Encore for old theaters

Rebirth: Small towns turn empty movie houses into focal points for downtown renewal.

April 06, 2001|By Chris Guy | Chris Guy,SUN STAFF

POCOMOKE CITY - Larry Moseley and Carey Reece wander about the cavernous old Mar-Va theater every chance they get.

Standing beneath the 50-foot-high pressed-tin ceiling, they try to look past the water damage caused by a leaky roof, shrug off the holes in the hardwood floors and ignore the stray cats that have taken up residence. With a little creative fund raising, they say, the 700-seat Mar-Va can be put right.

On the Eastern Shore - from Cape Charles to Church Hill, Chincoteague to Chestertown and half a dozen towns in between - people such as Moseley and Reece are restoring old theaters to their former glory. Once threatened by everything from television to multiscreen complexes to video rentals, small-town movie houses are making a comeback.

Across the country, hundreds of similar projects are providing homes to theater companies and arts groups, and boosting redevelopment efforts in tattered downtown business districts.

There were once 40,000 to 60,000 theaters in the United States, says Terry Demas, executive director of the League of Historic American Theaters. As many as 7,500 theaters might be standing, some in operation, some abandoned, many in various stages of restoration.

"A lot of communities are realizing that these old theaters are historical anchors," Demas says. `They also have become economic engines for downtowns. It's no accident that many of them are located at `Main and Main.' A theater was where people were."

Leaders in Pocomoke City see their theater, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, as a vital part of a downtown revitalization project that includes a proposed $6 million waterfront museum, an ecology education center and a restaurant along the river that gives the town of 4,000 its name.

"People who live here believe in this," Reece says. "It's part of their heritage, their history. Everybody remembers their first kiss or their first date here. Beyond that, we see it as a key to our downtown."

In Chincoteague, the Island Roxy is still going strong, offering first-run movies as it has done for 54 years. The biggest show of the year is the annual run of "Misty of Chincoteague."

The old Prince Theatre in Chestertown is set for new life after sitting dormant since 1993. A High Street landmark for generations under a variety of names, the theater, built in 1928, will feature a performance by the Peabody Ragtime Ensemble next month.

Arts groups and business leaders in Salisbury are delighted at the prospects for 54-year-old Boulevard Theatre now that Baltimore-based Capital Industries has agreed to donate the art deco movie house to the Salisbury-Wicomico Arts Council.

Davina Grace Hill, the arts council's director, says the theater's location, near the intersection of the Delmarva Peninsula's busiest roads, U.S. 50 and U.S. 13, could make the Boulevard a focal point, bringing people downtown after work for arts classes, performances and other events, and providing much-needed rehearsal and studio space.

The deal is being called a godsend for dozens of arts and theater groups that will make their permanent homes in the 700-seat theater. Business leaders see the theater as a catalyst for revitalization of Salisbury's Victorian-era downtown district.

Like many in the region, Hill says she hopes to follow a path cleared by the Avalon Theatre in Easton. The 400-seat art deco movie theater in the heart of the Shore's Colonial-era capital set a high standard when it was restored as a performing arts center in 1989, retaining its proscenium stage and domed ceiling.

In a town of 12,000, the Avalon attracted more than 50,000 people last year to 158 concerts, seminars, community events and other productions. Its acoustics and atmosphere attract nationally known performers.

Owned by the town and managed by the nonprofit Avalon Foundation, the theater's operating budget will top $400,000 next year. Last fall, the foundation conducted its first direct-mail appeal to local patrons and began soliciting contributions.

"The thing is that theaters revitalize towns. They are a showcase for a community in a way that brings people downtown," says Ellen General, the Avalon's executive director, who has become a mentor for aspiring theater directors since coming to Easton seven years ago.

Two hundred miles from Baltimore, the grand 450-seat Palace Theater, with its walnut-paneled lobby, terrazzo marble floors and two 30-by-10-foot murals painted on silk, has been transformed into a thriving arts center that has helped spur a continuing resurgence in Cape Charles, Va. Its challenge, also, is to sustain its growth.

Spearheaded by Clelia Sheppard, a Virginia Beach artist who moved to the southernmost tip of the Shore six years ago, the nonprofit group Arts Enter formed and bought the 61-year-old Palace four years ago for $80,000.

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