The Art Deco elegance of the Ashland Theater is undergoing transformation as a multipurpose center to be used by the community at large. (Photo courtesy Ashland Theater)
The Ashland Theater’s renewal as a multipurpose entertainment center continues through the fall, with a Sept. 2 tribute to the Carter Family by musician and Carter devotee Ronnie Williams with the Henderson Family ($12), a Sept. 9 screening sponsored by the Shear Power salon of the Tina Fey and Amy Poehler comedy “Sisters,” ($5) and on Sept. 18 prolific veteran singer-songwriter Darrell Scott ($35). In the weeks ahead, there’ll be a Saturday afternoon of classic cartoons (Sept. 10, $5); a discussion and film on poverty sponsored by the community empowerment group Circles Ashland; and on Oct. 1, an afternoon of gospel music ($5). All of these productions are steps on the way to what must eventually transpire: a capital campaign.
“Yes, once the Ashland Theater Foundation secures a lease with the town, the foundation will begin collecting pledged donations,” says Clark Mercer, the group's president. “The foundation has committed to raising $200,000 by the end of renovations. We will shoot for much more; the more we raise, the better job we can do with restoring the theater. All estimates are that a proper restoration costs at least $2 million.”
The Ashland Town Council, having reviewed construction and expansion proposals and a possible lease agreement for the theater, is slated to make a final decision at its Sept. 6 meeting.
Ashland is accepting applications from nonprofits seeking to sign the theater’s 10-year lease, at the price of $1 per month. The lessee must provide $75,000 from donations by Oct.1 and also provide documentation for the creation of seven full-time jobs.
Several regional subcontractors completed the Art Deco Ashland, a project of Hal and Dora Covington, which opened Aug. 10, 1948. (Talley Neon, which installed the signage, remains the contractor.) Hal Covington in 1927 started Ashland’s first motion picture house, The Cab, that stood at 301 S. Chestnut St. until its 1958 dismantling. That theater, like many throughout the region, included a balcony for black patrons while whites sat below.
The film that premiered in the 484-seat auditorium was “Sitting Pretty” with Robert Young, Maureen O’Hara, Clifton Webb and Ed Begley Sr. Webb played a “baby-hating babysitter” and butler named “Mr. Belvedere.”
(If Mr. Belvedere’s name and attitude seem familiar to a few readers, it's because the character and situation were lifted for a sitcom that somehow ran 117 episodes between 1985-1990.)
Almost exactly a year after the Ashland’s opening, the showman Covington was involved in a four-night run of the Norman Krasna three-act Broadway hit, “John Loves Mary,” presented Aug. 9, 1949, on a stage built amid the Randolph-Macon College athletic field and surrounded by bleachers. Lalla Clay Rolfe directed the play produced by Petersburg native and Randolph-Macon College student Murray Shapiro. The cast included Shapiro; Howard Leeland Gaines, an R-MC student from Arlington; and Inga Washington, “of Ashland and New York” (you could do that if driven both by Broadway ambitions and the New York City/Penn Station-bound train that regularly passed through town), plus Dee Deering, Jack Ellis, Tim diZerga of Aldie and Robert Hunter Brown of Suffolk. The Covingtons treated the cast to a special matinee showing of the film “John Loves Mary,” featuring Ronald Reagan, Patricia Neal and Jack Carson.
A decade later, following Hal Covington’s retirement, the Ashland passed to Carlton and Helen Duffus of Brookland Parkway, he the managing director of the Virginia Tobacco Festival and executive secretary of the Virginia Motion Picture Theater Association.
The building went through various hands and sat dormant for some time until 2013, when Ashland-based construction executives A.D. and Jean Whittaker donated the theater to the town. Since then, the community has sought to figure out the best way to utilize the place.
Ashland Theater Foundation formed to bring in assorted activities in “pop-up mode,” as their materials say, from films to lectures to comedy shows and other nonprofit fundraising events. These activities have involved collaboration with numerous regional organizations, including live theater.
In a May article for Richmond magazine, it was reported that the town of Ashland is committed to support the theater with $500,000 over 10 years, and the theater group has secured a matching grant from the state, pending a review of their business plan.
The renovations would culminate in a grand reopening in 2017 of a multiuse venue for live music, theater, performances, cinema and a community home for meetings and private rentals. Improvements are to include American Disabilities Act-compliant access, a sprinkler system, upgraded concessions, acoustics treatments and minor roof repairs. The seating could be reduced from a capacity of 330 to around 270 seats.
A present challenge, particularly for live theater, is the lack of backstage facilities like dressing and green rooms.
Louise Ricks, Amanda Durst, Edward Hughes and Katherine Ward Stinnett in the Whistlestop Theatre Co. production of “Alice in Wonderland.” (Photo by Robert Papas)
Among performance groups seeking stage time at the Ashland is the 4-year-old theater for children, Whistle Stop Theatre Co., led by actor/director Louise Ricks, whose group has produced work there. Her group started at the former Ashland Firehouse Theater and has also utilized the Hanover Arts and Activities Center. “To better facilitate performance groups, you need stage wings, lights and a good sound system, and that’s what we’re working toward,” Ricks says. “We are an artist colony, and you can use this space to bring community and use as much of the arts as possible.”
Ricks for the holiday season is adapting the classic “Little Women” by Louisa May Alcott for the stage as part of the Ashland Main Street Association’s Light Up The Tracks Festival. “This is what we do to bring out families and encourage them to enjoy our main street,” she says.
And a working theater is part of what makes a town center thrive.