When local businessman and philanthropist Peter Knox IV purchased the historic Miller Theater on Broad Street back in 2005, the much-beloved building was in extreme disrepair.
The abandoned theater’s roof was literally about to cave in on itself, there was no working ventilation system and the owner at the time was facing delinquent taxes on the building.
For many Augustans, the project seemed utterly hopeless.
But Knox couldn’t just let it go.
“The theater was up for sale, and the talk on the street was that the building was going to be auctioned off on the courthouse steps,” Knox said, standing out in front of the historic Miller Theater more than a decade after he purchased the property. “It just sounded so dramatic. The Miller was right here on Broad Street and had always been here, so I decided to buy it, and I put over half a million dollars into the building.”
Knox said he didn’t want to see the theater continue to bounce around from owner to owner without any real direction.
“All the prior owners had these grandiose ideas, like making the theater into a bachelor pad or a night club, something that was not keeping with what it actually was from the start,” Knox said. “So, I bought it and saw what was really needed. The least glamorous aspect of the building turned out to be the most essential thing, which was a new roof. So, that’s where I started.”
Knox repaired the roof, removed the moldy carpet and seats and installed a proper ventilation system in the building.
After purchasing the property, Knox said he knew there was a lot of curiosity about the elegant Art Moderne style building that was founded by Frank Miller back in 1940.
Frank Miller and his company, Augusta Amusements, owned and operated five downtown theaters and was known as one of the top entertainment promoters throughout the country.
“People cared about it,” Knox said. “We gave tours to all kinds of people who had fond memories of the theater, way back when it was thriving.”
In the very beginning, Knox had high hopes for the theater.
“I remember when I wrote, ‘It’s Time,’ on the marquee. I was trying to play off the ad slogan, ‘It’s Miller Time,’” Knox said, chuckling. “But after a while and a lot of effort to spark some public interest in restoring the theater, I became frustrated and decided to make a public statement. So I added the word, ‘Not’ in red letters with a little arrow. The marquee then said, ‘It’s Not Time.’ I was telling people, Augusta is not ready for something like this.”
Knox said it was difficult to hear so many people in the community say how much they loved The Miller, but no one was willing to step up to the plate and restore the historic building.
“So I began pitching a fit,” Knox said, laughing. “I was publicly stamping my feet because I was so frustrated. I was trying to make a statement.”
He was fed up with Augusta’s lack of initiative to save its own history.
“I have a tendency to be sort of pessimistic,” Knox said. “So that probably led me to feel like the glass is half empty and assume the worst.”
By 2008, Knox generously offered the historic theater to the Symphony Orchestra Augusta.
While the symphony was honored by the offer, it wasn’t until the fall of 2011 that the Board of Directors for Symphony Orchestra Augusta unanimously voted to accept the gifted building.
The symphony eventually determined it would cost more than $20 million to properly restore the historic structure, as well as purchase and renovate the former Cullum’s department store next door to the theater at 710 Broad Street.
But the symphony had the patience and vision to make the project a success, Knox said.
“I was like, ‘Take this off of my hands,’” Knox said. “And I’m so glad that more optimistic people took over and took it off of my hands. I knew it was going to cost a lot of money to restore it — way more than I could have done on my own or would have wanted to do on my own. I guess I didn’t have the energy and the patience to build a team and the coalition to make it happen.”
In 2011, a capital campaign was launched to save the 1,300-seat theater, and by June 2016, through generous donations from community and local foundations, coupled with more than $5 million in Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax (SPLOST) funds and federal and state historic preservation tax credits, enough money was raised to break ground.
“I’m just glad that the people who took ownership of it, the symphony, and everybody who gathered to be a part of the project, they knew the right people and they were committed to doing it,” Knox said. “They did the planning and all the hard work because it is a tremendous amount of money they needed to raise.”
The biggest driving force behind the restoration of the historic theater came from the dedication of the Board of Directors for The Miller, particularly the project chair, Levi Hill IV.
“Levi is the passion behind the project,” said Anne Catherine Murray, executive director of Symphony Orchestra Augusta. “He just kept pushing the big boulder up the hill. Every time that there has been some kind of obstacle since 2008, Levi has stayed the course and just never given up. He’s been amazing. He’s literally unflappable. It has been his passion and leadership that has really made this a reality.”
Now that the restoration of the historic theater is almost complete, Murray said it’s hard to believe how far the symphony has come in the past decade.
“We are nearing the finish line,” Murray said, smiling. “My deadline is Dec. 1, and I can tell you that I slept until about 2:30 a.m. this morning and have been up ever since then. It’s nerve-wracking, but most of the pressure is now on the construction guys (from Christman Company), and SMG, the management company. But I still wake up in the middle of the night with a bunch of thoughts racing through my head about the project.”
Earlier this year, the symphony and The Miller’s board of directors agreed to a five-year management contract with the Pennsylvania-based company, SMG.
“One of the reasons we hired SMG is they tell these stories about one theater they worked for that they were hired a month before the opening. Talk about a quick turnaround,” Murray said, laughing. “There wasn’t even an act planned for the opening. They didn’t have anything ready and SMG pulled it together. They always say, ‘It is going to be OK. We are going to help you through this.’ And they really have. They’ve done an amazing job.”
In addition, the board hired Marty Elliott as its new general manager of The Miller.
With more than 25 years in venue and event management, Elliott heads The Miller after leading the Fifth Third Bank Stadium and the Sports and Entertainment Park at Kennesaw State University.
“The Miller Theater is a compelling project and I have an exceptional opportunity here to help this stunning theater reach its potential for SOA and for the community,” Elliott said, after being hired as the new general manager of The Miller. “It is evident that a lot of love and hard work have gone into every detail of the renovation and now we get to work together to reanimate the theater by bringing diverse and engaging events to life.”
Murray said Elliott has been an incredible addition to the team and her management experience has been invaluable over the past few months.
“When we hired Marty, I had no idea how much we didn’t know about how to run a theater,” Murray said. “Sure, we know how to program symphony concerts and we had all the finest consultants tell us how we should design the theater for the symphony, but it quickly became obvious all the things we didn’t know about managing a theater, like how to show the theater to promoters.”
Depending on the type of show, there are hundreds of different questions and concerns that need to be addressed to sell a venue to a promoter, Murray said.
“When Marty gives a tour, the promoters want to know about things like shore power, which I didn’t even know what shore power was,” Murray said, laughing. “Well, shore power is the place in the back that they plug in their tour bus or their trucks. And they wanted to know, did we have the right amount? Thanks to Marty, we do now.”
There are also assets to The Miller that Murray said she didn’t realize were such selling points in a historic theater.
“When we gave Marty a tour of the theater, the first thing she said was, ‘You have a basement!’” Murray said, chuckling. “Now, it is not the most beautiful basement, but, according to Marty, it is all about storage and she was so thrilled to see that we had a basement. She also could immediately walk into the theater and say, ‘You need an extra ice maker and you don’t have enough bars. We have to make sure we have enough rolling bars.’ She thinks about the theater in a way that she is looking at revenue generation and that’s what we really needed to make this sustainable.”
By hiring Elliott, it also gives Murray much more time to concentrate on the upcoming symphony season.
“The reason for us being here at The Miller is, it’s the new home of the symphony, so no detail has gone overlooked in terms of the theater’s acoustics,” Murray said. “People are absolutely thrilled about our new home. We have our last concert on Friday, Nov. 17,
at First Baptist of Augusta. It is sort of a goodbye to First Baptist because they have been such a great host to us for so long. But our opening night here for the symphony at The Miller is Jan. 20. But the symphony will also be there for the gala on Jan. 6.”
The black-tie, opening night gala on Jan. 6 at The Miller featuring Tony award winner and television star Sutton Foster is already completely sold out.
It will truly be an extraordinary night, Murray said.
“We are going over all the details,” Murray said. “For starters, this whole zone out front of the theater will be painted loading zone, so it will be just a drop off for the night of the gala and there will be valet parking for the higher priced tickets.”
Those guests not using valet parking will be offered shuttle service from the parking deck next to the Richmond County Board of Education building. The Miller is also directing patrons to nearby public parking lots and planning for easy access for Uber and Lyft drivers that night.
“I’m really excited,” Murray said. “It has been a long time coming.”
Following the opening gala, Elliott has a number of shows and events already planned for the beginning of year at The Miller, Murray said.
For instance, Henry Rollins’ spoken-word performance will be featured at The Miller on Jan. 8 followed by the band, St. Paul and the Broken Bones, on Jan. 12 and soul singer Lyfe Jennings on Jan. 13.
There are tickets available for shows throughout the year such as the D.L. Hughley Family and Friends Tour on Feb. 10; a concert by jazz pianist and singer Diana Krall on Feb. 16; a concert by legendary singer Ronnie Milsap on Feb. 17; and a show by “Weird Al” Yankovic on April 14. “Marty has already got about 20 events scheduled and lots of stuff that she hasn’t announced yet,” Murray said. “People are just so excited about it. They have been looking for something like this for a long time.”
The Miller along with the Imperial Theatre across the street on Broad, as well as the existing Bell Auditorium, will truly promote downtown Augusta’s theater district, she said.
“We work very closely with the Imperial and its executive director, Charles Scavullo,” Murray said. “We are going to funnel shows their way that don’t fit here in The Miller, and I know they are going to do the same for us. We have even applied for grants together, so we definitely see each other as partners in this.”
“That’s what it is going to take,” Knox said to Murray. “I’m tickled to death that you guys pulled it off.”
To see money raised by private individuals throughout the community, as well as more than $5 million in SPLOST funds and federal and state historic preservation tax credits, Knox acknowledges that the restoration of The Miller has been well worth the wait.
“Raising that money was huge,” Knox said. “The fact that so many people gave a damn and pitched in, in whatever way they could, is so incredible. That’s what I’m so tickled about. To somehow be a catalyst for what came after I donated the theater has been remarkable. I’m certainly pleased and, most definitely, I’m pleasantly surprised.”
People from all over the community really stepped up and made this project happen, Murray said.
“Somebody asked me the other day, ‘How many volunteer hours have been logged by how many people over the years?’ and I had no idea,” Murray said. “I guessed at least 20,000 hours, but someone said it was much more than that. And then we had Levi and the entire Miller Board donate so much of their time and attorneys donated their fees to make this all happen. And of course there were the monetary donations. Whether it was $25 or $2.5 million, everybody has been so dedicated to getting the theater open and restored.”
Standing outside The Miller on Broad Street, both Murray and Knox said it is hard to believe that that the opening night gala is less than two months away.
“I remember the first time I came in this building was when I had my very first job here in Augusta back in 1996,” Murray said, laughing. “I worked for Historic Augusta’s Main Street program. And, I swear, Erick (Montgomery) and I came through this building and a guy answered the door, packing heat. He lived in there somewhere up at the top.”
Knox immediately remembered that individual was Dave Day, who bought The Miller at an auction in the mid-1990s.
“He had a bachelor pad up near the top,” Knox said. “I remember the roof was leaking really bad, even back then. I can’t believe how time flies by.”
“I’m tickled to death, and I’m proud to be associated with it,” Knox said to Murray. “But you guys are the ones who really deserve the credit. Sure, I’m associated with The Miller, but my part ended back in 2008.”
Murray said Knox has always played a significant role in the restoration of The Miller.
“Well, I don’t think your part ever ended,” she said, smiling. “You’ve always been a huge supporter of the project since you donated it. And I think, in the past year alone, what has happened downtown is what we’ve all been hoping and praying for for so long. We’ve really turned a corner, and it’s truly exciting for everyone.”