A century sounds like such a long time. It’s a little hard for us to imagine what living was like 100 years ago, but if you look at the history of the Imperial Theatre, you’ll realize that some of the issues we’re dealing with today are similar to things people faced over the past century.
The Augusta theater is celebrating its centennial anniversary this week. It’s an amazing accomplishment, but it’s not been without its hurdles.
When it first opened on Feb. 18, 1918, it was a silent movie theater and vaudeville house called the Wells Theatre, established by Jake Wells. During the time it was built, in 1917, it brought life back to downtown Augusta, after the great fire of 1916.
To get an idea of what the area had just gone through, the Augusta Museum of History helps recount to the public the massive destruction caused by the historic fire.
“A fire broke out (shortly after 6 p.m. March 22, 1916) in a shop housed in the Dyer building in downtown Augusta,” according to the Augusta Museum of History’s records. “The fire, fed by strong winds, burned steadily through the night and into the morning hours of March 23. Sweeping through much of downtown, the fire destroyed businesses, schools and residences in its path. Firefighters from Augusta’s five engine companies, as well as fire department crews from neighboring cities, including Atlanta, Savannah, Charleston and Columbia, helped battle the massive fire. An area of a quarter square mile, or 25 blocks, was blackened during the fire. There were no deaths caused by the fire; however, many were left homeless. Property loss was estimated at $6 million.”
The theater opening up after that destruction created a bright spot in a dark time in Augusta’s history. At the time, the Augusta Chronicle described it as “one of the most magnificent in the South.”
Wells opened the space with a plan for rental revenue. Outside of the theater, in what now is the lobby, bar and offices, were a railway office and Western Union. Western Union was in the space for people to send and receive telegrams all the way through the 1950s and ’60s.
BECOMING THE IMPERIAL
The theater was built in the midst of World War I, which ended in November 1918. As the troops were coming back to the U.S., they brought with them strains of influenza that became known as the Spanish flu. Not surprisingly, military towns in the U.S. tended to suffer the effects of the flu worse than nonmilitary towns. This caused quarantines and restrictions against public gatherings, and the theater suffered.
“So Mr. Wells effectively had to close the theater, and the rental income was insufficient to help carry him,” said Charles Scavullo, who has served as the theater’s executive director since 2007. “So he ended up going out of business in late 1918, and at that point, the theater went through a change in ownership. And even in the early 1900s, there were theater consortiums and theater companies, and a theater group bought the building at that point and renamed it the Imperial Theatre. So in 1918, it changed ownership and it was renamed the Imperial Theatre. And you can see that in some photographs we have in the lobby that there was a rather muted marquee for the Wells Theatre. Our marquee (now) is actually a copy, or reproduction, of the 1938 marquee.”
The interior of the theater is an Art Deco style.
“The color scheme that we have now is 1980s earth tone variety, and it had been painted a few times in the ’30s and ’50s, as well,” Scavullo said. “But the original color scheme was a gray, gold, silver and a rouge red. And the gray was kind of reminiscent of silver; I think in the Augusta Chronicle article, they might have described it as silver, but we found some remnants of it when we did some painting and scraping in the last year or so.
“It was very vibrant,” he continued. “The movie theaters were trying to attract the public to come in, and they wanted the experience of coming in to see a movie, coming to see a show to be an exciting experience — think Disney. So all of these walls were popping with color.”
The theater was innovative for its time — Scavullo said it was the first building in downtown Augusta that had air-conditioning.
“The air-conditioning was accomplished by way of having giant fans that were mounted above the ceiling, actually on the roof of the building,” Scavullo said. “And they would haul blocks of ice up using the pulley system from the alley. They’d haul the blocks of ice up and put them between the fans, and then they’d turn the electric fans on and blow the cool air into the building. So that increased the possibility that the paying public would come in to watch films in June, July and August and September in Augusta, and it also would be one of the coolest spots in Augusta as a result of it being air-conditioned. So even if you want to see a movie, you can come in and chill, and then you’d see the movie and go, ‘Oh, this is pretty cool; I like this, too.’”
Back when the theater opened, it seated more than 1,200 people. Now, there are 845 seats. Scavullo said the reduction in seating is due to people being smaller in stature back in the early 20th century, and there apparently were no center aisles in the theater, originally.
Although people of all races now are able to buy any seat in the house that they want to, the Imperial came into existence during the segregation era. Like most public places during those decades, black people were forced to sit separately from white people, until sometime around the civil rights movement era of the 1960s. At the Imperial, the segregated area was all the way up in the second balcony area. A separate restroom and separate box office also existed for black people during those days. Remnants of the segregated box office still exist in the balcony, where the black patrons had to take a separate staircase from white people to get up there.
The seats that are still in the balcony were installed in the ’40s and ’50s, and Imperial staff would like to get them reupholstered in the near future, keeping the curved, steel Art Deco look intact.
SOUND GONE SILENT
A beautiful piece of the theater’s history is sitting just outside the entryway to the theater. The Wurlitzer organ on display first was installed in 1925, and it provided background music and sound effects for silent films. The organ looks like the inspiration for elaborate, modern electronic keyboards today, with keys that stand in for different instruments. Pedals at the bottom of the contraption created sound effects like a boat whistle, triangle, siren, a bird chirp, horses’ hooves, the sounds of surf, a Chinese gong, and a fire alarm.
In modern times and in our modern economy, people often are left wondering if and when their jobs will be replaced by machines. But that’s nothing new. The organ serves as a reminder that even 100 years ago, technology had the potential to replace people’s jobs.
“Each of these buttons (on the organ) is an instrument from an orchestra. So a single person could effectively replace an entire orchestra,” Scavullo said. “And there was a gentleman who actually invented a theater organ with the intention of it being used for silent films. Because before that, if a theater didn’t have a theater organ, they’d have to bring in a quartet or a quintet, and then you’re relying on the pianist coming from Waynesboro and their Model A breaks down, or if on their horse and wagon, the wheel falls off or something or somebody gets a cold, then you’re missing the violinist or the bassoonist or the saxophone. And this way, you just rely on one person to come.”
The organ hasn’t always been sitting safely at the Imperial. Some decades back, it was supposed to end up in a senior citizen community somewhere in Augusta. The theater lost track of it, but in 2006, the executive director at the time got a phone call from the American Theatre Organ Society Atlanta chapter. It was just sitting in some guy’s house, and it might have been thrown away.
“They had found our organ installed in a house in Marietta,” Scavullo said. “The house was for sale; the gentleman that owned the house and the organ was downsizing, and the real estate agent who was selling the house didn’t know what to do with the organ. The organ essentially resided in an addition that was built to fit the organ and the pipes. And so he was either hoping to find a theater organist, which was far and in between, or he was just gonna throw the whole thing in a dumpster in order to create that space for a potential buyer. So the theater organ people called us and said they’d identified it by the serial number, asked if we’d be interested in getting it back and were told that we’d love to have it back, but there’s no way we could possibly afford to have it dismantled and packed up and shipped, and they provided us with their labor and expertise in building and disassembling organs. So they took the whole thing apart, packed it up real nice in boxes, and all we had to do was pay the freight from Atlanta to Augusta to get it back.
“So the theater organ sits here waiting to be installed at some point, and then up in the second floor, we have an area where all of the hundreds if not thousands of pipes live right now, upstairs.”
Scavullo said that a future project they’d like to do in the theater is reinstall the organ for use. Movies with pre-recorded sound (called “talkies”) started hitting theaters in the late 1920s, so the organ likely originally fell out of use shortly after that, except for maybe some pre-show entertainment.
“So as a result, the Imperial Theatre became pretty much a first-run movie theater from the ’30s into the ’60s and ’70s,” Scavullo said.
Some notable movies that showed there over the years included Walt Disney’s “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” in 1938, “Jaws” in 1975 and “Superman” in 1978.
The stage has been graced with some major names in entertainment history. One of the first would be Charlie Chaplin, a silent movie star and huge name in entertainment back then. He came to the theater in Augusta in April 1918, shortly after its opening, to sell war bonds to support the World War I effort. He and actor/screenwriter Douglas Fairbanks (who didn’t make it to Augusta) went on a national tour during that time to help out during the war.
The Augusta Chronicle at the time reported that Chaplin would be celebrating his 29th birthday during the visit. The newspaper quipped: “There is no use to tell who and what Charley Chaplin is for there is no better known man in America, or one more popular with people of every age.” (Note that his name was spelled correctly as “Charlie” in the headline but as “Charley” in the story text.)
The newspaper continued: “At much financial sacrifice, he has given up an entire month to tour the country in the interest of Liberty Bonds, and while it is difficult to associate anything so serious and grim as war with this artist of humor who seems to live only to make the world laugh, it is all the more interesting and impressive from force of contrast to have this chance to hear him plead for this patriotic duty of everyone to spend every cent they can spare — and then some — for Liberty Bonds, the bonds that mean defeat for the Kaiser and victory for American and the allies.”
Another famed person during the early years to grace the theater’s stage was Anna Pavlova, a premiere ballerina of her time with the Ballet Russe. She was there in 1924. Over the years, ballet has become an integral part of the Imperial Theatre’s history, with what now is known as the Colton Ballet Company of Augusta having its production of “The Nutcracker” there every year since the 1970s.
And it wouldn’t fully be an Augusta stage without the presence of James Brown, who held rehearsals in the building before his worldwide tours. As for the stage, just this past year at the request of Ed Turner and Number 9, it was renamed the Ms. Sharon Jones Stage, in honor of the North Augusta native and lead singer of Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings. She died in November 2016 after a battle with pancreatic cancer.
LOOKING BACK AND LOOKING FORWARD
The theater was a working movie theater until the 1980s. The theater actually closed in 1981, with the building slated for demolition. Why? Because businesses were leaving downtown Augusta. And it involved the Regency Mall, which — though now closed down — is still a potential issue for downtown today.
“There was a flight of retail business from downtown in the ’70s as a result of the Regency Mall and the Augusta Mall opening, and then of course, there were the strip shopping centers, National Hills, and Master’s Plaza where 2nd and Charles is,” Scavullo said. “So they had Masters Cinema open there; the National Hills Cinema opened, and then there was Southgate Cinema on Gordon Highway, there was a cinema at Regency Mall and all of that competition, plus the fact that people were not coming downtown anymore because of the retail business moving out, forced the business to close. The film company, the movie theater company that owned the business, owned the theater, closed it, and it was gonna be slated for demolition.”
Around the same time, the Bell Auditorium was undergoing a renovation — and the Miller Theater closed. Scavullo said the Imperial was the only possible working theater available for performing arts organizations like the Augusta Players, the Augusta Opera and the Augusta Ballet.
“As a result of (those groups) contacting the city and letting them know that they really need this performance and rehearsal space, the building was saved, and it ended up being sold to an outside investor from Savannah, who came in and did the initial renovation in the mid-1980s,” Scavullo said. “And then it changed hands a couple of times, and then in 1992, the building was in foreclosure. At that point in time, the city stepped in and paid off the note and agreed to sell the building to a recently formed nonprofit; a 501(c)(3) organization was formed, the Imperial Community Theatre Inc., and so at that point, the nonprofit assumed ownership of the building and began operating the theater and continues to this day.”
In recent years, the theater has been undergoing renovations and restoration to keep it vibrant for years to come. One of the biggest threats to the theater in the past decade was water rushing into the building whenever it rained. Repairs were made to the theater last summer to fix that, but before the repairs, Scavullo himself learned a lot about pumping water out.
“That was a significant problem, to the point that before I went over to family’s for Christmas a few years ago, I came down here and turned the sump pumps on Christmas morning to get the water out of the orchestra pit,” Scavullo said. “So having got that resolved, we ended up installing a 15-inch concrete pipe around the perimeter of the building outside, under the sidewalk, and then we poured new sidewalk and concrete. And then we put in catch basins and we tied in the downspouts for the gutter system and led that into the 15-inch pipe, and the 15-inch pipe goes down this alley and goes to the storm drain in the street. And that’s effectively solved the water problem that we had.
“We also put a new roof on; all of the different buildings in the theater have a new roof, so the possibility of leaks have been reduced if not eliminated. So those are some of the biggest challenges that we had. Being in business, you always have the challenges of keeping up financially, but we’ve fortunately been very blessed over the past few years. We’ve had some really good years, and we are, thank heavens, in a good position financially, so that’s great.”
The Imperial staff have also been having the interior of the theater repainted, and they have plans to repair and restore the moldings with faces on the side walls of the theater, as well as the arch over the stage.
When asked about the relationship with the Miller Theater, which opened back up this year just down the street from the Imperial, Scavullo was all positive.
“I think it’s a symbiotic relationship, in the sense that we I think both have been working well together,” he said. “We have distinct differences, primarily in the size of the venue, which differentiates us from each other. Ours being an 800-seat theater; theirs being a 1,300-seat theater. In the case of promoters and producing companies, they’re looking for a certain size venue, which pretty much sets their budget in terms of their cost structure. … We fit the size parameters of being the smaller of the theaters in the downtown area with 800 seats. Then there’s a 1,300-seat Miller Theater, then there’s a 3,000-seat Bell, and then there’s a 6,000-seat James Brown Arena. So promoters and producing performing arts organizations make the decision on their own, but we fit that market for the size theater that we are.”
One local man has been performing on the stage at the Imperial since he was 15 — he’s 75 now. Johnny Hensley formed Augusta’s first rock ’n’ roll band, Johnny Hensley and the Red Hots, back in 1958. The Imperial was 40 years old.
“There were plenty of what we call back then, and I guess today, soul bands — primarily black bands back then, but with the advent of Elvis and rock ’n’ roll, there weren’t any white rock ’n’ roll bands in Augusta, so I put together Johnny Hensley and the Red Hots. And I had just turned 15 years old, and every Saturday morning, they had a live radio show from the stage of the Imperial Theatre called Teen Time.
“The Imperial is special. What made it special for us was, it was the first theater we ever worked. … Just the atmosphere with having 800 screaming teenagers, that was the best drug around. And I’ll tell you how special it was to me — about 20 years ago, we started putting the old band back together and doing a reunion concert.”
Hensley said that before Teen Time, there wasn’t a whole lot going on for teenagers in the way of entertainment specifically for them in Augusta.
He said his band has played only at the Imperial — even though they had an offer to play at the Bell Auditorium for free some years back. They’ll be playing their last reunion show on July 28 at the Imperial.
“I’ve often said the best show on our reunion concerts is in the audience,” he said. “Those people just come to have a party; they come to have a good time. And these are people that grew up with the band that are now in their 70s. It’s hard to believe that 800 old farts will show up on a Saturday night still to fill up the Imperial Theatre. Just that we meant that much to them, and they certainly meant that much to us. … It’s very emotional. I mean, I’ve teared up more than once on that stage during these reunion concerts, because you look out on that audience and you see old friends, old faces. Old memories.”
Coco Rubio, 50, who is co-owner of the Soul Bar and recently became operations manager for the Miller Theater, also has many memories of the Imperial. He has been a part of bringing acts like A Tribe Called Quest, the Avett Brothers, the Jennifer Nettles Band and Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings to the historical stage. Rubio also played a part in bringing a short-lived midnight movie series to the Imperial in the mid-’90s, with showings of movies like “Reservoir Dogs.” That lasted for only a couple of films, though, because of the technical issues with using film in the ’90s, when digital was up and coming. (The theater’s old 35mm film projectors are still tucked away in the structure of the balcony, and Scavullo hopes to clean them up and put them on display for tours someday.)
“One of the best shows, there was a little jazz concert that also tied in some dancing with Ferneasa Cutno, and Wycliffe Gordon,” Rubio said. “(Gordon) was doing jazz at the Lincoln Center in New York. And so he came down to play the music, and he brought with him Wynton Marsalis and the jazz band that played at Lincoln Center. And they played. It was awesome because I was in the balcony up high, and I remembered that they didn’t have any microphones set up. And I was kind of concerned about how it was gonna sound. But it was one of the best-sounding things I’d ever heard there, and it was because those jazz musicians knew how to play soft when they needed to, louder when they needed to, and it sounded incredible. And it was just an amazing concert to hear.”
It was also appropriate that the co-owner of the Soul Bar got to see James Brown rehearse in that space.
“(In about 2000 or 2001, Brown) invited everyone from the Soul Bar, staff-wise, to come to the Imperial to check out the rehearsal,” Rubio said. “And so we all went there the next day in the afternoon and just sat in the theater with maybe 20 other people that were there and watched James Brown work his band and run through the whole show, because they were gonna go on tour. And it was just amazing to hear the rehearsal. And I had my daughter, Maya, who was probably 2 or 3 years old, with me. James Brown grabbed her, held her and took a picture, and I have that photo still with James Brown and Maya at the Imperial, and it’s an awesome photo and cool memory.”
Rubio sees the theater as a reminder of the history on Broad Street.
“It’s always been a reminder of how we used to be, but it was also something that was open downtown,” he said. “When a lot of things were closed, it was still a functioning theater, and it’s pretty cool that it never closed. So it was always that kind of bridge from the present to the past, and now of course moving forward into the future, the Imperial’s always been there. It’s pretty cool.”
Tammy Westafer, 46, development director for the Colton Ballet Company of Augusta, emphasized how important the theater is to the ballet company. She grew up training at the company and has been going to the Imperial Theatre for over 30 years.
“My best memories of the theater include dancing tons of performances of ‘The Nutcracker’ there, especially the years I got to perform as the Sugar Plum Fairy with the Augusta Ballet,” Westafer said. “Also, spending time backstage with so many dear friends during so many ballet, Augusta Players and Augusta Opera performances. We had such fun times in that theater, laughing about mice in the dressing rooms! And also playing pranks on and with the crew (especially Tim Campbell, technical director of Imperial Theatre). Another awesome memory was getting to perform in the production of Hatfields and McCoys with Augusta Ballet and Sam Bush, and getting to perform with the ballet and Wynton Marsalis. Those shows were unforgettable, and they are part of the fabric of the Imperial Theatre.”
She said Colton Ballet will always consider the theater its home.
“We have performed there for over 50 years (first as the Augusta Ballet, then as Dance Augusta, and now as Colton Ballet Company of Augusta),” she said. “We remember the days of the stage having holes in it that you had to dance around, to photographers falling in the orchestra pit, to the very last moment that Ron Colton appeared on that stage in his wheelchair one year before his death. The Imperial Theatre means everything to us! It holds so many memories of our performances and all the lovely dancers that graced the stage with us there.”
Karen Gordon, 48, a musician and founder of Garden City Jazz (and sister of legendary trombonist Wycliffe Gordon) has fond memories of the Imperial, which pretty much all involve her brother playing on the stage. She and her family are originally from the Waynesboro area, and they moved to Augusta in 1978, when she was 8 years old.
“My first Imperial experience would have to have been with one of Wycliffe’s shows. I believe the first one was, it was either the Christmas show — Christmas in the Garden City, or it was when he collaborated with the Augusta Ballet and brought the Wynton Marsalis septet to Augusta.
“For Wycliffe’s Christmas in the Garden City show, I was an integral part of the production of that. So I had a chance to be backstage during dress rehearsals, and the night of the show I was on the side of the stage. It was really exciting. And to have so many brilliant artists in the room, but to have them all in this cramped space. The backstage area is only so big, so everybody kind of runs into everyone else. It’s not like at a larger theater; for example, the Maxwell Theatre at Augusta University has several layers of dressing rooms, a couple different floors of backstage space. So sometimes, you don’t even get the chance to see the other artists. But at the Imperial, everyone is in this condensed space so the activity level is high, the excitement is electric — it’s really exciting. So that’s just one of my fondest memories is being back there with musicians who’ve played all over the world and are coming in and getting together with local musicians to make some musical magic happen.”
Gordon says she can feel the presence of all the others who were on that stage over the past century.
“Performing on the Imperial Stage, it brings back such memories of all the other greats who have performed here before,” she said. “I was especially excited when I learned that James Brown used to rehearse his band on the Imperial stage, and now just very recently to learn that the stage had been named for Sharon Jones. … But there is something about performing in a historic theater. The walls have ears, I believe that the ghosts (I don’t know if you believe in ghosts; I don’t really believe in ghosts) but just for the sake of the historical theater … it kind of has good juju.
“Maybe ‘ghost’ is not the right word, maybe ‘spirit.’ I believe that the spirit and the energy of all of those who have graced the stage prior lives on there. And you can feel it when you’re on that stage.”
The Imperial Theatre has some special events in the works this year to help celebrate its centennial. On May 4, it will host A Hat Party: Celebrating the Kentucky Derby (An Imperial Theatre Gala). On Sept. 21, the Columbia County Ballet will perform “Cinderella.” And on Nov. 8, the theater will present A Celebration of Augusta’s Involvement in World War I (recognizing the 100th Anniversary of the war’s end and the Imperial Theatre). For information, visit imperialtheatre.com or call 706-722-8341.