Diane and Roger are the quintessential cultural couple. They absolutely adore music, dances or plays; whenever they can snag a chance for quality entertainment in the southeast, they’re on it. Diane is interesting to engage in conversation on the topic of theater, as she has such a vast range of experiences from which to draw. She can intelligently expound on the nuances of seeing “Wicked” at the Fox Theater in Atlanta, or any of the avant-guard productions often staged at Augusta’s Le Chat Noir. So when Diane tells you something about theater life, you can take it to the bank.
Recently Roger, Diane and I shared a table at a dinner meeting with Levi Hill IV, chair of the revitalization of the Miller Theater and featured speaker of the evening. During dinner, before Levi’s presentation, Diane told us stories of various productions they had seen and how the experience was enhanced (or not) by the space in which the show took place. “If you’ve been in an historic theater, ” she told us, “nothing else compares.” She knows that the same performance in a space with an old soul will have an entirely different flavor from the same show in a new, sterile building. The thing that Diane understands implicitly is that the venue is an integral part of any production. Much like the City of New York in the TV series “Sex and the City”, the location is considered to be one of the characters. New York is one of the stars of the show in the same way an historic theater plays a pivotal role in the patron’s experience at any performance in that space. The theater is a character with a unique persona, and when that character has been around awhile, a show becomes more interesting.
Once Levi began to speak, it was clear that he agreed with Diane. In the minutes that followed, Levi unwound a magnificent tale of Augusta’s historic Miller theater as a unique space with a special soul. He said that the Miller is a character, one he calls “The Grand Dame of Augusta”. Levi tells us the Grand Dame is calling us back-she wants to perform again. He captivated the dinner crowd of 100 with the Grand Dame’s story, and explained why the mission of letting her perform again is so important to our community.
At one time in Augusta, there were 15 theaters between 7th and 9th streets downtown. In one of them, the Grand Opera House on 8th street, a young man named Frank Miller worked around the turn of the century. Frank loved the theater so much that he went to New York to pursue acting. Upon his return to Augusta, he decided to get into the theater management business, starting with theaters owned by outside companies. In 1933 he entered into a partnership with Arthur Lucas to invest in theater ownership. At the age of 51, at a time when life expectancy was late 40’s, Frank engaged Roy Benjamin to build a dream theater, grand in scale, elegant in style, and nothing like Augusta had seen before. The Miller would be much more than the sum of her parts, including one mile of neon tube lighting, shiploads of costly Italian marble and 200 tons of concrete. She would be worth more than the half-million dollars it cost to build her. She would be awe-inspiring, majestic and regal. The Grand Dame of Augusta would usher in over 40 years of music, movies and vaudeville shows, becoming a fabric of Augusta’s story, and a host to thousands of personal memories.
The Grand Dame slept for 30 years in dark neglect after her inevitable closing in 1984, and began losing hope as her roof leaked and her interior suffered from vandalism. Peter Knox IV came to her rescue in 2005 with a purchase, a new roof, and a dream of seeing her come back to life. He knew it would take a strong group with resources and vision to lead that effort, and offered it to Symphony Orchestra Augusta. Levi was recruited to assess the offer to make sure it was a good fit for SOA, and he led the organization through an intensive process of due diligence. After 5 consultants and 30 months of study, SOA knew all of the benefits and many of the risks. One of the consultants told SOA it was “an audacious plan, but if you believe in it, it will happen.” So they accepted Peter’s kind offer, created The Miller LLC , and the slow process of planning began.
Despite Levi’s gracious and poised demeanor, when he told us that the beginning years were immensely difficult, we could sense how much of a struggle this project has been and how much of his life it has consumed. The Grand Dame will not let him quit. Levi and his core team have overcome numerous obstacles, always coming back to one calling: “We have got to find a way to make this work.” Because I serve on Levi’s team, I can let you in on a little secret-the obstacles are still there, but they are better. Levi and his Grand Dame are tenacious, so I have no doubts about the success of this venture. The vision truly is audacious: it is not just bringing the theater back to life, but doing so in a way that creates a cultural center. The center will be home to a wide range of artistic productions and music education programs. The Miller and her sister the Imperial will be an integral part of the resurgence of that section of Broad Street-a centerpiece to the entertainment district and cultural hub of the city. The Grand Dame is becoming more than she was before, as she re-awakens her former grandeur and integrates it with the building next door in a larger, unified space.
In his closing comments, Levi’s presentation takes on the spirit of a motivational speech, and anyone in the audience who has ever overcome enormous challenges can relate to his message. He told us that demons try to come out and scare him, but that he keeps his eyes on the vision, and his experiences keep telling him how very significant this theater could be for arts in Augusta. “It has been an overwhelming and humbling experience,” he said. “The doubts and skepticism haunt me, but I hang on to the encouragement of the people who have faith in the project.” He told us that in the most difficult circumstances, you will likely have to journey very far before the answers become clear. You have no idea where the path will take you, only what the final outcome will be. “In many cases we had to travel to the end of the road to find the answer,” he explained. “Whenever we had to, that is exactly what we did.” And knowing Levi, I know that is what he will continue to do. The Grand Dame will accept nothing less. She has something to offer downtown Augusta; she is an acoustic gem with a powerful past and a stubborn spirit. I look forward to meeting this elegant character in future performances at the Miller, hopefully in a couple of years. In the meantime, I know she will charm the socks off of everyone who visits her, and she will encourage them to hold on to their memories of her past, and become a part of her future story.