Ramblin’ Rhodes: Memories restored along with Miller Theater

FILE The Miller Theater, which is being restored by Symphony Orchestra Augusta, was the site of countless movie screenings during its heyday.

Watching the Wheel of Fortune game show hosted by Pat Sajak the other night reminded me of the daily renovation work taking place with the historic Miller Theater located directly across Broad Street from my office.

 

The connection in my mind is through Augusta native Dan Miller who was the sofa sidekick on Sajak’s ill-fated late night TV show in 1989 and 1990.

Miller also was the grand nephew of Frank Miller, who built the art deco-theme theater now being restored by Symphony Orchestra Augusta. It not only will be used for the orchestra’s offerings but rented out for other events as well.

As Masters Week approaches, the memory of my long-time friend especially is heavy on my mind.

It was on Wednesday night of Masters Week in April 2009 that Miller, then 67 and the news anchor of WSM-TV in Nashville, Tenn., suffered a massive heart attack while walking back to where he was staying on Heard Avenue after having supper at the nearby Partridge Inn.

Miller loved returning to the Augusta area whenever he could.

In the early 1950s, Miller and his childhood friend, Bob Smith, now the retired chief meteorologist at WRDW-TV in North Augusta, rode their bicycles from their homes on Heard Avenue to the top of Georgia Avenue to watch WRDW and its towers being constructed as the Augusta area’s second television station next to the original WJBF television building.

Miller in October 2007 came back home to host the 50th anniversary celebration of the world premiere of the movie The Three Faces of Eve, which had its public debut showing in the Miller Theater on Sept. 18, 1957.

The golden anniversary celebration was held across the street at the Imperial Theatre with Miller interviewing former WJBF-TV news anchor Jim Davis, who hosted the world premiere events, and with Christine Costner Sizemore, the actual Edgefield, S.C.-reared woman whose multiple personalities inspired the book authored by Augusta psychiatrists Corbett H. Thigpen and Hervey M. Cleckley who identified their patient only as “Eve.”

The best-selling book, of course, led to the best-selling movie with its screenplay authored by Georgia-native Nunnally Johnson. It also resulted in the only Oscar won by Georgia-native actress Joanne Woodward, whose father, Wade Woodward Jr., was a native Augustan.

Miller told his online blog readers about the Augusta trip, “I simply cannot express how much I enjoyed being included in the festivities there in Augusta. Getting re-connected with so many people, and meeting other Augustans who I never knew before, was something that will be on the ‘highlight reel’ of my life … That was the first time I’ve been inside the Imperial in probably 40 years, and what a ‘jewel’ it is for the city.”

He had been close friends of most Grand Ole Opry show artists and staff and the May before his death had been a pallbearer for the funeral of country music legend Eddy Arnold.

Miller, ironically, first had seen Arnold in the Miller Theater in October 1950 when the singer came to town to promote his just-released western film Feudin’ Rhythm.

Miller recalled the Augusta appearance in his online blog May 2008 writing, “As a young boy, the very first record I ever purchased with my own meager savings was There’s Been A Change In Me … one of Eddy’s No. 1 hits in the early 1950s. I once told Eddy the story of how – just one day after I bought that old 78 rpm RCA record – I sat on it and shattered it.

“In the 1950s, when I got the news that Eddy Arnold would be performing in my hometown, I quickly went into my savings again and bought a ticket. I was first in line there at the Imperial Theatre in Augusta, waiting for the doors to open and, when they did, I grabbed a seat on the front row just a few feet from where Eddy performed.

“Years later, the first time I interviewed Eddy, I jokingly asked him if he remembered seeing me in the audience.

“‘Ah yes,’ he answered. ‘I remember you … the little boy in the short pants.’”

Miller continued recalling the incident in writing, “Just a few months ago, I was invited to an event there in Augusta at the old Imperial Theatre, and I got the chance to stand on that stage in the exact spot where Eddy had performed a half century earlier. And I told the audience that story; even pointing out the exact seat where I had been sitting.”

Miller’s death eight years ago taught me an interesting personal lesson: that no matter how trusted a journalist you may think you are that such a reputation always doesn’t mean anything in the usual scheme of things.

I had learned of Miller’s death in pre-dawn hours of the next day and decided that his beloved news staff and thousands of fans in Nashville should know as soon as possible from a “trusted” source.

Miller not only had been a popular local TV anchor but also host of the cable TV Miller &Company talk show on The Nashville Network and author of the heavily-read online blog Dan Miller’s Notebook.

So I called WSM, the NBC network affiliate, about 6 a.m. Nashville time and spoke with a woman in the newsroom. I explained who I was and my friendship with Miller and related the sad news. She thought I was playing some sort of a sick joke even in spite of my suggesting she call the newsroom of WRDW, the CBS-affiliate in North Augusta, which already was reporting his death.

Getting nowhere and yet still hoping to get the official word out to his Nashville fans and friends, I called the newsrooms of the CBS and ABC affiliates, and they didn’t believe me either.

But, of course, it was understandable. Miller was a media icon in Music City U.S.A., and nobody wanted to believe that their beloved news anchor was gone.

Hopefully those restoring the Miller will find some way to honor the late broadcaster as well as his grand uncle and the many other famous personalities and movies tied to the theater whose first presentations were the Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy movie Chump, and the 75-performer stage show A Night at the Moulin Rouge.

Chump was a particularly appropriate choice for the Miller’s first film since co-star Hardy was born in nearby Harlem, where the 29th annual Oliver Hardy Festival will be held Oct. 7.

The Miller was where It’s a Wonderful Life (released in 1946), The African Queen (1951) and Elvis Presley’s first movie, Love Me Tender (1956), were first seen in Augusta. In fact, most of Presley’s movies had their Augusta premieres at the Miller.

It was the scene of the Sancken’s Youth Revue amateur talent shows that earned the late Augusta balladeer Larry Jon Wilson a first prize trip as a teenager to Savannah Beach.

It was where actor Gordon Scott did push-ups backstage to pump up his biceps before greeting his young fans in 1959 while promoting his new movie Tarzan’s Greatest Adventure.

Lynyrd Skynyrd, “a six-piece rock band from Jacksonville, Fla.,” performed 11:30 p.m. shows on March 23 and 24 of 1970 after screenings of the Charles Bronson movie The Family.

Movie and theatrical stage icons including Tallulah Bankhead, Lynn Fontanne, Alfred Lunt and Montgomery Clift also performed on the Miller’s stage. Multiple Oscar-winner Katherine Hepburn stopped by for a personal tour and to have lunch with Frank Miller on her way to Savannah the year after the theater opened.

So think of Dan and Frank Miller and of “Eve” herself, Chris Sizemore, and Davis when you pass the Miller restoration work in the 700 block of Broad Street. And you can keep up with the progress through the website millerllc.org.

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CONGRATULATIONS TO KARLTON HOWARD: There was a great and fun gathering at the Savannah Rapids Pavilion in Evans on Saturday, March 18, for an “appreciation celebration” for the Rev. Karlton L. Howard, pastor of the Noah’s Ark Missionary Baptist Church in Keysville, Ga.

You probably know him as the executive producer and host of The Parade of Quartets that continues to air on WJBF as the longest-broadcast gospel music program in America.

Howard’s father, the late Georgia state representative Henry Howard, hosted the program for many years along with the show’s creator Steve Manderson.

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AND HERE’S TO 50 YEARS WITH MORRIS COMMUNICATIONS: It was just before 7 a.m. on Monday, March 27, 1967, that I walked into the newsroom of the Savannah (Ga.) Evening Press to begin my professional life as a daily newspaper journalist.

The Evening Press, created by former Augustan Pleasant Stovall, now entombed in Summerville Cemetery on The Hill, then was only one of six newspapers in the Augusta-based chain headed by William S. Morris Jr. along with the Savannah Morning News, Athens (Ga.) Banner-Herald, Athens Daily News, Augusta Herald and The Augusta Chronicle.

Thomas F. Coffey Jr., the managing editor of both of the Savannah dailies, had sent me a confirmation letter saying, “I enjoyed meeting you when you were here Saturday, and I certainly look forward to having you join us as a member of the Press staff.

“As stated in our conversation, the salary will be $90 a week to start. I will expect you here on Monday, March 27, at 7 a.m. Please report to Wally Davis, my city editor whom you met.”

Thanks especially go to MCC Chairman Billy Morris and his son, MCC President and CEO Will Morris, for their long-time friendship and support; the hundreds of great fellow staffers who have made coming to work such a joy most days and the wonderful memories that all of you readers have given me over five decades.

 

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