In the lobby of the Augusta Mini Theatre is a large white cardboard check with the amount of $60,000 crossed out with a red marker.
An updated number of $65,000 is handwritten directly above it in red.
This giant check is a symbol of the struggle facing the almost 40-year-old community arts school which was founded by its executive director, Tyrone Butler, back in 1975 to provide local children affordable programs in drama, music, visual arts and dance.
“Here is our fundraising check,” Butler said, standing in the lobby of the more than 9,300-square-foot community arts school along Deans Bridge Road. “In order for us to construct the 250-seat theater that we so badly need, the city gave us $857,000 in the Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax phase that we are currently in. But in order to get that money, we have to match it by 25 percent. So we must raise $215,000, in order to get the $857,000.”
For an arts school that refuses to turn any student away from their classes or performances based on an inability pay, raising the necessary $215,000, along with funding the Mini Theatre’s annual programs, is no easy task.
“The check says we are up to $65,000. It’s actually a little higher. We have raised about $67,000 trying to get to that $215,000,” Butler said. “It’s hard. Here we are still trying to do two campaigns. One campaign to keep the doors open and one to build the theater.
I’m not complaining, but I wish we only had one campaign going.
“But we are going to get there, for sure. There is no doubt about that. We are going to get that money.”
The construction of a 250-seat theater is phase II of the Augusta Mini Theatre’s long-term plans. The first phase included the relocation of the arts school from its original downtown location at 430 Eighth Street to its current 11-acre site on Deans Bridge Road which opened in 2008.
“This building and the land was a total of $3.2 million,” Butler said. “And a lot of people don’t realize that we raised $500,000 on our own.”
A huge chunk of the additional funding came from previous dollars given to the Mini Theatre by the city from Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax (SPLOST) monies.
“Now, we know that the 250-seat theater is going to cost more than the $857,000 that we will get from SPLOST,” Butler said. “The theater itself, right now, would probably be about $2.9 million.”
Butler was sincerely hoping that the Mini Theatre would be included in the upcoming SPLOST list that is set to go before Richmond County voters on May 20.
But even though the Mini Theatre requested the smallest amount of SPLOST dollars, at $1.8 million, compared to the other local arts groups, it was left off this year’s list. “Sometimes it is very frustrating,” Butler said. “The SPLOST list comes out and we are not on it. It is heartbreaking. I just knew that the city would help finish us up. But it didn’t happen.”
Butler insists he is not upset with city leaders, but he can’t deny that he was extremely disappointed that the Mini Theatre was not included.
“I know we’ve been blessed. We were getting SPLOST dollars when no other group was getting those dollars,” Butler said. “But we were getting those dollars, not because we were special, but because we had a project and, fortunately, we owned the land. In order to get SPLOST dollars, you have to own your property.”
Of course, critics of the Mini Theatre will quickly point out that if Butler’s organization is having difficulties raising the $215,000 in order to receive the $857,000 in the current phase of SPLOST funding, it makes sense that the Augusta Commission shouldn’t allocate more money to the project.
“Do you know how long it would take us to raise $1.8 million?” Butler asked, adding that the Augusta Mini Theatre has been a 501(c)(3) nonprofit agency since 1975. “When you look at the economics of the Mini Theatre, it has been a struggle. Here we are, 38 years old, and we are still wondering where the next dollar is going to come from.”
For those Augustans who have never seen a performance or visited the arts school, providing such public funding to the Mini Theatre may not seem worth the value.
But Butler insists that Mini Theatre is changing lives every single day.
“Over the past 38 years, the Mini Theatre has reached more than 175,000 young people and adults,” Butler said. “Through social-awareness plays and classroom instruction, our students have developed the life skills needed to become productive adults in society.
“We have children who don’t drop out of high school, don’t get pregnant or get someone else pregnant and don’t get in trouble with the law. They become everything from lawyers to teachers to soldiers.”
These children are family, Butler said, and his involvement in their lives doesn’t stop once the class is over.
For Butler, and his wife, Judith Simon-Butler, who has also been involved with Augusta Mini Theatre since 1975 and has instructed drama since 1980, they are dedicated to helping these children become the best people they can possibly be.
“We have gotten calls over the years when we are at home asleep,” Butler said. “One time, the phone rang at 1 o’clock in the morning and I hear at the other end a mother, ‘Mr. Butler, Mr. Butler, you have to come get her!’”
When those calls come, Butler and his wife get dressed and pay the student a visit.
“By the time we got over there it was 2 o’clock in the morning,” Butler said. “There is this little girl, who is in the 11th grade, but a tiny little thing. We had t
o sit that little girl down and talk to her. It wasn’t about fear because her father was much taller and bigger than I was. It was about getting through to her.”
The Butlers asked the girl if she wanted to remain at the Mini Theatre and she immediately broke down and all the hostility melted away.
“This place is everything to them. It is a safe haven,” Butler said. “Today, that same girl has graduated from Albany State University and is in the Reserves working out in Texas.”
That love is a two-way street, Butler said, adding that he and his wife can’t help but get equally attached to their students.
In fact, tragedy recently fell upon the Augusta Mini Theatre family when one of their 13-year-old students, Demonta Collins, was killed after he was struck by a car on Milledgeville Road while running from a dog.
“We had just broke for spring break and he was killed,” Butler said. “Judith cried all night. The kids get so close here. We have 130 kids here and our students’ Mini Theatre years are like dog years. What I mean is, if you are at the Mini Theatre one year, it feels like seven years in terms of emotion. Everyone was so upset when they heard the news. We brought in grief counselors to meet with them all week.”
All three of Diane Boyd’s children attended the Mini Theatre over the past 25 years and she says the arts school has helped her kids become outstanding, productive individuals.
“I have a 30-year-old daughter who started at the Mini Theatre when she was maybe six or seven,” Boyd said, adding that her daughter began in drama, but also took lessons on the piano and flute. “My daughter was very bashful and shy, but through the years the Butlers built character in her. They caused her to go further in life. The Mini Theatre made her not afraid of challenges and gave her confidence.
“Now, there is nothing she thinks she can’t do. As a result, she has gone into the Marines.”
Her two sons also attended the Mini Theatre and the Butlers served as second parents to them, Boyd said.
“I think for my boys, not having a father in the home for some time, Mr. and Mrs. Butler really helped guide them,” Boyd said. “I don’t care what the kids are doing. The Butlers are going to show up. In fact, my daughter went a lot of places in band at school because she was always in competitions and they were always there. They are always there to cheer those children on.”
The Butlers give of themselves without often asking parents for a dime if they know they can’t afford it, Boyd said.
“I remember them going into the projects and pulling kids out that have never been exposed to anything. And it was all free to the parents who couldn’t pay. They won’t turn kids away,” Boyd said. “I watched how those kids from the projects with no self-esteem just blossomed. It was awesome.
“The Mini Theatre teaches them no matter what your size, your color or where you are from, you are not where you live. You are so much better.”
After almost four decades as executive director of the Mini Theatre, Butler is still shocked by some Augustans’ attitude about the arts school.
“Let’s be honest, I wasn’t the most popular person in the arts community when we were getting SPLOST dollars,” Butler said. “A lot of people said I was getting those dollars because I was African American, but what they didn’t see was that you needed to make a request. Nobody came to me and said, ‘You are an African-American guy, you should get this money.’”
Prior to consolidation, Augusta’s city council decided to allocate $750,000 in sales tax money to be used for an “inner-city art center.”
By the summer of 1997, the newly consolidated Augusta Commission was given the arduous task of deciding who should receive the money.
The Augusta Mini Theatre had already been awarded $400,000 in one-cent sales tax money to improve its former Eighth Street facility in 1996, but Butler decided to also pursue the additional funding in order to build the new location.
At the same time, the Imperial Theatre applied for $541,450 from the Augusta Commission to repair its more than 80-year-old theater on Broad Street.
The two organizations soon found one another on opposite sides of a messy battle for funding. In the end, the commission voted 6-4 to provide the Augusta Mini Theatre with $450,000 and the Imperial Theatre with $300,000.
Butler will be the first to admit that politics plays a huge role when it comes to receiving funding in Augusta.
“I always say the new Mini Theatre was built on $100,” Butler said, laughing. “I say that because way before we were asking for any of this SPLOST money, my wife and I were getting ready to go on vacation, but we had $100 extra. And I said, ‘Why don’t we just donate it to some people?’”
The Butlers decided to donate $25 each to then-Augusta commissioners Lee Beard, Henry Brigham and Willie Mays, as well as former state Rep. Henry Howard.
“A little while later, I bumped into Willie Mays,” Butler said. “We went to high school together, but I’m a little older. He said, ‘T, are you going to apply for SPLOST?’”
Butler said he asked when was the meeting scheduled to discuss the SPLOST funding and Mays replied that it was going to be that upcoming Tuesday.
“Well, it was Saturday, so I didn’t have a lot of time,” Butler said, adding he quickly put together a letter requesting SPLOST funding. “So the commission was getting ready to decide who gets the money and they came out with the first tier, second tier and third tier lists.”
Butler said he was stunned to discover that the Mini Theatre was not included on any of the lists.
“So, I called Henry Brigham and I said, ‘You know, we applied, but we aren’t anywhere,’” Butler said. “He said, ‘Well, you know, chief, you have to own your building.’”
When Butler told Brigham that the Mini Theatre did own its building, there was a long pause on the other end of the line.
“He said, ‘You own the building on Eighth Street?’” Butler said, adding he told Brigham that was correct. “He said, ‘What?!? Well, I’ll be. Let me get back with you, chief.”
A few days later, the new SPLOST list came out and the Augusta Mini Theatre was on the first tier.
“So some of those same people that we donated $25 to, they had the vote or had the influence to help us out,” Butler said, adding that in no way did the $25 buy any votes.
That money simply showed those four city leaders that the Mini Theatre supported them.
“That’s how I found out about politicians. They want you to give what you can. That’s all,” Butler said. “If it is $10 or a fish fry dinner, they appreciate it. Some people don’t give anything, and yet they want everything. So that’s how this building got built with $100.”
But politics can be a double-edged sword.
One of the biggest local supporters of the Mini Theatre through the years was former state Sen. Charles Walker.
When the former senator was sentenced to 10 years in prison after being found guilty of 127 felony counts of conspiracy, mail fraud and filing false tax returns, it definitely impacted the Mini Theatre, Butler said.
“I’m from the old school; I feel you should always say thank you, regardless of what someone has been charged with or convicted of,” Butler said, adding that former Augusta Mayor Ed McIntyre was also a big supporter of Mini Theatre before and after he was convicted of extortion in 1984. “It was the same thing with Mr. McIntyre. Those people who were against Mr. McIntyre when he was in office, when he was out of office, they were against us as well. So we had to live through that.”
When Walker was convicted and sentenced to prison, Butler said the senator’s critics turned on the Mini Theatre.
“Charles Walker was really supportive of us,” Butler said. “And, so when he went out, we went out. Donations stopped. We learned a lot of people weren’t giving to us because of the great work. They were giving to us because they wanted to get to the senator and show him they were supporting the Mini Theatre.”
After Walker was sent to the federal Estill Correctional Facility in South Carolina in 2005, Butler heard many people say that the Mini Theatre wouldn’t survive six months.
“There were people who were donating to us and they wouldn’t even return a phone call after the senator went to jail,” Butler said. “So we went down. Almost down for the count.”
The Mini Theatre’s toughest day came only days after Walker was found guilty in federal court. Butler received a letter from the state saying that the arts school would not receive the allocated $180,000 it was originally promised that year.
“One day we had it, the next day it was gone,” Butler said. “I met with the staff and we were forced to go on temporary unemployment.”
Butler said he met with Michael Armstrong, who is the assistant manager of the Georgia Department of Labor’s office on Greene Street, to discuss the situation.
“We told the Department of Labor that we would continue coming in the arts school, and that we would not be paid, but in so many months down the road, the goal was to bring everyone back on payroll,” Butler said. “They understood that and they were aware of what we were doing. That meant, for a number of months we were receiving unemployment, but we came to work like we had a full-time job. That helped to keep things going.”
When some people in the community learned about the staff collecting unemployment, they were shocked, Butler said.
“I remember that year I went before the Greater Augusta Arts Council,” Butler said, explaining that the Augusta Commission provides the Arts Council with money each year that it can re-grant to other local arts organizations. “They asked me a lot of good questions and everything was going well. And I’m a pretty honest guy, so I wanted to let them know our situation and that we were, at the time, on temporary unemployment.”
Butler recalls that none of the committee members asked him any questions about it at the meeting.
“Well, shortly after, I get a call back from Greater Augusta Arts Council Executive Director Brenda Durant asking me about that,” Butler said. “She said, ‘You’re on unemployment? Some of the committee members are concerned about that.’”
Again, Butler said he tried to explain the situation.
“I said, ‘I don’t know why they would have any concerns because we pay into that insurance. That’s what it is for and the Department of Labor is aware of what we are doing,’” Butler said. “Well, a few days later, I got a letter that they denied us re-granting dollars because we were on unemployment. One of the members told me, ‘You are letting the state pay your salary.’ And I said, ‘Unemployment is not a salary.’”
When asked about that particular year’s re-granting process, Durant said she remembers that discussion very well because during Butler’s presentation to the committee, she had to leave the room to make a call on a sick relative.
“When I came back in the room, Tryone was leaving and the committee looked really stunned,” Durant said. “I said, ‘What happened?’ And they said, ‘Well, we asked a question about their plans for debt reduction.’ Which we had asked other people their plans for debt reduction also that day. And Tyrone said, ‘Well, we have let all our employees go and they’ve come back to work, but they are collecting unemployment.’”
That news was unsettling to the committee, Durant acknowledged.
“And, of course, we understand that it is legal to volunteer some place when you are unemployed,” Durant said. “I mean, if I’m unemployed I can do my job search every morning and volunteer some place in town in the afternoon. We understand that is legal. But it was the way it was presented as a solution to debt reduction, that was the difference.”
Durant said she has also had some concerns about the number of students that Butler allows to attend the Mini Theatre without paying for the classes.
“There are some parents that I believe would be willing to pay,” Durant said. “We get calls all the time because one of the things that we do here is field calls from the community looking for information about the arts. So, we have people looking for art classes for their kids and they will call and say, ‘I have been on the waiting list at the Mini Theatre for five years.’ So we have to help them find another source in the community for classes for their kids.”
That kind of criticism about his arts school is difficult to hear, Butler said, because he says he puts everything in the Mini Theatre.
In fact, he says you will not find anyone working harder for less money than him, his wife, and the Mini Theatre’s executive office manager Earnestine Robinson.
According to the Mini Theatre’s annual tax returns with the IRS, which can be viewed by the public at guidestar.org, Butler’s salary was listed at $14,588 in 2012. The Mini Theatre’s total revenue for the year was $233,173, but its expenses were $313,901. That left a deficit of $80,728 for 2012.
The 2011 form states that Butler’s salary that year was $19,785. The arts school revenue in 2011 was $168,493, while its total expenses were $325,872, leaving a deficit of $157,379.
“For those people out there who think I make a lot of money, I don’t,” Butler said, shaking his head. “I live in Barton Village and most people are aware of Barton Village.
So it has been very hard because people look over here and they see this new facility and they think we are rich. But every dollar we get goes to the students.
“I’m like the captain and Mrs. Butler and Mrs. Robinson are co-captains. We are last to be taken care of and that’s the way it should be.”
As the years go by, Butler admits that he is beginning to realize it is time to let someone else lead the charge for the Mini Theatre.
“Within the next four to five years, there will probably be another director here other than me,” Butler said. “We all have to see that day coming and I do see that day coming, but I also realize that nobody is going to work for what we are able to pay people around here.”
That’s why Butler fights for every cent he can get to help prepare the Mini Theatre for the future.
“I love these kids more than I love myself,” Butler said, pausing a moment to collect himself. “And we are just so proud of the work we do here, but the other arts groups and the community leaders don’t come over here to see what we are doing. When we do get a donation, it will come in the mail. But it will come without a request to visit to see the work.”
It is easy to be critical of something you have never seen or taken the time to visit, Butler said.
“I’ve always felt if people saw our work, they would support us more,” Butler said. “But there are people out there who just don’t think that we are quite capable of doing quality work, therefore, they say, ‘How can they get all that money?’ I heard people say early on, ‘What qualifies Tyrone Butler to start an arts group? Augusta Mini Theatre is teaching bad art.’
“In fact, one group told me a long time ago, ‘Tyrone, if you ever have any students who want to advance in theater, send them to us.’”
That is the kind of attitude the Mini Theatre has faced for almost 40 years, but Butler says he just ignores those comments.
“You know, when people aren’t for you in the beginning, they are not for you when the clouds clear,” Butler said, smiling. “But there are people out there, both black and white, who have been with us from the beginning and haven’t wavered, no matter what.
“They love this place as much as we do. That’s how I know our legacy will continue. This is home.”