Ramblin’ Rhodes: Imperial Theater celebrates 100th year

It seems ironic the main reason the Imperial Theatre is around after 100 years is because of a refugee from Vietnam and a former hospital administrator from Savannah.

 

And the reason Lat Nguyen and his business partner Loy Veal came to Augusta and ended up saving the Imperial was because they wanted to save five old houses slated for demolition to make way for the Augusta-Richmond County Law Enforcement Center now in jeopardy itself.

The renovated houses still exist on Walker Street at Telfair, and the Imperial thankfully not only still exists but continues to provide almost weekly entertainment for Augusta area residents.

The Augusta Players, itself an Augusta institution since 1945, will be back at the Imperial staging its musical Sister Act at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, Feb. 23-24, and 3 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 25.

Sunday, Feb. 18, marks the centennial anniversary of when the Imperial opened in the 700 block of Broad Street as The Wells; built by New York City-based theatrical businessman Jake Wells.

The theater stayed as The Wells until November 1919 when Wells sold it to S.A. Lynch Enterprises of Atlanta and Frank J. Miller (later in 1940 namesake of the Miller Theater) came back home to his native Augusta to manage it and five other Lynch-owned theaters including the Modjeska.

The next month in December 1919 just before Christmas the advertisements in The Chronicle announced a new offering of vaudeville acts at “The Imperial,” and that’s what it’s been named ever since.

For several decades, The Imperial was where the world-famous stars came to perform. Silent film superstar Charlie Chaplin was on the stage when it was The Wells to promote the sale of World War I Liberty bonds.

Russian ballerina Anna Pavlowa danced her signature dying swan choreography on its boards followed two days later by John Philip Sousa leading his military march band.

The Imperial was the first place Augustans saw The Wizard of Oz in August 1939 and Gone With the Wind the following January.

By 1980, the Imperial became threatened by creditors and faced strong competition from suburban movie houses and other performing artist facilities including the then-new Augusta-Richmond County Civic Center.

The Imperial was closed in September 1981 and faced a gloomy and uncertain future. The American City Corp. in Maryland, a respected city planning company, in 1982 actually recommended the building be demolished to make way for a walkway between Broad Street and the Savannah River.

But along came Nguyen and Veal who had moved their Latco Construction Co. to Augusta from Savannah after seeing opportunities to restore area deteriorated historical properties.

Veal later said Latco specifically came to the area because of a chance to save five old houses on Fourth Street near Gordon Highway in the way of construction of the multi-million dollar Augusta-Richmond County Law Enforcement Center.

Latco took possession of the houses and moved them to land purchased from Historic Augusta Inc. One of the structures became the home office of Latco at 429 Walker St.

In December 1984 it was announced that Latco Construction Co. Inc. had an option to buy the Imperial, which then was owned by William Garrett of Augusta. The company did just that and renovated the building at a cost of $500,000 as estimated by project coordinator James Cunningham.

On April 17, 1985, the beautifully-restored Imperial reopened with performances of The Augusta Opera’s Die Fiedermaus, filmed by Georgia Public Broadcasting for its nine, state-wide television stations.

It’s somewhat ironic that just last week GPB host Sharon Collins and her assistant producer Andrew Riley and videographer Shane Keating were at the Imperial filming a segment of Hometown Georgia with local legend Flo Carter backed by the Augusta hillbilly rock group King Cat & The Elders.

“We had some people from Baltimore who wanted to tear the Imperial building down, and we had some people from Savannah who wanted to save it,” commented then Augusta Mayor Charles A. DeVaney at the reopening. “Now we know who we should listen to.”

The Imperial has survived various ups and downs thanks especially to Norman Easterbrook, who managed the theater for seven years from 1991 to 1998 and Charles Scavullo who became manager 11 years ago.

Easterbook, since July 2015, has been the executive director of the multi-million dollar RiverCenter for the Performing Arts in Columbus, Ga.

When asked by this columnist what he remembered most from his time at the Imperial he replied simply, “James Brown, James Brown, James Brown” in recalling how often Brown and his band rented the Imperial for rehearsing his world tours.

“I was impressed with the respect that he had for the theater and the discipline that he expected of his band and singers,” Easterbrook said. “I remember when James started his toy give away (at the Imperial). He insisted that it always be on Christmas Eve.”

Easterbrook said that when Brown’s third wife, Adrienne, died, Brown wanted her funeral to be at the Imperial, which is where it did happen on Jan. 16, 1996.

“On the day of the funeral, dozens of floral arrangements arrived from around the world and from some of the most popular entertainers of the time,” Easterbrook recalled. “The theater was filled beyond capacity and on the spur of the moment we devised a way to allow folks to circulate through one door and out another just to pay their respects. There was a media row in the median in front of the theater that accommodated representatives from Japan, Australia, France, the United Kingdom and other places.”

Another time he especially remembers is when world-famous jazz musician Wynton Marsalis performed at the Imperial with local trombonist Wycliffe Gordon in his septet.

“There were moments in that concert in which I am certain that we heard angels,” Easterbrook said. “Marsalis literally held his audience in a type of suspense that was at once joyous and mournful.

“Shortly after this, we learned that he was to premier (his two and a half hour jazz oratorio) Blood On The Fields for which he ultimately won a Pulitzer Prize in 1997. I am convinced that the audience got a sneak preview of that work in of all places, the Imperial.”

Summing up, Easterbook added, “It was a distinct pleasure for me to have been entrusted with managing the Imperial during those years. It’s thrilling to see how the theater has evolved to meet the needs of the Augusta community.”

Scavullo, the Imperial’s long time executive director, said the memories that especially stay with him from his time at the venue, are the special performances held for local schoolchildren.

“The school buses come from all over the CSRA,” he said, “from Richmond, Columbia. McDuffie, Burke, Aiken, McCormick and Barnwell counties and from as far away as Jefferson County and line up and down Broad street. More than 20,000 students attend school shows at the Imperial Theatre annually.

“I enjoy the looks on their faces as they enter the theater and look around,” Scavullo continued. “Many times it is the first time these children have seen a classic, performing arts theatre.”

He hopes that their experiences at the Imperial will stay with them later in life when they get the chance to visit such famous theaters at The Fox (in Atlanta) or Carnegie Hall and the Lincoln Center in New York City or attend the Lyric Opera in Chicago.

“They will think back to the day when as a elementary, middle or high school student they first walked into the Imperial Theatre back home in Augusta.”

Scavullo further recalled, as far as individual shows are concerned, “truly memorable performances” have been Ed Turner and No. 9 in 2014 performing with the late rhythm and blues star Sharon Jones; the performance by The Tedeschi Trucks Band in 2011 and also Branford Marsalis and Joey Calderazzo during the 2011 Westobou festival.

IMPERIAL CHRONOLOGY

The Imperial Theatre is celebrating its centennial year with special events each quarter. The next will be A Hat Party – An Imperial Theatre Gala Celebrating the Kentucky Derby, set for 7 p.m. Friday, May 4. The reception will include hor d’oeuvres, drinks, a photo booth and spectacular hats. After the reception, there will be a free concert by the JAMP Band and a free screening of the Marx Brothers film Day at the Races.

Here’s a look at the Imperial Theatre’s rich history.

• Feb. 18, 1918: Theater opens as The Wells, named after New York theater owner Jake Wells who built it. It stays The Wells for about two years, closes briefly and reopens as The Imperial under new ownership.

• April 16, 1918: Charlie Chaplin speaks to packed Imperial audience in selling war bonds. It is his 29th birthday which he will celebrate that evening at the Augusta Country Club.

• Nov. 28, 1921: Leo Carrillo, later to become known to TV audiences as Pancho, sidekick of The Cisco Kid, performs in play Lombardi Ltd. He returns a few months later on Feb. 14, 1922, to star in Lombardi Ltd. again.

• Feb. 6, 1924: Memorial service held for Woodrow Wilson, 28th U.S. president, who for 10 years lived about three blocks away in the mid 1860s and whose father was pastor of First Presbyterian.

• Feb. 19, 1924: Russian ballet superstar Anna Pavlowa performs her trademark dying swan interpretation from Swan Lake.

• Feb. 21, 1924: John Philip Sousa, Military march composer (Stars & Stripes Forever, etc.) performs with his band.

• Jan. 20, 1925: Opera star Geraldine Farrar in Carmen.

• March 11, 1925: Ty Cobb takes his Detroit Tigers team, in Augusta for spring training, to the Imperial to see The Merchant of Venice starring his friend noted Shakespearian actor Robert B. Mantell.

• Jan. 14, 1926: Early movie version of The Phantom of the Opera starring Lon Chaney first shown in Augusta.

• Dec. 14, 1933: Movie cowboy star Tom Mix makes guest appearance on the Imperial stage with “Tony, The Wonder Horse.” Mix, decades later, will be depicted wearing his trademark white western hat on the cover of The Beatle’s Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band album.

• Jan. 31, 1940: Augustans in the Imperial see Gone With the Wind movie for the first time.

• Oct. 17-18, 1950: Country music legend Eddy Arnold performs four shows each day in the Imperial.

• Nov. 4, 1960: Muscular actor Gordon Scott makes guest appearance to promote his movie Tarzan, The Magnificent.

• May 13, 1987: Movie Summer Heat, based on best-selling novel I’m Here To Get My Baby Out of Jail by Augustan Louise Shivers, has its world premiere in the Imperial with stars Clu Galagher and Bruce Abbott present.

• June 11, 1993: The Kingston Trio, one of the most famous folk music groups, performs in the Imperial.

• Jan. 16, 1996: Hundreds pack the theater for funeral of James Brown’s third wife, Adrienne, marking the first funeral service in the theater’s history. Brown rents the Imperial several times to rehearse his world tours.

• Dec. 17, 2016: Celebration of Life memorial service for R&B star and Augusta native Sharon Jones held a month after the documentary film Miss Sharon Jones! was shown there on Sept. 30.

• Aug. 19, 2017: Imperial stage officially named after Sharon Jones.

– Don Rhodes

 

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