broken plasterwork, vines twisting into smashed windows and saplings growing up in the midst of the destruction.

Before the Carnegie theater was restored, it looked like this.*

This entire building -- formerly the Carnegie Public Library -- is now restored. It's home to five contemporary art galleries and a new arts education center. The theater is ideally intimate for small concerts, independent film screenings, live performance and the zany -- but always original -- antics of the Madcap Puppet Theatre Company.

The Majestic, San Antonio, TX

The 1929 atmospheric theatre, The Majestic (210-226-3333 or www.majesticempire.com) 224 E. Houston St., San Antonio, was built as the largest theatre in Texas and the second largest motion picture theatre in the country.

Designated a National Historic Landmark, this ornate 2,311-seat facility is home to the San Antonio Symphony. Its architecture was influenced by Spanish Mission, Baroque and Mediterranean  traditions.

A $4.5 million restoration has returned the theatre to its heyday, preserving the character and reclaiming an interior that resembles a fantasy villa. With jewel-colored windows, triple balconies, a bell tower, tile roofs and arches and ornamentation, the illusion is complete with a stunning vaulted “sky” that twinkles with stars as clouds drift by. It is the perfect backdrop for Broadway touring attractions, concerts and performing arts events.

The Barter Theatre, Abingdon, VA

Virginia’s 507-seat Barter Theatre (276-628-3991 or www.bartertheatre.com) 127 W. Main St. in Abingdon is designated as the Commonwealth’s State Theatre. Its Depression-era floor boards, built over the town jail, gave rise to the careers of Gregory Peck, Ernest Borgnine and Patricia Neal.

Photo of Barter Theater goes here.

The Barter Theatre opened its doors on June 10, 1933. It is one of the oldest professional theatres in the nation.*

When the doors opened in 1933, theatre founder and actor Robert Porterfield accepted farm produce in lieu of the 35 cent ticket price. Patrons (about 80 percent of whom paid their way with veggies, dairy products and livestock) became familiar not only with the noise of squealing pigs but with the theatre’s slogan: “With vegetables you cannot sell, you can buy a good laugh.”

Restoration work has, among other things, turned the jail digs into dressing rooms for the cast at this repertory theatre. The Barter stages Broadway quality shows and has a resident acting company. Across the street is the 167-seat Barter Stage II and adjacent is Barter Café, open daily for lunch and dinner.

See and Stay

Fort Payne’s Opera House

See: Summer Music Festival, Aug. 19, 2 p.m. 256-845-6888.

Stay: Winston Place Bed & Breakfast (256-635-6381 or www.virtualcities.com/al/winstonplace.htm), Valley Head, AL., an elegant 1831 mansion. Nightly rates range from $150-$200.

Peabody Auditorium

See: Call or visit www.peabodyauditorium.org for show/event information.

Stay: Villa Bed & Breakfast (888.248.7060 or www.thevillabb.com) 801 N. Peninsula Dr., Daytona Beach, FL, a former Spanish mission. Rates range from $125-$300.

Photo of Villa B&B goes here.

The Villa Bed & Breakfast has been named the winner of Superior Small Lodging of Florida’s 2006 White Gloves Award recognizing exemplary professional housekeeping.*

Holly Theatre

See: To Kill A Mockingbird, selected dates May 3-20; My Fair Lady, selected dates June 28-July 15.

Stay: The in-town 1845 Worley House (800-348-8094 or www.bbonline.com/ga/worley) 168 Main St. West, Dahlonega, GA. Rates range from $109-$149.

The Otto M. Budig Theatre at The Carnegie

See: Call or visit www.thecarnegie.com for show/event information.

Stay: Christopher’s B&B (888-585-7085 or www.bbonline.com/ky/christophers/index.html) 604 Poplar St., Bellevue, KY. This overnight stop is housed in a former 19th-century church with stained glass windows. Rates range from $105-$179.

The Majestic

See: Sweet Charity starring Molly Ringwold, June 19-24.

Stay: Sheraton Gunter Hotel (888-999-2089 or www.gunterhotel.com) 205 E. Houston St., San Antonio, TX,  a 1909 hotel “at the center of everything.” Rates are from $179 depending on availability. 

Photo of Sheraton goes here.

The historic Sheraton Gunter Hotel and its Barron’s Restaurant are directly across the street from the Majestic Theatre.*

The Barter Theatre

See: Married Alive!, Apr. 27-May 26 or Tradin’ Paint, May 18-Aug. 26, a journey into the world of stock car racing.

Stay: The upscale 1832 Martha Washington Inn (276-628-3161 or www.marthawashingtoninn.com) 150 W. Main St., Abingdon VA. Rates range from $225 to $426. The $359 Barter Theatre package includes overnight accommodations, dinner for two in the dining room, a pair of Barter Theatre tickets and a full breakfast for two. 

Kathy Witt, an award-winning writer and member of the Midwest Travel Writers Association,  specializes in destinations in the southeastern U.S. Kathy contributes to various publications. She also has written two books on art and antique dolls, including Doll Directory: A Guide to U.S. Doll Museums, Collections & Hospitals (Collector Books). She is currently working on a book about travel in Kentucky that will be published in 2008 by Countryman Press.

*Photos are owned, copyrighted and used with permission of the various theaters mentioned above as well as the Landmarks of DeKalb County, AL and the Daytona Beach Convention & Visitors Bureau. All rights reserved. Please do not link to nor copy these photos.


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