Saturday, September 12, 2009

Feet Don't Stick to Floor No More

Posted by Bruce Miller
Richmond CenterStage finally opened this evening. It was a wonderful, almost miraculous night! Many in the crowd spoke sentimentally about the first public announcement of the renovation and expansion, which occurred either 8 or 8 ½ years ago, depending on whose talking.

Having earned my stripes as a grand old man of Richmond theatre, I couldn’t stop thinking of the Symphony’s original purchase of the Loew’s in 1980, and Theatre IV’s 1981 Season—the first performance season by any group in the history of this magnificent building.

In those earliest of days, what is now the Carpenter Theatre was named the Virginia Center for the Performing Arts. Nina Abady, the legendary Richmond administrator who provided staff leadership for the $6 million campaign to pay off the mortgage and restore the landmark venue (yes, only $6 million), was just beginning to raise the needed funds. In order to create public interest, she wanted to bring people into the theatre. But she had no money for programming, and the theatre itself, frankly, was a sticky, rickety mess.
All those years as a movie palace (and a declining movie palace during the 1970s) had taken their toll.

During that same time, Nina served on the Board of Directors of Theatre IV. She had attended all three shows in our 1980 Season, which had taken place in another performance facility where your feet were apt to stick to the floor—the Westover (movie) Theatre, South of the James at 4712 Forest Hill Avenue.

The Westover was nothing more than a wooden platform stage that we constructed in front of the movie screen. Despite its humble pedigree, we had staged Theatre IV’s first “adult” audience season there in 1980: The Diary of Anne Frank, A Raisin in the Sun, and The Philadelphia Story. I remember being very proud of all three shows.

Nina knew we were hungry for grander digs. So she struck up a deal with us--a win/win for both parties involved.

If Theatre IV agreed to repair the 2,000 seats in the former Loew’s, scrape all the gum and muck off of the historic tile floors, and produce at least three shows designed to attract a mass audience, she would let us rent the facility for a dollar per seat sold.

We leapt at the chance. It took us about six months to tighten and/or replace all the nuts and bolts on the 2,000 or so seats, most of which had been literally falling into pieces. My dear dad, Curt Miller, who had recently retired from the Defense General Supply Center at Bellwood and was looking for something to do, joined another volunteer named Ralph Antell, who I think was a recent retiree from Philip Morris. Together, the two of them slaved away every day on their hands and knees until all of the seats were once again ready to be used.

Phil and I (and many, many other volunteers) attacked the floor-bound gum and goo with chisels and putty knives, scraping up more hardened grime from the bathroom floors and theatre aisle-ways than I care to remember. I think we must have filled a hundred or so Hefty bags with petrified remains of countless movie theatre snacks.

At last the theatre was ready. Well, "ready" may be too strong a word. At last the theatre was no longer disgusting.
We staged two hit productions of West Side Story (with a 26-piece orchestra no less) and the classic American comedy, Born Yesterday. We also mounted a third production, Agatha Christie’s Ten Little Indians, about which the less said the better. Suffice it to say that Roy Proctor's review was headlined "Who Dunnit? Who Cares!"

By the following year (1982), Nina had raised enough money to begin renovation, and so Theatre IV had to move on to our next rented facility … which turned out to be the Empire Theatre. And the rest, as they say, is history.

Way back in 1981, we LOVED being the first arts group to welcome Richmond’s performing arts audience back into the former Loew’s.

Tonight, 28 ½ years later, we LOVED joining with our wonderful friends and colleagues at African American Repertory Theatre, Elegba Folklore Society, Richmond Ballet, Richmond Jazz Society, Richmond Shakespeare, Richmond Symphony, SPARC, and the Virginia Opera as together we welcomed a new generation of Richmonders back into this great atmospheric treasure.

Congratulations to EVERYONE who has been working so hard for so long to make tonight happen. Whether you date back to 1980, or only 2001 ... Job Well Done!

--Bruce Miller

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