Music promoter Laurin Willis and his wife, Susan, in front of The Beacon Theatre in Hopewell (photo by Jay Paul).
“Getting people in Richmond to cross a river is impossible,” Laurin Willis says. “To get here, they have to cross two.”
Willis is the new music promoter for The Beacon Theatre, a renovated former grand movie house at the intersection of Route 10 and Main Street in Hopewell, about 25 miles south of Richmond and — as he points out — just five minutes east of Interstate 295.
“It’s a tremendous venue, a gem, truly a great place to see a show,” he says. It was late November, and The Beacon’s intimate stage would soon fill with the likes of the reformed Yardbirds, Southern rock ensemble Blackfoot and 30 members of George Clinton’s Parliament Funkadelic, all in one week. Yes, sleepy little Hopewell is kicking it, and doing it in style.
In May, Willis and his wife, Susan, took over Beacon-promoting duties from Brad Wells, who courageously tried a little of everything in this 669-seat theater since it reopened in January 2014 — Vanilla Ice, The Psychedelic Furs, Leon Russell. Some of the musical offerings clicked, but many didn’t. After 14 months, the city of Hopewell and Wells parted ways.
Finding out what works in this beautiful, if out of the way, venue is now Willis’ job. A veteran of promoting at Innsbrook After Hours, Lewis Ginter’s Groovin’ in the Garden and The National, often working alongside Wells, he says that he’s “still finding out what audiences want, what people will travel to see.”
The transformation of The Beacon Theatre has been a model of civic restoration, despite the growing pains. As you step into the ornate surroundings of the building, with its mixture of Art Deco whimsy and stately elegance, you can feel transported back 87 years.
It was originally called the Broadway. The three-story silent film theater was co-designed by Fred Bishop, the same architect behind Richmond’s grand Byrd Theatre. Opening on Nov. 28, 1928, just a month before The Byrd, it originally had a seating capacity of 1,100, says Jean Langford, a historian at Appomattox Regional Library.
The theater served as a vaudeville house — stage actress Sally Rand famously appeared here in 1934 — as well as a popular spot for first-run Clark Cable and Spencer Tracy features and Saturday afternoon Westerns. Cowboy stars Lash LaRue, Tom Mix and Gabby Hayes would make personal appearances and ride their horses onstage to the delight of children in the audience.
But crowds dwindled and The Beacon closed in the late ’60s, unable to afford first-run movies. It soon reopened, but for three years, Hopewell’s downtown ray of light screened X-rated fare like Deep Throat and soft-core art flicks like I Am Curious (Yellow). The town fathers were not amused, Langford recalls. There were a few efforts to bring it back as a second-run cinema, but The Beacon finally went dark in 1981.
A group called Hopewell Preservation Inc. tried for decades to rehab the structure, now on the National Register of Historic Places. “They did accomplish things,” Langford says, “like get the sign back up, redo the area now used for weddings and meetings, but the theater itself was just too much to take on. Eventually, the city took it over and kicked in the money, got some historic tax credits, and was able to remodel it.”
The Beacon and the doctor’s office next door, now used for dressing rooms, were beautifully restored by Commonwealth Architects in 2013 at a cost of $4.1 million. The revamped space includes, among other things, a new roof, wider seats, restored fixtures and a state-of-the-art sound system.
If there’s a sure bet so far, it’s the popularity of country artists. Willis says that he is angling for a Wynonna Judd appearance, adding that revamped Motown acts like the Four Tops and Temptations have also done well. “We’re doing great with the older audience, but we’re trying to find that younger crowd,” he says.
The Beacon is also trying out professional theater. As part of Black History Month, it will present the Neil Simon Festival’s production of Driving Miss Daisy, starring TV actors Clarence Gilyard and Sheree J. Wilson, on Feb. 20. There will also be more children’s theater, such as a May production of The Greatest Pirate Story Never Told!, an audience-interactive play.
Hopewell’s City Council is considering a plan to turn the theater into more of a regional performing arts center and a place to present educational workshops and plays. But the music plays on.
“When shows don’t work, there’s a little bit of angst,” Willis says of his relationship with the city, and with the theater’s board, Beacon LLC. “But there’s a long-term plan here.”
The Beacon Theater
401 N. Main St., Hopewell; 446-3457 or thebeacontheatreva.com
Travis Tritt, Jan. 7; Tracy Lawrence, Jan. 15; The Wailers, Jan. 24;
The Outlaws, Feb. 18 Don Williams, Feb. 24; Roger McGuinn, April 23