World premiere at Augusta's Miller Theater of The Three Faces of Eve, 1957

Miller High Life

The Miller Theater in Augusta, Georgia has a storied history: since opening in 1940, it has featured first-run movies in a gleaming Art Moderne setting; legendary actors have trod its stage; the Oscar-winning film The Three Faces of Eve had its world premiere there in 1957; rock groups have raised a ruckus; and local theater, ballet, and opera troupes have performed. But as Augusta’s downtown succumbed to suburban flight and hard times, the Miller fell into disuse, and closed in the 1980s. Now the Miller may be poised for a comeback, thanks to a partnership between two local nonprofits: Symphony Orchestra Augusta and Augusta Landmarks.

Well, to paraphrase Norma Desmond, maybe it’s not a comeback…it’s a return. But a return with a new use as a concert hall and home for Symphony Orchestra Augusta and as a performing arts center. Founded in 1954 by Harry M. Jacobs, a former principal horn with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Symphony Orchestra Augusta (SOA) currently performs at four different venues in the area. First Baptist Church of Augusta is the site of the orchestra’s classical concerts, while pops events are staged in Bell Auditorium, kids’ concerts are given in a theater at Augusta State University, additional presentations are produced at the Jabez S. Hardin Performing Arts Center, and the orchestra crosses state lines for a regular concert series in Aiken, South Carolina. Performing concerts in a variety of venues is a move a lot of orchestras are making these days in order to bring music to multiple communities, but most of those orchestras have permanent homes that are functional concert halls, while SOA lacks a purpose-built concert hall it can call its own. SOA’s executive director is Sandra Self and the music director is Shizuo Z. Kuwahara.

After years of neglect, the Miller Theater was purchased by developer and philanthropist Peter Knox in 2005. He stopped the creeping decay, put a new roof on the theater, and offered it to the symphony as a gift. The orchestra applied for renovation funds through a Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax (which Augusta residents call SPLOST), and also launched a series of feasibility studies. Augusta Landmarks also sought SPLOST funding, but eventually withdrew its application. After a couple of years of studies with no seeming outcome, however, Knox announced that he had to think about selling the theater.

Enter Augusta Landmarks. Founded by Mike Deas, the local organization has been hoping for years to bring the Miller back to life. The group’s two websites, http://miller-theater.org/index.html and http://www.friendsofthemiller.com/, are full of boosterish appeal, atmospheric photos, and text that evoke the theater’s vibrant past and bereft present. Though any fan of historic theaters can savor the artful desuetude of the abandoned Miller, it’s an echoing shell today, not an active (or particularly safe) place.

In the last few weeks, SOA and Augusta Landmarks have begun an informal alliance to bring back the 1,500-seat theater. The interests of these two local community organizations coincide: both would like to see the Miller as a lively center of cultural life in downtown.

While their specific focuses necessarily differ—August Landmarks is passionate about preserving a piece of Augusta’s history; the orchestra gives live performances of classical music—the partnership shows how two community-based groups can align. Things are in the fairly early stages at this point; participants are excited, but don’t expect a grand opening for a few years.

Meanwhile, the orchestra has been taking a long, hard look at the numbers. While reviving the Miller and finding a new home for music in Augusta would be gratifying—what orchestra would not like a permanent home that helps revive a neighborhood?—SOA administrators and board members have been examining similar projects at other orchestras, crunching the numbers, and doing due diligence.

Symphony Orchestra Augusta and Music Director Shizuo Z. Kuwahara at First Baptist Church of Augusta, current venue for the orchestra’s classical concerts. Photo courtesy Symphony Orchestra Augusta

According to Levi Hill IV, SOA board member and chair of the orchestra’s Miller Theater Committee, “We have been doing an extensive feasibility study for a little over two years now. Through the generosity of a board member, we have hired a world-class theater consultant, acoustical consultant, business-operations consultant, a cost consultant, and fundraising consultants. We need to answer a number of questions relative to the theater. Is it possible to renovate this movie theater to accommodate orchestral music? What does it take to run a theater and present other groups there when the orchestra isn’t performing? Will we be able to raise financial support in the community for the project? Our consulting engagements will end this summer, so we are approaching the final phase of that work.

“This is an expensive project, and that’s something that any symphony board should pay careful consideration to. The Miller Theater would be a great asset to the community; more than a home for the symphony, it would be a performing arts center for the community and for the city. I think the community is excited generally about the reawakening of the Miller Theater. The project hits on a lot of sweet spots for people. It’s an historic theater, and with Augusta Landmarks we’d help bring an old building back to life. For us, it’s a chance to have a home for the symphony and an opportunity to see our downtown flourish again. We think the downtown area has got a great chance of being a hotbed of activity again. Augusta is a good example of a town that does support its symphony. All that said, we’re careful to pay attention to what the experts tell us.”

Façade of Augusta’s historic Miller Theater. Photo courtesy Augusta Landmarks

Looking at the big picture, SOA Board President Joseph H. Huff comments, “Having the Miller Theater would really transform the symphony as an organization in very exciting ways that would make us significantly more relevant. And that’s an important goal for our organization. We’re very lucky to be supported well by our community, but we know that orchestras around the country are struggling. So the more we can relate to the community, the better it is.

“Sure, it would be great to have a home for the orchestra. We are extremely fortunate that First Baptist Church allows us to come in and use their very nice sanctuary for our symphony series. Still, the acoustics are not really intended for orchestra. It’s really a good place to be, but it’s not a home. And we would like to be in a location that is more centrally located downtown. That would draw a broader spectrum of our public, a broader audience.

“More than just a home for us, though, being at the Miller might help bring downtown back some. Certainly downtown was a victim of the suburban sprawl that many cities face. And we are seeing some positive signs here—empty storefronts are occupied, people are moving back. You need something to draw people from suburbs back downtown, and this would be a real focal point. Other groups in Augusta have done studies and long-range plans that envision the Miller Theater as being part of a theater district downtown. The revived Miller would be a cornerstone of that. Having a theater district would do a great deal to move the revitalization of Augusta forward.

“That’s an important part of our thinking. There is also—well, the Miller Theater is really grand. They don’t really build them like this anymore. Peter Knox saved it from destruction. He offered it to us. That is a great opportunity.

“We recognize that there are many challenges. The symphony is not jumping into this lightly, and we’re doing a very detailed, step-by-step study. We looked a good bit at places like the Tivoli in Chattanooga and the Fox in Spokane, Washington, which took advantage of historic or new-market tax situations. [Symphony magazine reported on the Spokane initiative in its issue of May-June 2008.] Part of the opportunity right now is that our local government made around $5.2 million in SPLOST money available for this project. Which is about one-quarter of the total projected renovation cost. We are realistic about the timetable for this kind of a project.

“Our partnership with Augusta Landmarks is not a legal one at this point. But that group has a great amount of passion for this old theater. They are looking to be involved in insuring that it’s preserved and would love to see it reanimated, just as we would. So we’ve got a lot of common interests there. We’re talking about how we can help each other make it happen. There is no formal arrangement yet, but certainly that group is very motivated, with a lot of the same goals that we have. It makes sense that we would be working together.”

The current state of the Miller Theater’s mezzanine only hints at its former grandeur. Might a restored and renovated Miller Theater become the future home of Symphony Orchestra Augusta? Photo by Daniel Perry, courtesy Augusta Landmarks

 Mike Deas and his organization, Augusta Landmarks, have been interested in the Miller for years, and he has long wanted to bring the venue back to life. “I grew up going to movies there as a kid. It’s a beautiful place, the second-largest theater in Georgia. But it sat empty for decades and was in awful shape until Peter Knox bought it in 2005 and stabilized the building. We’ve had a number of conversations with the symphony over the years, and for a while Augusta Landmarks was interested in doing the Miller on our own. However, we’ve recently been working with the symphony. How can we work to together to have a venue that meets the symphony’s need and meets the needs of other arts groups in Augusta and those of a promoter who wants to rent the Miller for a show? For the symphony to make it their home, it looks like we’re talking about $20 million. In this economy it’s tough to raise money. How can we raise what’s needed to renovate the theater properly? It’s a bit of dilemma as to how to design a stage that the symphony feels comfortable performing on and how to create an environment and acoustics with a ‘wow’ factor.

“Foremost in my mind is preserving a piece of August’s history. It’s a given that if the building is preserved, there’s going to be a positive economic impact on our community. People are going to come down to eat at the restaurants, come from out of town to see performances and stay at the hotels. More people might want to live downtown. I can see it coming back to life.”

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