Decades of work on theater exceeds expectations
Grand opening only three weeks away
Originally published December 16, 2015 in The Marietta Times
by Janelle Patterson, The Marietta Times
After 30 years of a silent stage filling the empty expanse of the Hippodrome in Marietta, new life and light have been brought back to the historic theater.
Now known as the Peoples Bank Theatre, the combined seating of the balcony, mezzanine and auditorium will soon welcome more than 900 people to enjoy stage acts ranging from Vaudeville acrobatics to country music solos and comedians. The grand opening is now only three weeks away, a culmination of decades of work for some.
“It’s exceeded a lot of our expectations as things have really fallen into place this year,” said Hunt Brawley, the theater’s director. “It really is amazing what has been accomplished and how wonderful everything sounds and looks.”
Hunt Brawley, director of the Peoples Bank Theatre, explains the final acoustic needs of the building Tuesday as preparations conclude for the January opening.
Built in 1919 as the Hippodrome, the theater at the corner of Third and Putnam streets was, in its heyday, home to vaudeville acts, off-Broadway plays, magicians and silent films accompanied by a five-piece orchestra.
Thirty years later the theater was transformed into the Colony Cinema with a colonial facade replacing the original stone archway at the entrance of the hall. The film venue stayed open for an additional 36 years before closing its doors in 1985.
But eager to bring the life and light of the arts back to Putnam Street, Dan Stephan Sr. purchased the theater in 1988 with the hope of preserving and restoring the historic landmark in Marietta.
“I remember that theater got us through many tough times,” said Marietta native, Stephan, 79, of Williamstown. “The theater is an institution in Marietta just like Marietta College, the hospital and Peoples Bank. It has served the people through the Depression and World War II, but it was there for our entertainment.”
At the time his family owned the building currently housing Peoples News next door to the theater.
The facade of the restored Peoples Bank Theatre.
“When we got in there and looked around we couldn’t see anything else being there but a theater,” he said. “It’s awesome after so long and so much cost to see something so gratifying as getting those doors open.”
Stephan helped to form the Hippodrome/Colony Historical Theatre Association with Brawley in 2000 as a nonprofit raising money to restore the historic Marietta landmark. Then in 2004 he donated the building to the nonprofit and over the next decade the group worked to repair the roof, fire curtain, rebuilt the stairways and other structural elements and cleared the building of asbestos-a $2 million endeavor.
The final nudge to push renovations into high gear was an investment of $3.7 million from Peoples Bank in 2014. Construction and the remaining renovations to the building, including new seating in replica of the original house seats and a new stage and rigging cost the nonprofit an additional $5.5 million. According to Brawley the overall cost of the renovation was $7.5 million.
“We’re finishing up the technical aspects and doors and lights now,” he said. “We’re continuing to have training sessions from our lighting and sound guys since all of this is brand new equipment and setup.”
With the final construction and renovations wrapping up Brawley said some acts have been booked six months out and his staff is working to fill the gaps in weekends between each major performance.
“We’ll also start filling in programs with film,” he explained. “We think it’s going to be more of the classic films like ‘Casa Blanca’ and ‘Gone With The Wind’ as well as some newer offbeat Hollywood films that didn’t make it to the local theater.”
Brawley said the variety of acts to hit the stage beginning Jan. 8 should offer entertainment for any audience.
As the first band to enter the orchestra pit in the Peoples Bank Theatre, Laura Evans and Company, a jazz and adult contemporary group based in Charleston warms up prior to a private event at the theater Tuesday.
“The stage is really built for one-night shows and we’re trying to have a lot of different things available,” he said. “We’re trying to show stuff that you’d usually have to go to Columbus or Pittsburgh to see.”
Jeri Knowlton, executive director of the Marietta-Washington County Convention and Visitor’s Bureau, said she is anticipating an increase in tourism in Marietta thanks to the opening of the theater.
“We think that the theater has the potential to drive up overnight stays,” she said. “Especially from the group and tour travel perspective. Those types of groups are looking for evening entertainment options so I’ll be interested to see how the different shows play to different crowd demographics.”
Knowlton said she is especially excited to attend the Travis Tritt solo show during opening weekend.
“Tickets were gone in a day and I definitely think that shows the local community support this as well,” she said. “I am one of those people who has been waiting to see him for years and years and I couldn’t believe it, he’ll be here in my town.”
Knowlton, who also attended an appreciation event last weekend at the theater, said the acoustics in the building will make the show worth the wait.
“The sound system in the place is impressive,” she said. “I can’t wait to be there and hear him perform.”