There have been two specific dates that arguably until now have been more important than any other individual days in the 78-year history of the Miller Theater.
Those would be Feb. 26, 1940, when Frank James Miller’s half-a-million-dollar movie palace first opened and Sept. 18, 1957, when the world premiere was held for the movie version of The Three Faces of Eve based on a best selling book by two Augusta psychiatrists.
But this week, Saturday, Jan. 6, 2018, becomes a new date that will be forever tied to the three-story building in the 700 block of Broad Street. That’s when the multi-million-dollar renovated Miller that holds so many memories for so many area residents reopens with an event that long ago sold out.
If you don’t have tickets, you can attend a free offering from 2 to 4 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 7, billed as Raise The Curtain: A Public Preview of Augusta’s Own Miller Theater with new General Manager Marty S. Elliott and others answering questions.
The website you need to bookmark is millertheateraugusta.com where you can see a seating chart and order tickets for future shows or you can call the main ticket number, (800) 514-3849.
Probably the most significant influence on the life of the Miller’s namesake was Augusta’s booming theater district in the late 1800s and early 1900s, which included the Grand Opera House (also called The Grand) where Miller handed out show programs. The grand opening of The Grand actually had taken place in September 1888 just three months before Miller was born a few blocks away.
He later in 1915 bought the original Modjeska theater on the south side of the 800 block of Broad Street and in 1916 built the “New Modjeska” across the street with Roswell O. Lombard, father-in-law of world famous baseball player Ty Cobb.
Miller cemented his place in Augusta’s theatrical history in November 1919 when he became general manager of not only the two Modjeskas but also The Strand, The Rialto and The Wells (soon to become The Imperial) all in the 700 block of Broad as well as The Grand. All had been acquired by S.A. Lynch Enterprises Inc. of Atlanta.
Surely it must have been an extremely proud moment for Miller to become manager of The Grand at Eighth and Greene streets where he had worked as a teenager. He even had owned and operated briefly an upscale restaurant called the Hofbrau immediately across from The Grand.
By 1938, Miller through his theatrical contacts had come to know Roy A. Benjamin, a prominent architect who had settled in Jacksonville, Fla., and who, by that time, had designed close to 200 theaters in the South. Miller loved his native Augusta so much that he hired Benjamin to build an entertainment facility that would be like none other that almost anyone locally had ever seen. He wanted it made from the best construction materials and with the most modern architectural features that were possible even as war raged in European countries and threatened to engulf America.
“He first specified a special type of Italian marble which was ordered from abroad in ample time. But the war came,” said an article published in The Chronicle in 1940 about the theater’s original opening.
“Ships were interned. Others were sunk and still others just seemed to vanish on the high seas. The marble ordered for the foyer of the theater failed to arrive.”
Miller put in a second order that didn’t come about, and finally a third order that made the marble three months late getting to Augusta.
He wanted special aluminum for doors and handrails of stairs but only one company in the nation produced the steel-hard finish Miller envisioned and it was tied up with war materials production.
Almost no one in the area had ever seen the glass “bricks,” that had recently been invented by the Pittsburgh Paint &Glass Company and that eventually would be used for lighting columns three stories above the Miller’s marquee as well as for inside decorative highlights.
“The carpet being laid in Augusta’s new $500,000 Miller theater is one of the largest, one-piece carpets in the world and is a marvel of weaving and design produced by the Bigelow-Sanford company,” The Chronicle observed. “The company produced the largest one-piece carpet for the Roxy Theater in New York and has duplicated all its fine workmanship and artistry in the first floor covering for the Miller theater.”
When Symphony Orchestra Augusta took on the vastly deteriorated Miller as its new home, all efforts were made to re-create the original carpet colors and repair the nearly eight-decade-old handrails.
Frank James Miller died at 55 in August 1944 just four years after his movie palace on Broad Street opened. His remains are in the Miller family plot at Westover Cemetery not too far from where he lived his final years on Walton Way and just a short walk from the grave of former Georgia Gov. Carl E. Sanders.
But you can bet that his spirit will be felt with every event in the theater so much loved by those who experienced its past and so many others who will enjoy its future.