Whoopi Goldberg, Jenna Elfman, John Benjamin Hickey and Ashley Judd in "Big Stone Gap" (photo by Antony Platt)
Paul Wilson was born in Richmond and grew up around Virginia, but it wasn’t until he filmed a movie in Ashland last summer that he fell in love with Hanover County’s “center of the universe.”
During the filming of “Shooting the Prodigal” by Richmond-based Belltower Pictures, he stopped every morning at Ashland Coffee & Tea, and became a convert to the Iron Horse Restaurant’s bourbon cocktail, the Kentucky Mule.
“And every day, I’d drive by this glorious theater and think, I want to go in. But my days were like 12 or 13 hours long, so I had no time.”
That façade and its Art Moderne-style tower belong to the historic Ashland Theater, listed as endangered by Preservation Virginia a few years back, after lying dormant since the late 1990s.
But a group of volunteers is bringing the 330-seat theater, donated to the city in 2013, back to life.
And another movie Wilson acted in is finally giving him the opportunity to see the inside. This Saturday, May 7, the Ashland Theater will host a viewing of 2014’s “Big Stone Gap,” and Wilson will be on hand to answer questions about it.
The event is one of over 100 put on by the volunteer Ashland Theater Committee to showcase a demand for the space and lay the groundwork for a self-sustaining nonprofit theater.
Most events are free with a suggested donation, like the two sold-out screenings of “Purple Rain” that the committee put together after the death of Prince, and a country music tribute to the Carter-Cash families.
“There’s just so much we would like the theater used for,” says program manager Kay Landry, the theater’s only employee.
The 1948 theater is in need of some repairs: American Disabilities Act-compliant access, a sprinkler system, upgraded concessions, acoustics treatments, minor roof repairs.
“And we need to put in a new sound system, because the goal for the theater is to make it a multipurpose venue,” says Landry. “But whatever we can raise is what we’re going to do.”
The town of Ashland has committed to $500,000 over 10 years, and the committee has secured a matching grant from the state, pending a review of their business plan.
Clark Mercer, one of the committee members, reports that they’re also halfway toward their initial fundraising goal of $200,000.
“We haven’t even started our capital campaign,” he says. “We’ve had soft donations of about $50,000, and about $55,000 pledged just by word of mouth. We haven’t sent out a single letter yet asking for money.”
Proceeds go into ongoing operations and the renovation fund. “We are operating on pop-up mode, so when something happens, we do it,” says Landry.
And “Big Stone Gap” made a good fit.
It was written, directed, and based off a book by Adriana Trigiani, who grew up in the eponymous town six hours west of Richmond.
And its star, Patrick Wilson, Paul’s brother, was born in Norfolk. The Wilsons’ parents met in Richmond, and the Wilson side of the family was also from Big Stone Gap. The Wilson brothers spent their summers there.
Ashley Judd and Patrick Wilson in "Big Stone Gap" (photo by Antony Platt)
In the movie, a self-declared spinster played by Ashley Judd uncovers family secrets and finds love in the small town. The movie was filmed in Virginia, with a cast that includes Whoopi Goldberg, Jane Krakowski and Jenna Elfman.
“Ashland reminded me of the bucolic setting of ‘Big Stone Gap,’ so what better place to show it,” says Paul Wilson, who lives in Florida.
He says it didn’t take much persuading for him to visit Ashland again for the screening. “I said, 'Can I do it right now? I want to get in my car and drive up now.' ”
And he’s excited to see more than the marquee. “The theater’s a very special place — not just for me, but for the area,” Wilson says. “And Ashland is such a special place. You can feel it.”
“Big Stone Gap” will be screened at Ashland Theater on May 7 at 7 pm. Tickets are $5, and can be reserved at ashlandtheatreva.org or by calling 304-5588.