As Anne Catherine Murray, executive director of Symphony Orchestra Augusta, walked through the historic front doors of The Miller Theater sporting a hard hat, she couldn’t help but get excited over the symphony’s future home.
After all, it’s been a long time coming.
“The symphony has never had its own, official home,” Murray said, as construction crews were busy at work in the historic building. “So while we’ve been very fortunate to play in some fabulous places, including our home of the past several years, First Baptist Church, we will now have our own home with amazing, state-of-the-art acoustics. For us, it’s simply incredible.”
There has always been a deep, local love for The Miller Theater in downtown Augusta.
When The Miller first opened its doors on Broad Street in 1940, it was described as a gala premiere that rivaled any Hollywood affair.
More than 2,200 people turned out for the theater’s opening night movie, “A Night at the Moulin Rouge,” and congratulatory telegrams from some of the days’ top celebrities such as Clark Gable, Mickey Rooney and Spencer Tracy were reportedly read to the audience by the master of ceremonies, former Augusta Mayor Richard Allen Jr.
Augustans were dazzled by the Art Moderne theater with its Italian marble terrazzo-floored entrance, colorful murals of dancing figures flanking the stage and brushed aluminum handrails leading up to the balcony.
The Miller, which cost $500,000 to construct in 1939 and was both a movie theater and vaudeville house, was the pride of Augusta. The theater helped make Broad Street a highly successful entertainment district.
But about 40 years later, the crowds disappeared and the public was no longer coming downtown to eat, shop and take in a show.
As a result, The Miller was forced to close its doors in 1984 due to poor attendance.
The theater went dark for more than three decades and it began to slowly fall into serious disrepair.
By 2005, the abandoned theater’s roof was literally about to cave in and the owner at the time, Homer Boyd, owed delinquent taxes on the building he had purchased in 1989.
The much-beloved theater was about to be sold on the courthouse steps.
That’s when businessman and philanthropist Peter Knox IV stepped into the picture.
Knox spent more than $500,000 to buy the building, repair the roof, remove the moldy carpet and seats and install a ventilation system.
He then generously offered the historic theater to the symphony.
However, 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 board realized that a restoration project like The Miller was a massive undertaking.
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.
“We had agreed that we would not move forward with construction until we really knew we had the funding in place,” Murray said. “So, we’ve been working on a capital campaign for many years and we are now in really great shape. The community has been incredible and so very generous.”
Those private donations along with grants from several different foundations and about $5.2 million from the special purpose local option sales tax funds have made this project possibly, Murray said.
“We have also been approved at the state and federal levels for historic preservation tax credits, which will really help us as well,” she said. “And once we signed that construction contract with Christman Company, a lot of people who had made pledges, but were just going to make payments on them, those folks said, ‘You know what? I am ready to just pay it all.’ So that was great for us to get some of that money early. I think people feel the excitement and are really anxious to see the theater open again.”
But none of the renovations could have been possible without the dedication of the Boards of Directors for The Miller and the project chair, Levi Hill IV, she said.
“If it weren’t for Levi, this probably wouldn’t have happened,” Murray said. “There have been lots of roadblocks since this project first came to our attention, but Levi just never gave up. It has taken his passion and leadership to get where we are today.”
As residents drive by The Miller on a daily basis, they can see a lot of activity by construction crews coming and going from both buildings, Murray said.
“We are in full-blown construction right now,” Murray said. “We officially started back in late June. We are just developing the first floor and a little bit of the second floor in the 710 building for now. The first floor here will be our box office, our dressing rooms, our green room, our founders room and lots of bathrooms and an elevator. Then, on the second floor we’ll have some more bathrooms and eventually the rest of this will be flushed out as The Knox Music Institute, where we will provide educational programming for people in the community.”
However, the most visible change in the historic theater which can easily be seen from the street was the removal of The Miller’s marquee in late November, Murray said.
Under the direction of the Christman Company, Murray said the Wagner Electric Sign Company of Ohio was chosen to fully restore the historic marquee, which will be returned to Augusta in a few months.
“There is still a lot of structural work being done inside both buildings,” Murray said, pointing to the 165-foot-long and 40-foot-wide arcade leading to the auditorium. “The ceilings had to be removed in many of the areas and we were dealing with asbestos. We are also knocking out the back wall of the theater to give us more space and we are widening the stage. So, there is a lot going on. We are working on both buildings simultaneously and going as fast as we can because we are set to open in a year.”
The theater has a traditional proscenium stage, which will be enlarged — making it wider and deeper in order to accommodate a variety of shows, she said.
Most of the interior furnishings and fixtures will be new, but the unique artistic features that were original to the building will be restored wherever possible, including wall murals, inlays and fountains, she said.
“We are picking up on the Art Moderne look and making it contemporary,” Murray said. “We are also using the historic colors, which are kind of different. They are like a salmon and a coral color.”
At the front of the lobby, The Miller still has its historic ticket booth that has remained in tact.
“It’s pretty cool looking, but it is not really functional for our needs because we’ll have our box office next door, so we may move it,” she said. “Or we may use it to sell tickets if we need to. There are some aspects that we are still trying to work out.”
But the entrance to The Miller will be as breathtaking as it was in the 1940s, she said.
“Notice how these doors sort of have this cruise ship look,” Murray said, smiling. “And these marble floors will all be polished up and be brought back to life. It’s going to be gorgeous.”
The symphony also found some cool playbills, old popcorn machines, some phone booths from the 1970s and, up in the projection room, there were several pieces of old equipment, Murray said.
“There are a lot of really cool details throughout the building,” she said, walking into the women’s powder room on the second floor. “There are mirrors in each corner, and the story is that you could be putting on your lipstick at any of these corners and you would always be able to see someone walking in, just in case you were gossiping about them. At least that’s the story.”
The Miller property was designed by famed theater architect Roy Benjamin in 1938 in conjunction with the best sound engineers in the country, Murray said.
“The acoustics are incredible in here,” she said, walking into the theater. “And we have one of the finest acousticians in the country. They have studied every inch of this building, down to the breathability of the seat fabric to make sure it is appropriate for the sound. We’ve looked at the finishes on the wall and how we need to protect those or enhance those to make sure that one, we are protecting the historic integrity of the building, but also that it is not negatively impacting the sound.”
“We even look at things like, they are putting HVAC units up on the roof now, how are those things being padded to make sure that they won’t impact the sound,” she added. “We even look at the thickness of the exterior doors to make sure it doesn’t affect the sound. We look at everything.”
The Miller is also structurally sound despite being neglected for decades, Murray said.
The structure consists primarily of concrete and heavy gauge steel reinforcements and some of the supporting beams in the theater were the largest ever shipped by rail in the state of Georgia, she said.
“When we are done restoring The Miller, it will offer 1,300 seats in the theater,” Murray said. “So we will fit really nicely between The Imperial, which seats 700 to 800 people, and the Bell Auditorium, where we also perform for our Pops, which seats 2,800. The Miller will be great because I think sometimes various acts have passed up coming through Augusta because they didn’t have the right seating. So hopefully we will be able to capitalize on that.”
The Miller will not only be the new home to the symphony, but it will also serve as a venue for multiple performing arts and education activities, Murray said. The theater plans to welcome local performing arts groups as well as top-ranked national and regional performers looking for a smaller venue than The Bell, she said.
“This won’t just be our home. We have to keep the lights on as much as we can here,” Murray said. “We are a nonprofit, but we have to operate like a business so we hired a third-party management company who will be bringing in acts of all kinds trying to keep the theater lit up day and night. So you’ll see things like comedy acts, you might see opera, you might see rock, blues, country, theater and ballet.”
There is enough dates available for a variety of acts, Murray said.
“As a symphony, we have a very strong staff, but we put on about 10 to 13 shows a year,” she said. “For now, we can’t do anymore than that really, so we welcome other quality acts and shows to The Miller.”
Murray believes the addition of The Miller will really boost the idea of a theater district at the lower end of Broad Street.
“There have been a lot of people talking about a theater district in downtown Augusta for a long time and it just seems like in the past several months, things are really happening,” she said. “New businesses and developments are being announced and people are really putting their money where their mouth is. So, we are really excited to be part of that, especially since this end of downtown needs a little bit more TLC.”
Murray also believe the addition of The Miller will make Augusta even more attractive to new residents and businesses considering relocating to this area.
“The economic impact of an active arts and cultural district has proven to be substantial,” she said, adding that it improves property values and creates more patrons for local merchants and restaurants. “Hopefully, the opening of The Miller will spur some more business developments, restaurants, retail and residential. We know we need more residential units downtown. And I think that this helps the community and businesses attract employees when they can say, ‘We have a symphony and they are actually located in the heart of downtown.’”
In fact, the restoration of The Miller is helping the symphony itself with its search for a new music director.
Since beginning its search in September 2016, the symphony has received more than 200 applications from candidates for the music director position, Murray said.
“We are actually down to three finalists who will be auditioning over the next few months, but The Miller is a major attraction for them,” she said.
Each of the three finalists — Peter Rubardt, the music director of the Pensacola Symphony, Steven Jarvi, the resident conductor of the St. Louis Symphony and Dirk Meyer, the music director of the Duluth Superior Symphony — has accepted the invitation to conduct the orchestra at one of the Spring Symphony Series concerts in the 2016-2017 Season.
“To be able to conduct in a newly restored historic theater with great acoustics is a real feather in their cap,” Murray said. “They have all listed that as a reason that they want the job. So they will be conducting the last three of our symphony series: one in February, one in March and one in April. And, hopefully, based on those auditions, our music director search committee will be able to select our new music director.”
If that happens, not only will the symphony be moving into their new home, but it will go hand in hand with the hiring of its new music director.
“In a perfect world, that person will be coming in and conducting our next season which starts in the fall of 2017 just as we are preparing to move into The Miller,” Murray said. “It will be very exciting.”
Walking up to the balcony and looking down into the theater, Murray can’t help but pause and take it all in.
“These are probably the best seats in the house,” Murray said, smiling. “It’s so wonderful to see. This has been coming for so long. There are still people who walk in here and say, ‘Oh my gosh, you really are doing it. It’s happening.’ And it’s nice to be able to tell them, ‘Yes. It is really happening.’”