The Georgia Theatre: Anticipation Rises

By: Sarah Lundgren

Willy Wonka’s “Golden Ticket” contest has a copycat in Athens.

Currently at the Terrapin Beer Co. Brewery, there are four different beers available, each representing an era of the iconic Georgia Theatre. A single one in each batch could earn you a “golden ticket,” a lifetime entry to the former music icon of the Classic City.

But all that’s standing of the theater that once brought people from all over the country is still charred remnants following the tragic fire on June 19, 2009. Or is it?

Since mid-2010, the Georgia Theatre has been in the process of rebuilding and revamping its former structure. High fences, large tarps and sawdust surround the outside, but on the inside its well on its way to opening day.

On June 19, 2011, the 2-year anniversary of the fire, the theater expects to reopen its doors to the public, with a whole new look but the same hometown feel.

Local bands, businesses and citizens alike are waiting in anticipation of the reopening of the theater, which will have a brand-new basement, rooftop bar and restaurant for customers to enjoy.

Owner since 2004, Wilmot Green, 40, of Gainesville, Ga., is ready and eager to open his doors. Green had hoped to get his establishment back in action sooner, but a problem with the age and historic value of the building slowed the process.

“We hoped to get the building permit by Christmas 2009,” said Green, “but it took us a full year to get it.”

The snows of early 2011 put a damper on the process as well.

“The snow was just coming in through the roof because we didn’t have one yet, we lost week after week,” says Green. “We were literally in there with snow shovels getting it out.”

But Green says, assuming the weather and materials cooperate, he’s confident in the June 19 opening. He’s hoping to attract the students of Athens, remembering his college years here.

“When I was in college, I was at the theater four nights a week,” says Green, “I can’t imagine how it’s been for the students who haven’t gotten to have that experience for the last two years.”

Green had the opportunity to walk away from the theater after it burned down, but he stayed in hopes of creating similar memories he had growing up for the youth of today.

“I kind of owe it to these young people, for them to have that same kind of opportunity,” says Green. “Some of the greatest experiences of my college years and life have been at that theatre.”

Heather Atcherson, 21, a senior Biology major at the University of Georgia from Annapolis, Md., appreciates Green’s determination to bring back the theater that’s been gone since just after her sophomore year in college.

“I definitely feel like I’ve missed out, says Atcherson. “In my first year here, I went to four or five concerts there, and then it burned down. I can’t say I’ve been to another local concert since. Looking back, I have a lot of great memories from the Georgia Theatre and I’d love to have had more.”

Atcherson says the theater enriched the lives of the students in Athens, and gave a better name to the city.

“I think the theater helps culture students a bit,” says Atcherson. “It offers students the ability to not only come and listen to great bands, but learn the history of the town and its music culture, kind of become a part of the reputation Athens has for being so musically cultured.”

The location of the theater to campus during her freshman year was so different from venues in her hometown, it gave her a local place to get to know in an unknown city.

“I loved the accessibility of great music and awesome bands right in the center of town and at walking distance,” says Atcherson. “At home to see a concert, it’s either a long drive in traffic or a struggle to find parking. The Georgia Theatre was in a perfect location.”

Atcherson is eagerly anticipating the reopening, despite her graduation date in May. She promises to not wander too far.

“It definitely gives me something to look forward to, a reason to come back into town to visit,” says Atcherson. “I want to make more memories, and in the meantime, I can rest assured that there are plenty of students filling my place and making up for lost time when they reopen.”

Attracting students isn’t the only goal Green has. He hopes music fanatics and former regulars haven’t wandered far either.

“I think a lot of people used the Georgia Theatre as their hub, it was the first place they checked to start their night,” says Green. “I hope that we can help those people and they’re still around.”

Green estimates the theater sold at least 100,000 tickets per year, at around a minimum of $25 per ticket, making the yearly revenue at least $2.5 million. And that’s just ticket prices.

“Probably half of the tickets we sold were to people from out of town,” says Green, “and you have to consider the amount of money they spend on their stay in Athens.”

Even not being a large venue, says Green, the Georgia Theatre has still brought business to the downtown area that will be helping support the city again soon.

“Whether you’re from out of town or already living here, you’re going to end up spending something downtown,” says Green. “Whether it’s hotel, food, shopping, it’s money for Athens.”

The community has shown their support for the theatre, as the extensive list of donors on the Georgia Theatre website shows. Businesses downtown that have contributed include Ben & Jerry’s, the Globe, the Taco Stand, the 40 watt, the Melting Point, and Horton’s Drug Store.

The local government has not made any contributions to the rebuilding, according to Green, despite the theater’s presence in the downtown area for almost 120 years.

But he isn’t sweating it.

“We’ve raised about $200,000 dollars,” says Green, “Our largest single donation came from the Zac Brown Band, which was $70,000. And then we’ve had another couple big donations from just regular rich people that felt we were important.”

The Georgia Trust for Historic Preservation, a large non-profit, collects the contributions to the theater and takes care of the paperwork, says Green, making them a part of the public record.

The theater also received a standard bank loan in order to get the process going.

“The only non-standard part is that it’s a combination loan between a bank and the Small Business Association, part of the federal government,” says Green, “so it’s not a grant or anything like that.”

But getting the SBA involved, says Green, makes the payment system easier because it changes the terms of the loan, making it a 20-year plan as opposed to typical commercial loans, which are 10 years.

The loan together with continued donation help have led to the theater’s current status. Construction workers in hardhats mill in and out of the theatre on an almost-daily basis, hammering and sawing the theatre back to life.

“The toughest parts of construction are over,” says Green, as he walks through the building, leaning on steel beams and smiling at the workers. “The structure is finished, so now it’s just the detail work. But they say the devil’s in the details.”

Among some of the things left to do are installing an elevator, painting, finishing of the sprinkler system, placing of the A.C. units, and building the new bars. But Green says they are making great progress and are relatively on schedule.

With the finishing touches expected for mid-June, the theater has been booking bands and events for fall. The lack of stability in the reopening date has made it impossible to book for summer just yet, says Green.

“We won’t know until a couple days before reopening that we’re officially able to open,” says Green, “so the rest of the summer we’ll just have to plan on booking a week or two in advance, instead of 6 months like normal.”

Green is looking forward to picking out the opening act, whenever the date may be, as many are in anticipation of being the first in, he says. He’s already got one local band in mind, but absolutely no official decisions have been made.

“I would love for the Futurebirds to be one of the first bands to play,” says Green, “because the bird, like a pheonix, and future, like our future. It’d just be a great fit.” Over 30 different bands have made donations to the theater, include one from the B-52s of over $1,000.

Assuming no hardships befall the reconstruction, local bands and Athenians can look forward to the bright lights of the Georgia Theatre shining on the corner of Lumpkin and Clayton streets.

“People expect to be able to come see great shows and they expect us to be what we were in a lot of ways,” says Green. “We just want to book great bands and have people want to and be willing to come spend their hard-earned money here.”

Returning customers can also expect something brand new.

“The roof is going to have a bar and restaurant up there, and there used to be nothing on the roof” says Green. “We’re going to have three things on the menu: BBQ, chicken salad, and tofu.”

It’s all going to be smoked in advance, says Green, so the building will be smoking forever, making light of the situation.

Green’s biggest fear is that the theatre will suddenly become uncool, but he’s working to create a unique place for his customers.

“A good music venue, you walk in the door, and you feel like you’re somehow transported somewhere else, you’re in some kind of very special thing,” says Green. “That’s what we hope to create. A kind of place where a $20 ticket and a couple $4 beers just don’t seem like that bad of an idea.”

 

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