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VOL. 36 | NO. 27 | Friday, July 6, 2012

Now showing: Downtown life

Refurbished theaters help bring visitors to city centers

By Tim Ghianni

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CLARKSVILLE – Two men’s shared dream turned the Roxy Theatre – a derelict and rat-infested reprobate of a movie theater – into a beacon of hope that has not only drawn shoppers and businesses to downtown Clarksville, it may well hold the key to the city’s mercantile future.

While Music City – 45 minutes southeast on Interstate 24 – is putting half of the SoBro district beneath one massive roof for its convention center, this historic tobacco port is looking at plans that could turn the Roxy into Clarksville’s downtown venue for smaller business meetings, pageants and touring artists.

In fact, with Mayor Kim McMillan as an advocate, a contentious City Council budget session recently included a decision to invest $100,000 into “pre-planning” to determine how Clarksville and the Roxy can team up to realize that small-convention and arts center dream.

Regardless of future plans, the Roxy’s long been seeding vitality into a downtown district once all but forgot.

“It’s the anchor,” says Paige King, owner of Hodgepodge, a home décor and gift shop just down Franklin Street from the reformed movie theater.

“It’s been here the longest. It’s doing the good work of the community,” says the activist who has served as president of two downtown revitalization organizations.

The theater, rescued from disuse by John McDonald and Tom Thayer 29 years ago, is one of the main reasons 20 new merchants have refurbished old buildings and opened doors downtown in the eight years Hodgepodge has been located on Franklin Street.

“It’s one of the biggest draws,” says King, aka “The Mayor of Franklin Street,” speaking not only of the revitalization of Franklin – the city’s historic “main drag” – but also Strawberry Alley, a block removed.

“What they have accomplished in a movie theater is phenomenal,” adds this wife of a retired Fort Campbell soldier. They decided to retire here and open a store because they saw life and hope in the historic architecture – including the art deco movie house – lining Franklin Street.

The dream that grew to become a neon-glowing cornerstone to redevelopment and vibrancy of downtown Clarksville’s business district was pretty much birthed during a series of thespian road trips.

McDonald and Thayer, partners in theater, business and in life, would leave their Big Apple lives to take in regional theater, particularly to see an actress pal tread the boards in Bethlehem, Pa., Chicago, Syracuse and elsewhere.

“Each time we went, we thought ‘We could do better than that,’” says McDonald, 65, recalling what brought the pair to the art deco relic on the corner of First and Franklin in a then-defeated downtown.

By saying they “could do better than that” he wasn’t talking about his actress friend’s performances, but about the regional theatrical productions they found lacking.

McDonald has earned the right to opine on the quality of productions. He is a graduate and has taught at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. And he has performed in prestigious productions, including the New York Shakespeare Festival’s Macbeth (with James Earl Jones, the voice of Darth Vader, with memorable performances in Field of Dreams and Roots) and the Long Wharf Theatre’s A Lion in Winter with Ralph Waite (Pa Walton, who weekly said “Goodnight John Boy” back in the 1970s.)

Thayer, now 55, similarly had a rich background in theater and the arts. He was a graduate of the American Musical and Dramatic Academy in New York City and a public relations liaison for the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Like McDonald, he taught theater in the city and at summer camps.

The odyssey to the Roxy began when the pair tossed their rucksacks of theatrical knowledge into the back seat and took a road trip to their native South in 1983. “We drove to see my parents in Memphis and drove back here to Clarksville to see Tommy’s folks,” McDonald says.

While visiting Thayer’s parents, the two began to think a little more about the fact they could stage good theater on par or better than what they’d seen at venues across Middle America, as well as some they had seen in New York City.

That’s when they caught their first glimpse of the stately derelict building at the foot of a pigeon-owned downtown.

“It was Friday of Holy Week,” McDonald recalls, neglecting to mention, perhaps appropriately, the date of that particular Good Friday – April 1. So on April Fool’s Day, they toured the old theater that they would turn into their legacy.

“James Maynard (Roxy owner) showed us the inside of the building for the first time,” McDonald says.

To say it was a diamond in the rough is too kind. The World War II-era structure had been abandoned for three years. In fact, there had been aggressive discussion among city fathers and mothers about turning the space into a multi-level downtown parking lot in the months before that fateful Good Friday visit that sparked the Roxy resurrection.

The prevailing wisdom had been that if downtown was going to be revitalized, a parking lot – the theater is built into the side of the steep hill that climbs into the downtown district – was needed more than a movie house.

But the two men saw something special amid the refuse and couldn’t let it go.

“As we drove back to New York, we chatted about it,” McDonald says. They had the passion to stage dazzling theater, and the Roxy offered the venue. Discussion ended, and McDonald and Thayer embarked on scratching up the $38,000 price tag – plus $1,000 in earnest money – for the theater.

“We had no money,” McDonald explains. “We should have been better capitalized. We should have been capitalized at all.” He laughs at himself now.

With empty pockets and hope-filled smiles, they turned to community-minded citizens, tapping into a wealth of kindness and support that has endured for three decades.

“We owe a great thanks to Harry Orgain (of Orgain Building Supply) for fronting us the plywood. And we sold advance subscriptions that we used to pay the carpenter and the like,” McDonald says.

The pair invested sweat equity, chasing off the assorted vermin, cleaning out the clutter, accepting Orgain’s kindness to have a new stage and seating area built and proceeded with plans to stage shows. The Orgain family has continued to be among the theater’s greatest supporters. Harry has gone, but his enthusiasm for the McDonald-Thayer dream rubbed off on brother and business partner Jimmy Orgain.

“My brother was instrumental in getting them started,” Jimmy Orgain says. “I was a businessman and, when he gave them materials, I said ‘Harry, we’ll never get paid for it.’”

It didn’t take Jimmy long to catch the enthusiasm from his brother. He and wife Lena now are among the greatest advocates of what the theater is doing now, as well as the plans for a “new” Roxy. “I got all excited” when they began talking about the future, says the prominent member of Clarksville commerce and society who has pledged $100,000 toward the construction project.

The theater has been moving toward the future since Harry Orgain and his company offered figurative and literal support via plywood and building supplies for the first phase of Roxy renovation.

“We opened Nov. 3, 1983,” McDonald says. The first show was Mack & Mabel – a musical treatment of the romance between Keystone Cops director Mack Sennett and actress Mabel Normand. Since that first curtain rose, the Roxy’s been continuously staging shows – some for kids, some for adults.

“We can’t afford to have a dark night,” McDonald says.

The neon bursting into the Clarksville’s nighttime skyline is something of an “I told you so” for the men and their supporters.

“We had to fight these assumptions from the beginning: ‘They’ll never open. They’ll never last.’“

He remembers that shortly after the first staging, a prominent Clarksville citizen began spreading a stinging word-of-mouth review: “Seats Hard, food cold (it was a dinner theater for a brief time at the outset), shows too long.”

Then a glib young guy fresh from the Big Apple, McDonald sought out that gentleman.

“I remember telling him he was well-enough padded that the seats shouldn’t have bothered him,” says McDonald. He learned that’s probably not the best way to react to critics in the small – by New York standards – southern city.

“Back then, I didn’t know about networking and the fact that if you say something to somebody’s brother-in-law or to some contractor’s sister-in-law; it gets back to them, to the whole town.”

McDonald and Thayer worked themselves from the role of outsiders to beloved protectors of history as they breathed new life into the building that offered first-run movies from 1947 until 1980, when the last picture show was Don’t Go In The House, a fittingly seedy “slasher” that used a flamethrower as its lethal weapon of choice.

The Roxy was the last “neighborhood” theater in the city to survive as multiplexes began to hit strip mall parking lots. The stately old Capitol Theatre, just down the street, closed six years earlier after a farewell showing of Jack Nicholson’s gloomily magnificent Chinatown. It was demolished and quickly became a faint, if lively to some, memory… as well as, ironically, a parking lot.

The Roxy, “has been transformed four times,” McDonald says. “First, we had three levels of fireproof plywood platforms painted over.” Then the old folding chairs “were replaced with dollar-store chairs. Then we got the chairs from the black balcony and brought them down and had them covered.”

Like most old-South movie theaters, the Roxy had a separate entrance, drinking fountain and toilet facilities and seating left over from the days of segregation.

The seats still had springs poking through them, “then Dorothy Gertrude Ross passed away. She and Dan Ross went to our shows,” McDonald says. “In her will, she said she wanted to leave her estate to the museum, the library and – this was how it was worded: ‘The Roxy if it’s still in operation.’

“Because of that, we have $88,000 of red velvet chairs that I scrape gum off every night.”

Scrubbed fresh by McDonald and Thayer, the neon and the old marquee began bringing people downtown to the deserted environs from the outset.

Sure new shopping opportunities were bustling far from downtown, particularly out where Wilma Rudolph Boulevard meets I-24 in the city-annexed St. Bethlehem community, site of Governor’s Square Mall and countless standalone and strip mall stores.

But at least in part because of the revived neon, other entrepreneurs came downtown to replace busted glass with freshly stenciled window panes.

Hal Partlow, director of performing for the Tennessee Arts Commission, says the Roxy is a perfect example of what other communities are seeking.

“The big buzz around communities in general is asset-based economic development. The Roxy is a tremendous asset to the community of Clarksville.

“Anytime you have a vibrant organization in downtown, it helps revitalize downtown. Main Street Programs across the country are struggling to convert old theaters into viable places. The Roxy did that 30 years ago.”

Clarksville resident Partlow notes that whenever he goes downtown, he sees something new, attracted by the life of Franklin Street, which has at its heart the Roxy. The Arts Commission has demonstrated its support by positively responding to grant requests annually for the last 24 years. The grant-giving process is “very competitive,” he says.

“That they’ve received funding (this year it was $26,800) for 24 years is a good example of good stewardship on the Roxy leadership’s part.”

The face of Clarksville forever was changed in January 1999 when a tornado ripped through much of the historic city. No one died in the storm, but some great old buildings, like churches, stores, The Leaf-Chronicle building, home of the state’s oldest daily newspaper, were destroyed.

One constant in the city’s proud return was that the Roxy kept bringing living and breathing people and quality entertainment to the city’s broken, undefeated heart. After rehearsing in the dark for a week, the theater opened Edward Albee’s powerful Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

Now that living heartbeat at First and Franklin is in a quandary. Thayer and McDonald are working toward what could be the end of the old theater building by pushing for the non-profit Roxy Regional Theatre to grow into the Roxy Center for the Arts.

It is not a move without some controversy, as preliminary proposals call for the cornerstone of the downtown redevelopment to be forever changed.

“We need more space,” McDonald says, of plans that call for the art deco building to be sacrificed or at least altered to make way for the new center.

“Right now we have too many things going on at the same time.”

A regular day at the Roxy begins with 8 a.m. yoga classes, followed by play rehearsals at midday and city Parks and Recreation Department activities in the afternoon. The evenings, of course, are when the play’s the thing.

Yes, the building was their own Field of Dreams and, to paraphrase, it has proven true that “if you fix it, they will come.” McDonald, Thayer and their allies believe even more will come if the theater is transformed into the arts center.

The first step; by the Roxy board is an ambitious “1,000-by-1,000 plan,” seeking a thousand donors to cough up $1,000 apiece to jumpstart the futuristic proposals.

That first million has nearly been reached, so they’ll have enough to get started, but “we need a lot more,” McDonald says. The estimate for the total project is $15 million.

There’s irony in the plans. The theater that was born after the government decided against paving paradise and putting up a parking lot, as the old song goes, now looks to the importance of downtown parking as key in the argument for the new center.

The proposal pitch, both from the Roxy and from Mayor Kim McMillan, is heavily drenched with the promise of parking, with a multi-level lot to be crowned with the 36,000 square-foot brand-new Roxy Center for the Arts and Education.

“I think the city is going to come in with us on this,” McDonald says. “They realize the need for parking and that could be the catalyst to get them to help with the project … That would pay for our foundation. Underground parking beneath us would be just terrif.”

He laughs when reminded that right before he and his partner arrived, the art deco joint was being eyed as a probable location for a parking lot. “Now it’s come full circle,” he says. “It’s bringing both things together. Beneath us there will be places to park for everybody downtown. And we’ll place a theater on top of that.”

McDonald says the promise of new parking will allay fears of the downtown merchants concerned that the old beacon that drew them there will be temporarily extinguished and the façade modernized.

Hodgepodge owner King has those reservations. The old building is a big part of “what gives the street so much character,” she says. Still she’s a member of the Roxy board and knows what the theater has done for her city.

McDonald listens to his friends’ concerns. But he answers the merchants would “love to see a parking lot. That is an issue and an important one…. there’s money to be garnered for a new building if it has parking involved.”

He also admits he and Thayer are responsible in part to any resistance. “We took an eyesore and inadvertently turned it into an icon and inadvertently stymied our growth a little. But it’s not functional for us anymore. It wouldn’t be functional for anybody else.”

It’s difficult to argue with his Professor Harold Hill-level enthusiasm. No, there’s not “trouble right here in River City,” as Hill proclaims in The Music Man. Instead there’s money … and a good cause to spend it on. “There are people in this town who have scads of nickels,” McDonald says. “They could support us.”

And the theater supports the community. For example, the Roxy has been presenting Shakespeare annually since 1985, as an active partner to public schools’ curriculum. And the youngsters of the city are able to add a little drama in their lives, literally, by participating in the Parks and Rec program at the theater.

During the 2008 gas crisis, when school buses were parked and field trips stalled, the Roxy went to the students, McDonald notes. “We took all of our productions in the back of my truck,” he says, listing Inherit the Wind, A Christmas Carol and Twelfth Night among the plays that hit the road for education.

The plans for the future include a 500-seat theater, scene shop, loading dock, dressing rooms, cafes, art galleries and dance and art studios to replace the current 153-seat multi-use auditorium.

Preliminary plans have been drawn that will take that old theater down and replace it with a new structure. And the City Council action will help determine which course is best, a completely new building or using the withered and weathered structure at the heart of the future center.

Most discussions avoid the word “demolish.”

“‘Reconfigure’ is the term we use,” McDonald says. “The architect has this idea of taking the marquee and refurbishing it and putting it inside on the balcony level (so people outside could still see it).

“He’s also kept many of the architectural features” including the half-moon doors and the neon “Roxy” trademark neon sign on the corner.

And in the stages of construction, the show will go on, he says, promising to turn the Roxy troupe into a band of gypsies, performing at schools, churches and other facilities, continuing the tradition that has enhanced the cultural life of the old tobacco port.

“We will have a theater which can serve for many things, like the Fiddler’s Convention, business meetings, dance recitals. Numerous musical tours could come through and play the Roxy.

“The rehearsal space can be a banquet hall. The stage can host Miss Tennessee,” McDonald says .

“It’s a win-win situation.”

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