Alex Cooley and R. Charles Loudermilk Sr. were touring the Buckhead Theatre the other day, inspecting the refurbished venue that they call a “jewel box” of Buckhead night life.
A Spanish Baroque movie house built in 1927, by the 1980s the Buckhead Theatre became the Capri, and then the Roxy, a stylish rock venue and an Atlanta landmark.
Now the venue returns to its original name, the Buckhead Theatre, with a coming-out party last Thursday befitting a celebrity. But towering above the theater itself are these two human landmarks planning its rebirth; each round in profile and mild-mannered in attitude.
Loudermilk, 82, the founder of the $1.4 billion Aaron’s Inc. empire, is one of a small group of friends who kick-started the Georgia Dome, as well as an original backer of Andrew Young’s first mayoral campaign.
Alex Cooley, 70, is a colossus of Atlanta music who staged the first Atlanta Pop Festival and has had (it seems) a hand in every show since. With partner Peter Conlon, Cooley grew Chastain Park into a stellar musical locale and invented the Midtown Music Festival. (And, pushing 300 pounds, he outweighs Loudermilk in avoirdupois, if not in fortune.)
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Cooley and Loudermilk are looking at the ornate crests, upholstered chairs, and caterer’s kitchen that are among the improvements at the theater, which holds up to 900 seated or 2,100 standing.
The gold carpeting and ornamental plasterwork indicate a departure from the theater’s previous incarnation as the Roxy. Loudermilk wasn’t interested in “those headbanging shows; people with nose rings. We didn’t want any of that; we want a showcase.”
Indeed, the Buckhead Theatre has already hosted a $1,000-a-seat fund-raiser for the March of Dimes, and will host banquets, parties and corporate events, along with midsize rock shows. Velena Vego, who also books talent at Athens’ legendary 40 Watt Club, will handle most rock booking at the Buckhead Theatre, and has already signed Deer Tick, Dead Confederate and Built to Spill for shows this summer.
Cooley looks forward to bringing in touring musicals and small-scale Broadway productions.
These events may seem like small potatoes, compared to putting Led Zeppelin in front of 100,000 heat-crazed hippies (which Cooley did at the 1969 Atlanta Pop Festival), but Cooley seems happy with the prospect of running a venue in which one’s shoes don’t stick to the carpet. (“That was always a hallmark of my places,” he jokes.)
In reality Cooley is happy to make an incremental re-entry into the Atlanta music business. After corporate maneuvering resulted in his abrupt departure in 2004 from the business he built, he beat a retreat to his Lookout Mountain farm, where he lives with his wife, his apple trees and his garden.
The drawback of farm life: It was boring. “One day I was following the FedEx guy out to the truck, just to have somebody to talk to,” he said, strolling into the theater’s spic-and-span interior. “I knew I had to do something. And this came along.”
Cooley will serve as a consultant on the music side of the venture, but plans to spend significant time getting it going. He has bought a condo in a Buckhead high-rise, where he will live during the week.
Loudermilk, the driver behind the project, says he wants to preserve a piece of history dear to an original Buckhead Boy. He has seen Buckhead’s fortunes go into the wood chipper during the economic tailspin of recent times, as witnessed by the stalled and half-built construction projects around the area, including the Streets of Buckhead undertaking.
And while the rent-to-own business at Aaron’s prospers, Loudermilk’s Buckhead Community Bank was one of dozens of Georgia bank failures in the past year. Buckhead night life, once manic, has also dwindled, quelled by the recession, the clamp-down on closing times and the disappearance of many old watering holes.
The pair want Buckhead lively again, though not so lively as to encourage gunfire. “We want to attract the fun people, not the predators,” said Cooley.
To that end, Loudermilk said, he has spent about $6 million on the renovation, tearing out old interiors at the Roxy that once housed the offices of Cooley and Conlon’s Concert/Southern Promotions. “It was time for it to go,” said Cooley. “It was held together by baling wire and spit.”
A towering electric sign on the building’s Roswell Road facade will announce coming acts and advertise Coca-Cola products. It looks out over Charlie Loudermilk Park, a vest-pocket green space between Roswell and Peachtree roads that the city of Atlanta renamed in Loudermilk’s honor.
“That sign cost half a million,” said Loudermilk. “The sound system cost half a million; those two [dressing] rooms cost half a million; you keep doing that and it adds up to real money.”
Some locals have commented that the sign isn’t in keeping with the historic neighborhood. Such criticism doesn’t trouble the two. “No matter what you do, no matter where you do it, no matter how much money you spend on it, people are going to complain,” said Cooley.
Though they’ve rarely worked together, the pair seem simpatico. Loudermilk swaps tales of watching 10-cent Hopalong Cassidy movies at the theater as a youngster, while Cooley describes the musical abilities of the Sex Pistols, who he brought to Atlanta’s Great Southeast Music Hall in 1978 for their North American debut. “They really couldn’t play,” he said.
Both are upbeat about the prospects for a revitalized Buckhead, though Loudermilk says some developers are “going to take some haircuts.”
Buckhead, said Cooley, “is going to come back. It’s just a matter of time and evolution.”
Coming this summer
The Buckhead Theatre, 3110 Roswell Road, has booked two rock shows so far this summer, and has several others planned. On sale are tickets for Deer Tick with Dead Confederate, July 31, and Built to Spill, Aug. 9.
For more information: 404-962-8700