Renovated theaters provide community gathering spaces

By By Marta Tankersley Hays
Staff writer
MARTA TANKERSLEY| Gazette-Mail photos
The Alban Arts and Conference Center in St. Albans.
MARTA TANKERSLY| Gazette-Mail photos
The “haunted” Capitol Theater in Charleston.
MARTA TANKERSLY| Gazette-Mail photos
Inside the ticket booth at The Alpine in Ripley.
MARTA TANKERSLY| Gazette-Mail photos
The Alpine Theatre in Ripley
MARTA TANKERSLEY| Sunday Gazette-Mail
Keith Albee in Huntington.
Photo courtesy of The LaBelle Theatre
Movie-goers lined up to see “Gone With the Wind” in 1939 at the LaBelle Theatre in South Charleston.

Across West Virginia there is an evolution of sorts underway, aimed at returning majestic old theaters that were once the center of towns large and small to their glory days.

“Almost every community — even coal towns — had their own theaters,” said Danielle LaPresta, executive director of the Preservation Alliance of West Virginia.

“They were a large part of the people’s lives. From the days of vaudeville, they were a major place for people to gather in the past. With the growth of the arts community, I think they will once again serve that purpose.”

Once the center of community entertainment, historic theaters fell out of fashion with the introduction of modern multiplex facilities.

A revitalization movement throughout West Virginia hopes to see these grand structures, once again, serving their communities.

From its main office in Elkins, the preservation alliance has worked with the West Virginia Division of Tourism and local communities to develop a Historic Theatre Trail, which is in the process of being updated now, to “promote the trail to tourists and showcase these old theaters as a fascinating and entertaining aspect of West Virginia’s heritage,” said Andrea Bond public information specialist at WVDT.

Theaters that make the cut, 21 so far, must be on the National Register of Historic Places. The Keith-Albee Theatre in Huntington, the Alpine Theatre in Ripley and the West Virginia State University Capitol Center Theatre in Charleston are all on the current list. Places like the LaBelle Theatre in South Charleston — now housing the city’s convention and visitor’s bureau — and the Alban Arts and Conference Center in Saint Albans, aren’t there yet, but are providing a community gathering place now as well.

The Keith-Albee Theatre

Built in the late 1920s by brothers Abe and Saul Hyman at a cost of $2 million, the Keith-Albee, listed on the NRHP in 1986, is a masterpiece of Spanish Baroque design by famed Scottish architect Thomas Lamb who specialized in vaudeville theaters during their heyday.

It wasn’t long after completion, however, that the Great Depression set in and the demise of Vaudeville shortly followed suit, said Derek Hyman, third-generation owner and president of the Greater Huntington Theatre Corporation.

He said it was a struggle for his grandfather, Abe Hyman, and great- Uncle Saul, to keep the grand 2,600 seat facility.

“They had interest in other smaller theaters in the area and sold some of them off one by one to keep the Keith-Albee,” Hyman said.

Changing with the times was key to survival, so the theater was equipped with a Wurlitzer pipe organ once silent films came into vogue. Sold and recovered just recently, the original instrument is being prepped for installation as part of the restoration project.

“In the 1970s, they started building theaters with six or seven screens,” Hyman said. “In order for us to compete, we had to add screens.”

Careful not to destroy the elaborate interior, his father Jack created four smaller theaters inside the Keith-Albee.

In the 1990s, Derek Hyman gifted the Keith-Albee to the Marshall University Foundation, said Robert Edmunds president of the Keith-Albee Preforming Arts, Inc., a non-profit 501 (c3) corporation, said.

“When the Keith-Albee Performing Arts Center took it over in about 2007, volunteers came in and took out the other auditoriums,” Hyman explained.

KAPAC has been working to renovate the theater and bring in varied performance artists ever since.

“We are trying to raise $12 million for the project now,” Edmunds said. “So far we’ve put $700 or $800,000 into it. The auditorium interior is in good repair. The previous owners [the Hyman family] made sure it was kept up. We’ve put on a new roof, put in handicapped accessible restrooms, bought new staging equipment for live performances, restored the exterior sign so it looks like a chaser and more.”

Recently the grand theater has been host to Marshall University graduations and convocations, the Huntington Symphony Orchestra, film festivals and more.

Marshall University Artists Series calls the Keith-Albee home today. Scheduled performances include Jay Leno, Frankie Valley and the Four Seasons and Dancing With the Pros. For more information on upcoming shows visit their website at www.marshall.edu/muartistseries.

The Alpine Theatre

The Alpine was built in 1936 when movie tickets cost just $.25 and popcorn was $.10. In those days it served the community as a movie theater and country music play house, said Monnie Landis, former executive director of MSR.

It was also used to bring national and international news to movie-goers in the form of newsreels, before the main show, “especially back in World War II times, in the days before an evening news was broadcast and nobody had TVs around here,” said MSR board member Ron Waybright.

“That was about the only way people could get the news at that time,” he added.

Landis said the theater brings back memories to the townspeople.

“People like to come back and see what we’ve done to it and tell stories of when they were younger, growing up and that kind of thing,” Landis said. “When I was a girl, [in the 1940s and ‘50s] we lived in the country and we probably came once a month,” she said. “Dad would bring us into town to the movie. It was quite an experience for us to get to come because all the kids were here and, of course, we knew everybody.

“The manager at the time, Goldie Crum, was quite a lady,” Landis continued. “If somebody was making a disturbance in the audience, she’d come down the aisle with her little flashlight and point it to them, give them a warning. If that didn’t work, she’d call their parents and they came and picked them up.”

Waybright was frequenting the Alpine in the 1970s and ‘80s.

“The Alpine was a tremendous part of our life when I was a kid,” Waybright said. “Every Friday night my parents would drop us off and we would come to the movies while they would do their shopping.

“There are a lot of great memories growing up here,” he continued. “I know the last movie I saw here was ‘Ferris Bueller’s Day Off’ [which was released in 1986].”

Used as a storage facility for 19 years, the Alpine Theatre on Main Street, across from the city park, was purchased by Main Street Ripley, a non-profit organization, in 2003 and listed on the NRHP in 2004.

“We wanted to see it brought back to life and people enjoying it,” Landis said.

The purchase and restoration was made possible, first, by the $40,000 contribution of Bernard Anderson, who grew up in Ripley and has since relocated to Texas. Grant funding secured from the Department of Culture and History, private fund raisers and volunteer labor totaling $310,000 were also necessary to bring the historic facility new life.

Today, the Alpine is used for a variety of purposes.

“We use it mainly for concerts,” Waybright said.

It also serves as a venue for special viewings of classic Christmas movies during the holidays and other special events, he said.

Like at many other re-purposed historic theaters, a church rents it for Sunday services.

For more information, visit mainstreetripley.org.

WVSU Capitol Center Theatre

Listed in the NRHP in 1985, Capitol Theatre is, perhaps, the granddaddy of them all.

Originally called the Plaza Theatre, it opened to vaudeville and other traveling shows in 1912. By 1921, the theatre was remodeled with the addition of a Wurlitzer pipe organ and projector to accommodate silent films. Shortly after a fire, and with the advent of “talkies,” the theater was wired for sound in the late 1920s.

Like other historic theaters, however, the Capitol was forced to stop acting solely as a movie venue when multiplex theaters took over the movie market. In 1983, it became home to Mountain Stage, a West Virginia Public Broadcasting musical performance show.

By 1991, the theater was given to WVSU.

“West Virginia State University maintains and manages the Capitol Center Theatre,” said employee Gary Smith. “We do everything from concerts to movies to live musicals to lectures.”

They also reach out to the broader community.

Now Capitol Center Theatre is home to the Contemporary Youth Arts Company, which produces up to seven shows annually, he continued.

Since the theater has been in continuous use, there are remnants of the past throughout the building.

The projector room is equipped with modern digital technology, but still houses two huge Peerless Reflector Arc Lamp Vitaphone 35mm movie theater projectors from the 1930s era that illuminates the film with an actual flame, Smith said.

“The University hires a guy to come in an operate these for us,” he said. “If we get a 35mm film, it might come in two or three cans with six or seven rolls of film in it. That used to be the standard.”

And then there are the ghost stories.

“I’ve heard noises,” Smith said. “I’ve heard footsteps when I’m the only one in the building.

“I haven’t seen anything, but there’s been stories and I’ve heard noises. And, yes, I do think it’s haunted,” he continued.

“From what I understand, there used to be a mansion on this property and a little girl who died while she lived on the property. Her ghost haunts the balcony and her dad haunts the stage.

“I’ll be down in the dressing room and hear footsteps on stage,” he said. “I come running up the steps and out the building! I don’t stay around to find out what’s going on up there,” he said laughing. “At midnight, and I’m the only one in the building trying to lock up — I hear noises — I’m going out the building.”

For more information, visit wvstateu.edu/About-WVSU/Community/Capitol-Center.aspx.

The Alban Arts and Conference Center

The vision shared by St. Albans Mayor Dick Callaway and Adam Bryan, managing director of the Alban Arts and Conference Center, is to “make arts the economic driver for the city,” Bryan said.

“We are trying to create a visual and performance arts center here on Main Street,” he added.

The Alban, built during the time when segregation still existed, was the “white” theater. Today it is host to creative people from all segments of society.

What draws them in isn’t just the performances of live theater, it’s also the wide array of classes offered there.

Classes, mainly for elementary and middle school students, run in 12 week semesters in the fall and again in the spring at a rate of $200 per class.

“The fastest growing class is pre-acting for 3 to 6 year olds,” Bryan said.

Class topics range from improvisational acting to stage combat to makeup artistry.

“This semester we have 100 students with the majority coming in from Putnam County,” he said. “We are outgrowing our four walls now and hope to expand to infuse arts into the St. Albans community.”

The Alban partners with the Children’s Theatre of Charleston, the Appalachian Artist Collective and others.

“We encourage other creative folks to come play with us,” Bryan said.

“The big thing we try to do here is offer something creative for everyone, young and old, conservative and liberal,” he continued. “One show every year you’ll enjoy no matter who you are.”

For more information visit them Online at albanartscenter.com.

La Belle Theatre

The biggest movie of 1939, “Gone With the Wind,” was one of the first films ever played at the La Belle Theatre in South Charleston’s downtown business district, which opened that same year near the iconic Indian burial mound.

“When ‘Gone With the Wind’ came out, they said, ‘This is going to be a block-buster movie.’ What they meant by ‘being a blockbuster movie’ was that people would be lined up around the block,” said Bob Anderson, executive director for the city’s Convention and Visitor’s Bureau.

They were right.

“Gone With the Wind” was the first blockbuster movie of all time and people in the city helped make history all those years ago.

The La Belle, named for the daughters of its original owner, has been a place for the community to gather for 75 years. And if Anderson has anything to do with it, the theater will keep welcoming folks for years to come.

The city purchased the La Belle in 2003 and began restoration with special attention to details from old photographs, he said.

“I had the marquee made exactly like the marquee was years ago,” Anderson continued.

That’s not all. The city has installed all new seats, new carpets and tile, new lights and even a new high definition digital projector.

The theater space has also been re-purposed over the years. During the 1990s it was owned by a church, but now that the city owns it, they have a vision to bring it “back to life again as a working theater.”

They have also created an art gallery and museum.

“One of the things I’m so happy about here at the LaBelle Theatre is that we’ve added a lot of our old pictures of our town and we have an art museum here too,” Anderson explained.

Depicting history back to the 1700s, the exhibits and other events continue to bring people to the venue.

The LaBelle was host to the International Film Festival earlier this month and frequently offers musical performances. It may be rented for conferences and special events.

When people attend events at the theater, it has a positive economic impact, Anderson said.

“I’m just thrilled that we are able to redevelop the theater,” he said. “We hope to make it a multipurpose theater for all kinds of people to use it.”

For more information visit southcharlestonwv.org/labelle-theatre.

“It’s important to preserve the Keith-Albee, and other historic theaters,” Edmunds said. “At one point in time, there were 4,000 to 5,000 theaters built in various architecture styles. Now only 300-400 are in existence. The rest have been torn down. They are just too expensive to keep maintained.”

The mission of the Division of Culture and History is “to preserve, protect and promote interest in the cultural and historic resources that help us tell the story of West Virginia’s past,” said Caryn Gresham, deputy commissioner of the West Virginia Division of Culture and History.

“The Historic Theater Trail gives our visitors an itinerary to follow, if they want to do that, as well as an established list of preserved historic theaters that still offer programs and events,” she continued. “Having this information makes it easier for people to pinpoint the sites they want to visit and decide when the best times for their trips should be.”

For a complete listing of the Historic Theatre Trail visit wvcommerce.org/travel/thingstodo/history/historic-trails/historictheaters.aspx.

Reach Marta Tankersley Hays at marta.tankersley@wvgazette.com, 304-348-1249 or follow @MartaRee on Twitter.

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