The Star Theatre. Courtesy of the theatre.

Bryce Simmons, town manager of Stuart in Patrick County, has been to Floyd on a Friday night. And he’s seen the happy throngs clustered around the town’s entertainment venues. 

“I’ve always been impressed with the consistency of people that are always there,” Simmons said. “Now, not to say that I’m trying to copy Floyd in what they’re doing, but I do believe that there’s a need and there’s a demand for entertainment in our beautiful town.”

He can imagine crowds being drawn to the old Star Theatre on Patrick Avenue.  “You know, pictures in my head … ” 

The old movie house is used for church services, but it has been years since the marquee lit up and popcorn popped for a Friday night movie. That could change, depending on the outcome of a $7,500 economic and market feasibility study approved by the Virginia Tobacco Region Revitalization Commission in May. 

The study will examine whether the town should buy the 1940s building from its current owners, the Beasley family.

“I believe that the Star Theatre could be basically an anchor institution of our newly formed Historic District,” Simmons said. “I’ve looked at some preliminary numbers as far as opening a theater of this type. And I have to say, that if a private individual wanted to purchase the facility and run it as a venue, the margins are very tight. So that is why I believe that, either purchase or subsidization by a local government — the town of Stuart —  would extend the return of investment. If a private individual would want to purchase and run it, they’re going to  want a seven year return on their investment, where if the town were able to purchase the facility, our return on investment would be in the neighborhood of plus 20 years. So that’s my belief of why purchase by the town of Stuart would make this, again, an anchor institution for our downtown.”

The theater could present concerts, plays, movies, “anything that would make this facility a community oriented  place,” Simmons said.

The town plans to hire a consultant by the end of July.

If Stuart succeeds in reviving the Star, it would join towns and small cities across Southside and Southwest Virginia that are reanimating, or have already reopened their downtown theaters, not merely as an exercise in nostalgia and civic pride, but in a deliberate plan to boost tax proceeds and lodging and restaurant revenues.

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The Millwald. Courtesy of the Millwald.

The Millwald Theatre, Wytheville

In Wytheville, construction crews are “knee deep” into the renovation of the historic Millwald Theatre on Main Street, said Jeff Potts, executive director of Millwald Theatre Inc., which owns the building. 

This isn’t the first historic venue that Potts, 47, has helped reopen. Prior to joining the Millwald in April, he worked on The Bend, a 1929 vaudeville house in West Bend, Wisconsin, and The Howard, a 1927 ballroom in Oshkosh, Wisconsin.

The Millwald opened in 1928 at the dawn of the sound movie era. In 2003, it celebrated its 75th anniversary and was hailed as “Virginia’s longest continuously-running theater,” according to millwald.org, only to close three years later. The nonprofit Millwald Theatre Inc., bought it in 2019. Renovation began in 2021.

Renovation of historic theaters often begins with undoing renovations from the 1970s or later. 

“At some point, they needed to be profitable … so they always divided them in half and put an extra screen in,” Potts said. “And then five, 10 years later, they’re like, ‘Let’s add a third screen.’ And it pretty much ruined the experience with these beautiful historic theater buildings right around the time multiplexes were coming. We’ve opened it back up to one big room as it originally was.”

Upgrades include 300 new seats on the main floor, 200 in the balcony, plus new audio, video, and livestream equipment. The old projection booth on the balcony, no longer needed since projection has moved downstairs, is being converted to a luxury box for small groups or donors. 

“We’re hopeful that we will get the building turned over from our contractor later this summer,” Potts said. “August would be really great. Just the way things are in the world right now with supply chains and people, I’ll be happy with December. But absolutely the goal is by October, November, December, we are doing public-facing performances and private events as well. And our goal is to eventually be open 200-plus nights a year doing concerts, stand-up comedy, all sorts of touring/performing artists and some classic movies and a lot of educational stuff.”

The approximately $4,759,580 cost is being funded partly by tax credits and historic renovation grants. In addition, “we’ve raised about a million dollars locally. We’re still hoping to raise another $125 – $150,000 in the capital campaign to reach our total goal.”

The trend of smaller cities and towns renovating their historic theaters has been going on for “quite a while,” Potts said. “In midsize cities, they remembered their old vacant theatre buildings about a generation ago and started doing this. In these smaller towns with 10,000, 12,000 people or less, they’ve always had a presence on their Main Streets of some sort of gathering space, like a theater. And people have lots of memories there, being children and going to stuff, or their grandparents talking about it. And so there’s this very real sense of nostalgia. And that is a good thing, because I think it prevents communities from just going in and razing these old buildings and putting something new in its place.”

Potts was asked if it’s easier for nonprofits to succeed in operating historic theaters. 

“The truth is, I don’t think it’s easy for anybody to operate an entertainment venue, whether it’s a concert venue, or a movie theater, or coffee shop. What nonprofits have going for them, and the advantage I see, quite honestly, is that ability to fundraise. It’s the ability to just go out and ask for money to underwrite your operation. So when I think about how we’re going to run the Millwald, we’re going to open up three nights a week or more. Because if my doors aren’t open and my lights aren’t on, I’m not generating any revenue. So we have to operate the facility as a business. But yet, we also have to capitalize on the nostalgia factor and the fact that the community wants to be engaged and come and gather and are willing to support us to save these old treasures. So I think that’s really the trend, you have renewed interest in gathering spaces in the heart of downtowns.”

What attracted Potts to this project was the clear-eyed attitude of the theater’s board of directors and supporters.

“They’re looking at this as an economic development project. Like, everybody can hang their hat on the warm, fuzzy feelings you get with the arts and creativity and arts  education and all that, and that’s awesome. But the truth is, on a Thursday, Friday and Saturday, if I can bring 500 people to downtown Wytheville and entertain them for two hours, their thirst for something extra is going to bring them to town early or keep them here late, or even better, put them in one of our 2,000 hotel rooms and get them here for the whole weekend. So we’re very much aware of our role in economic development and tourism, and what this is going to mean for our neighboring businesses. And to be quite honest, that’s 90% of the reason we’re doing it. It’s going to raise everything else around us and just make this an even better community.”

The National Independent Venue Association estimates that for every $1 spent on ticket, a total of $12 of economic activity is generated.

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The Rex Theatre in Galax. Courtesy of the theatre.

The Rex Theatre, Galax

“The Rex Theater opened its doors in 1940 as the prototypical small town movie theater built by Rex Sage,” according to a document provided by interim city manager Judy Taylor-Gallimore. “The upper facade of this Art Deco cinema was once covered in white structural glass panels outlined in a step design by black glass. The glass was falling into disrepair and was covered with its new stucco like foam covering in the early 2000s after it was given to the City of Galax by the Galax Downtown Association.

“Much of the original equipment and fixtures are still housed at Rex, including original movie poster cases and the two, 1937 Carbon-arc movie projectors which still work but are not currently used. The Rex originally had 500 seats …the latest renovation of seating, installed in December 2019 reduced the number of seats once again to our current number of 320.”

“I think the people in Galax like it because many of them, that’s where they saw their first movies,” said Ray Kohl, Galax’s former director of tourism. “I kid people, ‘That’s where you met your girlfriend and kissed her the first time, in the balcony at the Rex.’ And so they like that. And especially Christmas, showing the old Christmas movies brings a lot of people in, and a lot of those who saw their first movies [there].  A few years ago, when ‘Star Wars’ came out with their latest episode, we showed the first original three ‘Star Wars’ movies on a Saturday and a lot of dads brought their children and said, ‘This is where I saw these ‘Star Wars’ movies 20 years ago,’ and now here they are, bringing their children to see and grandchildren to see a movie.”

The Rex is also the venue for “Blue Ridge Backroads” every Friday night from 7 to 9 p.m., featuring live bluegrass and old-time from the heartland of country music. The show is broadcast live on WBRF, 98.1 FM, in the tradition of WRVA’s “Old Dominion Barn Dance” and KWKH’s “Louisiana Hayride.”

WBRF reaches West Virginia, East Tennessee and North Carolina, Kohl said. “And so people can listen to the music and they get to learn what’s coming up and come in and visit.”

On July 1, Galax leased the theater to Backroads Entertainment Group. Brian Sizer said the group consists of three “local boys,” Butch Phillips, Stevie Barr and himself, and was formed “with the specific intent of bringing high quality entertainment to the community and celebrating our heritage through the Historic Rex Theater and Classic Country 98.1.” Plans include “multiple music shows per week of different genres, a talent show, movie showings, and gospel music on Sundays.” 

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Masonic Theatre in Clifton Forge. Courtesy of the theatre.

Masonic Theatre, Clifton Forge

History is deep at the Masonic Theatre in Clifton Forge.

The brick, Beaux-Arts building opened in 1906, with 26,000 square feet spread over three stories with a balcony and an additional underground level. Pre-amplification-era orator William Jennings Bryan (“You shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold!”) rang the rafters in 1908. Singing cowboy Tex Ritter took the stage with his horse, White Flash. Masonic Lodge 166 conducted meetings in the third-floor ballroom. As the decades passed, vaudeville and silent movies gave way to talkies and newsreels. Live performers included Gene Autry, Burl Ives and Count Basie.

After a long succession of owners, the town of Clifton Forge took ownership in 2003. The Masonic Theatre Preservation Foundation was formed in 2009 and in 2015, crews began restoring the original architecture based on historically accurate drawings. The $6.7 million project rehabilitated all four levels. The grand reopening was in 2016. 

Programming includes classic movies and live music, some of which happens in an adjacent amphitheater constructed in 2012. 

The budget for fiscal year 2023 is “right around $408,000,” said executive director Justin Reiter. “We had to whittle down that budget quite a bit, just because of what we saw of coming out of COVID. In the last fiscal year, people are still a little reluctant to come out.

“Where we would like to be in a perfect world would be 60% revenue earned from ticket sales, concessions, and rentals, and 40% from grants, government subsidies, individual donations, corporate donations and sponsorships. COVID took us completely the opposite. So, 30 to 40% earned through ticket sales, concessions and rentals, and 60 to 70% government subsidized sponsorships, corporate and individual sponsors, individual donations and grant writing.”

Among the beneficiaries are local eateries. “On show nights, restaurants in downtown Clifton Forge have a 30% increase in their profits,” Reiter said.

The goal for small towns is “really trying to make the theater work and be able to talk about it proudly so that it does succeed. Because the performing arts business is difficult already, and trying to pick right titles and have right kinds of series, family series, movie series, is really important. And it’s important to listen to your community to see what they want to have in their theater, what they want to see so that they are able to support it. They’ve got to draw from the surrounding areas, at least 45 to 50 miles, so that they can be sustainable. A small town alone, it’s very difficult to support a big theater.”

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Lincoln Theatre, Marion

The richest man in Marion, furniture magnate Charles C. Lincoln Sr., returned from a business trip to Atlantic City, New Jersey, determined to replicate a grand movie palace he had seen, according to lincolntheatre.org.

Lincoln hired New York’s Novelty Art Studios to design a Mayan Revival interior, a change from the many Oriental and Egyptian movie palaces built during the Art Deco period.

Local artist Lola Poston was commissioned to paint six 15-by-20-foot murals depicting scenes in American and local history. The theater was equipped with a state-of-the-art Movietone system which kept audio and video in sync.

The theater opened on July 1, 1929. Admission was 50 cents for adults and 25 cents for children. “As residents of the area entered, many of them had never even seen motion pictures of any kind, let alone a feature film,” the theater’s website says. “Before each presentation, current newsreels gave patrons their very first look at the world outside their rural home in the mountains of Virginia. 

“The Lincoln was also a popular stop for touring musicians as well, hosting icons including Minnie Pearl, Ernest Tubb, June Carter, The Stanley Brothers and Flatt & Scruggs to name a few. But as television sets made their way into every household in America, interest in ‘an evening at the movies’ began to dwindle, and so did the theatre’s attendance. In December of 1974, the theatre was closed. 

“The Lincoln sat empty and abandoned as the building began to crumble. Eventually, the roof caved in, baring a 50 ft. hole and exposing the interior and Lola Poston’s elaborate murals to the elements. Soon after, pigeons and rodents called the theatre home, and what was once the town’s premiere destination became a depressing relic from the past.”

In the late 1980s, local citizens created the nonprofit Lincoln Theatre Inc. After 10 years of fundraising a temporary roof was installed and renovation began. The murals were shipped to a studio in Wisconsin, where they were cleaned and restored for $20,000 each. 

One of the last surviving examples of the Mayan Revival style, the theater reopened in 2004 with a performance by western act Riders in the Sky, followed by the first “Song of the Mountains” broadcast, familiar to public television viewers. 

The Lincoln, like other small-town theaters, is subsidized by local government. 

“Those patrons support local businesses through shopping, dining, and lodging, and the revenue generated from the taxes on those is the core of our economic development program,” said Ken Heath, director of Marion’s Office of Community and Economic Development. “It’s not a one-to-one deliverable. We can’t look at the $50,000 investment the town makes to the Lincoln as a direct return of $50,000, but it’s part of a comprehensive approach. In fact, even through the pandemic, Marion posted record meals tax receipts, and continues to do so. Our storefront vacancy rates remain well below the national average. “

Annual budget is around $250,000, said executive director Tracy Thompson, the only full-time employee. About 30% of funding comes from the town of Marion and Smyth County, the rest from ticket sales, rentals, sponsorships and donations. In the pandemic-affected year of 2021, the theater attracted 7,482 patrons, 74.5% of whom came from outside Smyth County. “Even if I just have 100 people for an event, every restaurant is full and people are waiting for a table,” she said.

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The Lee Theatre. Courtesy of the theatre.

Lee Theatre, Pennington Gap

The 500-seat Lee Theatre, in the town of Pennington Gap, in Lee County at the state’s western extremity, opened in 1947 and closed in the mid 1970s. It was reopened in 2013 by the town. Programming includes plays by local troupes and the Barter Theatre, music concerts, movies and graduation events. 

“We opened the theater in 2013 in October and in December 2013, our local hospital closed down, and we lost probably about 125 jobs overnight,” town manager Keith Harless said. “We noticed that even with the hospital closed and the theater reopening, our meals tax revenues actually increased.

“If you have a show with 300 people, and if you’re ever in downtown Pennington, and sitting there watching it when the people leave the theater, 300 people is a large impact a small town like Pennington. And we’ve got two restaurants in walking distance to the theater. And they will tell you that those days are one of their busiest days of the month, when there’s a show at the theater.”

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Chastain Theatre at the Prizery. Courtesy of The Prizery.

The Prizery, South Boston

Some towns have opted to repurpose historic buildings. The 38,000-square-foot Prizery in South Boston’s 20-acre historic warehouse district was built as a tobacco processing center, where tobacco was “prized” or pressed into barrels. In 2002 it began a conversion into a multipurpose cultural center incorporating a performing arts theater, art gallery, classrooms and banquet hall. In July the Prizery’s Summerstock Theater Festival is presenting “Xanadu” in the 250-seat Chastain Theatre. The theater also hosts music performances in a variety of styles including classical, bluegrass, country, gospel, Broadway and pop.

The building is owned by the Southern Virginia Higher Education Center, and the Prizery (officially the nonprofit Community Arts Center Foundation) rents it from that organization for a nominal fee, according to Prizery executive director Melanie Cornelison-Jannotta.

The annual budget is around $600,000, Cornelison-Jannotta said, with income and support coming from South Boston, Halifax County, ticket sales and local schools. 

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Buchanan Theatre. Photo by Dwayne Yancey.

Buchanan Theatre, Buchanan

The Buchanan Theatre on Main Street was built in the 1910s. It closed in 1985 after widespread flooding in the Botetourt County town (the theater itself was not flooded) and reopened in 2002, said Sharon Coleman, president of Standing Room Only, the nonprofit group which owns and operates the theater. Programming includes first-run films suitable for families (no R ratings), classic movies and live music.

“We’re totally volunteer-operated so therefore we don’t have that overhead to deal with,” Coleman said. “And we’re able to provide the movies at a cheaper rate. If you want to come to a movie by yourself, it’s OK, because you’ll probably run into somebody that you know. We have lots of folks that live on Main Street, they will just walk down to the theater to see a
movie, and we have those who are just loyal supporters who come almost every movie, just to support the theater and keep it going.”

“Buchanan is really lucky to have an original theater here, right on our Main Street that does attract our citizens and visitors,” said town manager Susan McCulloch. “And it is a quality-of-life component that is hard to measure, but it goes hand in hand with our tourism and our quality of life efforts.”

Randy Walker

Randy Walker is a musician and freelance writer in Roanoke. He received a bachelor's degree in journalism from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and was formerly a staff writer on (as it...