Over the next two weeks, the Miller Theater in downtown Augusta will open its doors and host incredible live performances by the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Indigo Girls and Drivin’ N Cryin’.
And that’s just in the month of July.
The impressive lineup for the remainder of the historic theater’s first year since its grand opening back in January includes a remarkable list of national artists such as Chris Isaak, Lyle Lovett and Robert Earl Keen, Stephen Stills and Judy Collins, Toad the Wet Sprocket, Paul Thorn and Blind Boys of Alabama, Corey Smith and The Charlie Daniels Band.
It’s hard for many locals to believe that the same historic theater on Broad Street that sat dark and empty for more than 30 years is now filled with so much life.
“We set out to do 80 shows in our first year, and it looks like we will do closer to 100, so we are very proud of that accomplishment,” said Marty Elliott, the general manager of the Miller Theater. “We talk a lot about the fact that the restoration project came to a close on Jan. 6, but the reanimation project is what we are a part of now. We are kind of breathing new life into this space, and we are learning a lot as we go.”
Elliott, who came to The Miller about a year ago after managing the Fifth Third Bank Stadium and the Sports and Entertainment Park at Kennesaw State University, said she knew it was important for the historic theater to not only be known as the home of Symphony Orchestra Augusta, but also as an exciting new venue that offers many diverse shows throughout the year.
“Intentionally, what we set out to do is make sure that people understood the space beyond the symphony,” Elliott said of the Miller. “And what I mean by that is, obviously, the Miller is the home of the symphony and they drove the project, but we felt like it was really critical that we book the kind of shows that were going to allow people to see, right out the gate, that this was going to be a venue that really tries a lot of different things.”
Just days after the Miller’s black-tie, opening night gala on Jan. 6 featuring Tony award winner Sutton Foster, the theater offered Augusta a definite change in pace, Elliott said.
“In that first week, we had Henry Rollins’ spoken word tour and the heavy metal band In This Moment at the Miller because we felt it was important to try some new things,” Elliott said. “Now, almost 50 shows in, I can say we’ve probably touched on almost every genre. There are still a few things that we haven’t had yet. We haven’t had a reggae act yet. I’m still after that. But we feel like it’s super important for us to be really diverse.”
Live performances at the Miller are also truly unique because of the incredible acoustics and intimate setting provided by the historic theater, Elliott said.
“The more you have high-quality acts in an intimate environment like we have at the Miller, the better,” she said. “Because when you see somebody like, let’s say, Charlie Daniels, he is an artist that, probably most people in our market if they have an interest in that kind of music, they’ve probably seen him because he plays fairly often in the fair and festival circuit. But I can promise you, you’ve never seen him the way you can see him in a
1,300-cap room that is designed for a symphony. I promise you, it is an experience that will blow you away.”
As more national artists come to perform at the Miller, word will begin spread about the historic venue and its incredible atmosphere, Elliott said.
“I think we have a chance, when we get these marquee artists who are doing what they do in such a beautiful room with such great acoustics, it has the kind of opportunity to spread the word about how great the experience is, so it will get easier to attract more artists over time,” Elliott said. “We won’t be always trying to explain who we are.”
Along with getting the word out about the Miller with promoters and artists, Elliott said it’s important to continue to attract more audiences to the shows.
“We also have to continue to always grow our base and widen our base and get more people coming in to be able sustain the number of shows that we would really like to have here,” Elliott said.
And she has an extremely ambitious vision and plan for the future of the Miller.
“If I had my choice, we’d have 200 shows a year. And I think eventually Augusta will be able to sustain that,” she said, adding that the promoters have been incredibly supportive this year. “A lot of credit is owed to these promoters who are taking a chance and who are helping us put Augusta on the map.
“Many of them were already very familiar with Augusta because they’ve been playing at some of the other beautiful venues that we have in our market, so I think we have now become another option and we continue to help be a place that makes Augusta attractive for all kinds of shows.”
A perfect example of an extremely successful, sold-out show that came to the Miller this year was “Weird Al” Yankovic.
“Here is an artist that has a huge following, but Weird Al didn’t play Florida, and he didn’t play South Carolina or even North Carolina, so we were the regional draw for that artist. And we had people from all over,” Elliott said. “People love him, and people have an affinity for him. And to see him in a small venue like the Miller, that’s extraordinary.”
But one of Elliott’s favorite shows this year was when the band Postmodern Jukebox
played at the Miller.
“It’s hard to have a favorite when the shows are all so good, but I loved Postmodern Jukebox. I wish these guys were our house band,” Elliott said, laughing. “And what I mean by that is, there is no other act that more embodies what the Miller is about because it’s like vintage meets modern. It’s everything that’s awesome about the past with a completely modern twist, and that’s what we are here at the Miller.”
Elliott also was amazed about how the audience really embraced the vibe and music of Postmodern Jukebox.
“That audience was one of my favorites because they were so into it,” she said. “The women came dressed up with the stockings with the seam up the back and the men with fedoras. They were out to play, which is great because when an audience gets into it like that, there is just nothing better. That was a very happy surprise.”
Each and every day, Elliott says she feels the community’s love and appreciation for the Miller and its unique history.
“Because it took seven years to restore and all the love and attention that went into the fundraising to get the venue open, we knew there would be a lot of community support for the Miller,” she said. “We anticipated that honeymoon was going to be there and that people were going to be eager to see the venue, and that definitely happened. We had this incredibly warm reception, and people just embraced us.”
But Elliott said the community’s outpouring of love for the Miller didn’t stop after its grand opening.
“When the theater opened, it was exciting and fun and even tearful. There are people who have been a part of this community for years who have waited and waited for that moment,” Elliott said. “But you know what? There is still not a week that goes by that I don’t get to give a tour to somebody who fell in love in the Miller or proposed in the Miller or just has great stories of the times that they spent there. So it is a venue that transcends what’s on stage.”
That kind of atmosphere is one of the reasons that Elliott said she was drawn to the general manager’s position at the Miller after working 25 years in venue and event management in Georgia, South Carolina and Florida.
“You want to be involved in something where, it certainly matters what we book, but we also feel that part of this is about creating that sense of place for Augusta,” she said. “And there are so many people who want to be involved. We already have over 70 volunteers at the Miller who have logged more than 2,000 hours to help. And that kind of support is what will sustain this venue for years and years to come.”
Elliott is often asked whether she’s worried about competition from other local venues such as the Imperial Theatre right across the street on Broad Street, but she believes there is plenty of room for everyone.
“To think that Augusta has two working historic theaters that were built in different time periods, so we are architecturally very different facilities, is very fortunate for a city our size,” she said. “That’s pretty incredible, and we should be really thankful for that, and I think people are. I think they are very appreciative.”
The Miller’s biggest competition is not the other local venues, Elliott said.
“The only competition I’m worried about is the couch,” Elliott said, laughing. “As long as people decide to go out, I’m happy that they got out of the house, and I’m hopeful that the Miller will be one of those places that they will find and fall in love with.”
After its more than $20 million renovation over the past several years, Elliott said the Miller is an impressive sight for both locals and visitors to the area.
“The Miller is a venue that people will want to bring their friends and family to see,” she said. “Because I think there is a source of pride that comes with us having a venue like this. So when you have out-of-town guests, you first want to check, ‘What’s happening at the Miller? I want to take them there.’”
Ever since the theater opened six months ago, Elliott said she has been working extremely hard to promote the venue both locally and regionally.
“Probably one of the things that I’m most excited about is — if you take the symphony out of the equation because that is a very localized audience — but if you remove those dates, about 30 percent of our audience has come from out-of-market,” Elliott said. “That is really important to our sustainability.”
Having more visits from outside the immediate area will allow for the Miller to continue to grow and attract additional midweek shows traveling through the region, she said.
“If we are relying only on our Augusta natives, how many shows can they see in one year? That’s why it’s important to attract additional people from outside the market,” she said. “But, that being said, I don’t think we have in any way been maxed out here locally. One of the things I’m constantly reminded of when I’m out in the community is how many people are still unaware of the Miller or wonder what it is we do over there.”
Elliott said she is frequently approached by people asking her what’s happening at the Miller.
“They’ve seen the lights come back on, but they are still asking, ‘What are you doing?’” Elliott said. “So we’ve got a lot of work to do to still get our generic message out saying, ‘Hey, we are here. We are open for business.’ Our little tagline is, ‘The intermission is over. We are ready.’”
While Elliott said she’s been extremely pleased with the local support of the Miller, she admits that she is a bit confused by one dynamic of the community.
“If there is anything that I’m still sort of scratching my head about, it would probably be this perceived distance between Columbia County and Richmond County,” Elliott said, chuckling. “Sometimes when I’m out promoting the Miller and I’m in Columbia County, people will literally say things that stun me. Things like, ‘Well I haven’t been to downtown Augusta since the 1990s.’ And I’m like, ‘What?’”
Elliott said she is surprised there is such a disconnect between Columbia County’s suburbs and downtown Augusta.
“For example, I met one woman who came down for Arts in the Heart last year, and she was talking to me,” Elliott said. “Of course, the Miller wasn’t open yet, but we were talking about what was coming, and she said, ‘Oh, I just love hearing about this because I’m not from here.’”
Curious, Elliott asked the woman where she lived.
“I could tell she was from the South because she had an accent, so I thought she was going to say Alabama or something like that. And she said, ‘Oh, I’m from Columbia County,’” Elliott said, laughing. “I was like, ‘Wow. She said she was not from here.’ And that’s when it really occurred to me that we have so much work to do as a community to feel like we can cross each other’s county line.”
There definitely doesn’t need to be a separation between the county or even state lines, Elliott said.
“There are things that should be bringing Richmond County folks to Columbia County and vice versa,” she said. “And the thing is, it’s fascinating to me that these same people who aren’t going downtown will very readily drive to Atlanta or Columbia. So it’s not that they don’t travel. They just don’t go downtown.”
But for Elliott, she believes downtown Augusta and its wonderful amenities need to be promoted and celebrated.
“I think downtown has a long way to go in terms of just helping people recognize that the mood is welcoming and this is a place that you can come down and hang out and have a meal and see a show and walk on the river,” she said. “We have so much to look forward to, and I think that tide of change is coming.”
“It’s what I call a delicious opportunity,” she added. “I really believe that it is going to change. I can’t wait.”
In fact, she is truly excited about the future of the Miller and downtown Augusta.
“It is fun to be at our end of Broad Street where you can just feel like we are a bookend,” Elliott said. “You have a lot of restaurants and bars at the other end of Broad, and I think the stuff in the middle is going to fill in soon. So I think it is going to be a very vibrant downtown in a few years. And, as an outsider, I can come into this community and say, ‘This is amazing. It’s so exciting. What a great time to be here.’”