Historic theaters reopening in small Georgia towns

The DeSoto Theater in Rome, Ga., hosts church services on Sundays for the Seven Hills Fellowship congregation. The theater is one of two dozen that have received help from one of the nation’s largest and most successful historic theaters, the Fox Theater in Atlanta. In lieu of paying rent, the congregation has invested about $400,000 on renovations for the theater.

O.B. McCorkle is spearheading an effort to renovate the theater in her hometown of Warrenton, Ga., about two hours east of Atlanta. The Knox Theater has been closed since the 1990s, and some areas, like the projector room, haven’t been touched since then.

What’s the nicest building in your town? In Atlanta, many people would say it’s the historic Fox Theatre.

From the street, you can see the original gold-encrusted ticket booth and the majestic marquee. Inside, the ceiling is painted to look like the starry night sky.

Adina Erwin is the Fox’s general manager. She says people love the historic theater in their town because it’s beautiful. And it’s a tie to the past.

“The historic theater in these downtowns is one of the few, remaining, true, authentic sources of the community,” she says.

The Fox is thriving. But in the 1970s, Atlanta was about to bulldoze the old place before residents rallied to save it.

The Fox Theatre is doing so well, its staff now helps other old Georgia theaters stay alive. They give advice on artisans to, say, relight the marquee or match an interior paint color. And they award grants, typically about $20,000.

Erwin says that often a town council owns the theater or the local chamber of commerce.

“Many of the people who are operating these theaters, the managers, don’t come from the theater world,” she says. “They don’t come from working in any theater whether it’s historic or non-historic.”

So the Fox Theatre offers a lot of help. Like a block-booking system that gives small theaters a shot at high-profile acts.

But the question is, can the Fox replicate its success in other places?

About two hours east of Atlanta, the folks in Warrenton, Ga., really hope so. The nicest building in Warrenton, hands down, is the Knox Theater. But it’s been closed since the 1990s. O.B. McCorkle is head of the town’s chamber of commerce, and she’s helping bring the Knox back to life.

Why? Well, for starters, she had her first date there.

“I don’t remember what I saw!” she says, with a laugh. “I remember what I wore and I remember who I was with.”

Standing in the balcony of the Knox, McCorkle says she’s been coming to the theater since she was a child.

“This is where we always went on the weekends,” she says. “It’s just a part of our lives.”

But can you really support a theater in a town with only has nineteen hundred residents?

Warrenton officials still need about a half a million dollars to complete the renovation, even with last year’s grant from the Fox Theater.

On the other side of the state, an historic theater in Rome, Ga. found a way to make it work. That’s where you’ll find the DeSoto Theater -- the first theater The Fox ever helped. Like many small theaters, it splits its time between showing movies and staging plays.

But the DeSoto Theater has a third identity. On Sunday morning, it’s home to Seven Hills Fellowship Church.

On a recent Sunday, pastor Bryan Pierce led the congregation in prayer.

“Let’s take a moment and pray before the announcements. Father, we thank you that you have invited us into this place," says Pierce.

The church isn’t just a tenant. It’s a partner in the renovation. Over the last seven years, it’s invested $400,000 for items like a restored foyer and a new movie screen.

Steve Lanier grew up in Rome, and then moved away. But he stopped by recently to check out the theater.

“When you actually see them investing hundreds of thousands of dollars in restoring something that’s intergenerational -- it’s been here for a long, long time -- so they’re investing in the culture, in the ebb and flow of the people here,” he says while standing in the theater’s foyer, before Sunday services.

So far, the Fox has helped more than 25 theaters directly.

It’s unclear if Warrenton will see the same success as Rome. But O.B. McCorkle is optimistic. She remembers the night a few years back when they relit the marquee.

“People came out, and it was just so exciting,” she says. “They just loved it -- they loved seeing the lights come back on.”

McCorkle lives across the street from the theater, in her grandmother’s old house. At night, she says, the marquee lights up the whole town.

O.B. McCorkle is spearheading an effort to renovate the theater in her hometown of Warrenton, Ga., about two hours east of Atlanta. The Knox Theater has been closed since the 1990s, and some areas, like the projector room, haven’t been touched since then.

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