Staging a comeback

Just in time for new audiences, Augusta’s two grand theaters putting a shine on

Timing is everything in the theater, and downtown Augusta’s theaters’ timing could hardly be any better.

 

While the Imperial Theatre at 749 Broad Street recently closed for two months to prepare for its centennial next year, the Miller Theater across the median at 708 Broad is being brought back to life after a 34-year intermission.

Together, they will re-create the city’s “Theater District” which, in its heyday, included not only the Imperial and Miller but at least three others.

“From the early 1930s throughout the late 1960s,” says theater buff and present-day promoter Michael Deas, “Augusta thrived due to a number of industries, and entertainment was one of the largest draws for people to visit downtown. The streets were lined shoulder-to-shoulder with tourists, shoppers and locals looking for movies or concerts to attend. Entertainment could be found starting around 11 a.m. for movies, and concluding around midnight for concerts, at all of the downtown venues any day of the week.”

The curtain was to open on a spruced-up Imperial last night, after but a two-month break for electrical, mechanical and cosmetic work.

The Miller’s return to the spotlight – which will come at a gala black-tie concert Jan. 6 – has been extraordinarily more arduous.

After a glorious 44-year run following its 1940 opening act, the Miller closed in 1984. Local philanthropist Peter Knox IV bought and protected it from the elements in 2005. Three years later he graciously offered it to the nomadic Symphony Orchestra Augusta as a permanent home of its own.

After due diligence, SOA took the leap – and a $23 million fundraising campaign later, is now seeing the Miller’s seats, signage and glory restored.

The restored Miller will house not only SOA and its concert series, but also any number of local and touring shows – and even a brand new Knox Music Institute learning center.

The Knox family, other donors, foundations, corporations and even taxpayers, through local special-purpose tax funds and state and federal historic preservation tax credits, will all deserve a bow Jan. 6.

This hasn’t been easy.

But now it feels real, as workers go in and out amid scaffolding, under the sturdy frame of the signature Miller marquee that has been sent off for restoration.

It also feels real when you look at the symphony’s online calendar (soaugusta.org) and see that the season’s first two performances in its Symphony Series (Oct. 6 and Nov. 17) will be at First Baptist Church of Augusta, 3500 Walton Way Extension – but that the name “Miller Theater” shows up under the final four installments.

Likewise, the symphony’s “University Health Care System Pops! at the Bell” series, after four performances, turns into the “University Health Care System Pops! at the Miller” for two performances Jan. 25 and May 3, respectively.

SOA’s Columbia County Music Series will stay at the Jabez Sanford Hardin Performing Arts Center at the Evans library.

While the Miller and Imperial will be friendly competitors, they’ll no doubt complement each other too. With different seating capacities – the Miller’s 1,300 to the Imperial’s 850 – they’ll often be going after different events and crowds, and may send each other business. And it helps that SOA Executive Director Anne Catherine Murray and Imperial Executive Director Charles Scavullo are good friends.

“We absolutely look at this as a partnership, and Charles and I see each other quite frequently,” Murray says. “We’re thrilled that they’re having all of the upgrades that they’re having done right now. That’s a great thing, because bringing more people downtown and bringing more people to the arts is a benefit for all of us.

“I think it definitely is complementary. It’ll really serve the community well.”

And it couldn’t come at a better time.

With local industries expanding, and with the current and coming invasion of cyber-related workers – thanks to Fort Gordon’s Army Cyber Command, and the Hull McKnight Georgia Cyber Innovation and Training Center already under construction on Augusta University’s riverfront campus – thousands more theater-goers are being added to the community.

“It is so exciting, just to see all these things happening at once,” Murray says. “It’s just providential, really. It’s in our best interest to do as much of that revitalization right now that we’re doing. It’s not just talk anymore; it’s really happening.”

Deas, a medical industry professional, became a promoter out of sheer love for the Miller and everything theatrical. He even calls his company Augusta Amusements, the same name that downtown theater owner and Miller Theater namesake Frank Miller used so many years ago while holding sway over multiple theaters downtown.

“I have always said downtown Augusta could be rebuilt as an entertainment destination, because we are one of only a handful of cities that has our historic entertainment infrastructure still standing,” Deas told us.

A recent Augusta leader famously remarked that the city needed to “up” its cool factor. Having a dressed-up Imperial Theatre and restored Miller Theater does that rather nicely.

“We’ve been cool,” argues Murray, “but now the cool is kicking in.”

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