Reborn Georgia Theatre will light up Athens nights

When the lights came back on outside the reconstructed Georgia Theatre in Athens last month, co-owner Scott Orvold noticed something important about that corner of downtown

It had been dark.

On June 19, 2009, fire gutted the historic theater, dimming its bright marquee and taking out one of the Classic City’s loved landmarks.

Now, after two years of painstaking repair, the 122-year-old theater is almost ready to strike up the band. Its rebirth was celebrated on the second anniversary of the fire when the broad marquee with its thick red plastic letters was illuminated for the first time since the disaster, casting a glow on cheering crowds on the corner of Lumpkin and Clayton streets, and promising to help light up Athens evenings with live music.

The music begins with The Glands on Aug. 1, the theater's scheduled re-opening day, but co-owners Orvold and Wilmot Greene have much to do between now and then.

On a recent Tuesday the structure was packed with workmen. Hydraulic lifts, lighting trusses and snaking power cords covered the floor. Rows of sinks still in boxes awaited installation in the new restrooms in the basement.

While workers on the stage prepared to haul sound equipment into the voluminous fly-space, a welder ran a grinder over a new joint on a section of metal handrail in the lobby, sending a seven-foot column of sparks into the air.

“The elevator is the biggest thing left to do,” said a tall, T-shirt-and-shorts-clad Greene, as he peered down the empty concrete shaft. The lift  is among the amenities added to make the theater more accessible to the disabled, and one of the many changes that will bring the theater up to modern building codes.

“If we’d replaced back what we had, it would be illegal to open the doors,” said Greene.

Those improvements, such as expanded restrooms (commodes in the women's restroom increased from two to 15) and a modern sprinkler system, will make the theater safer and more comfortable.

Other changes are aimed at making it more profitable. They include the most significant addition, the rooftop restaurant, which has a separate entrance and will be open to concert-goers and non-concert-goers alike.

Greene said preservationists criticized the addition of the restaurant, which will be visible from the street and will alter the theater's classic lines. But despite donations from grateful Athenians and fund-raisers by national musicians, the $4.5 million ground-up restoration will create a significant debt for the owners, and revenue from the restaurant will help pay it, he said.

Increased capacity, from 800 to 1,100, created by eliminating the projectionist's booth and adding more balcony space, will also improve the bottom line. But it's clear that this project was a labor of love for Greene and Orvold.

"It was definitely a public service," said Greene. "This building will be here a lot longer than either of us will."

The Georgia Theatre was built in 1889 as a YMCA, and has served alternately as a Masonic Temple, a furniture store, a worship hall, a movie theater and a music venue. Sea Level performed the first concert on Jan. 11, 1978. It became a movie theater in 1982, then began presenting music again in 1989.

The Police, the B-52s, R.E.M., Tom Waits, B.B. King and Wynton Marsalis are among bands that have played the theater, a list that runs to about 800 names. (Chuck Leavell, of Sea Level, returns for the venue's second night, Aug. 2.)

Greene, 40, bought a controlling interest in the theater in 2004, and began laboriously remodeling the structure. Orvold, 30, began working at the theater in 2006, and eventually acquired a part ownership. The two had invested hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars in renovations when it burned.

Coming back from that setback was slow and painful. To leave the walls intact, the owners had to remove ruined, toxic and melted debris through an opening the size of two double-doors. Once the charred and dangerous roof beams were removed, crews assembled a makeshift framework of I-beams to support the freestanding walls.  Once permanent beams were in place, they then had to disassemble the temporary supports. It was a bit like building a ship in a bottle.

The massive wooden beams -- toasted but solid on the inside -- have been sliced up and refashioned as siding and countertops for the venue's various bars. The three-foot-thick brick walls, which keep the interior remarkably cool, are what's left of the original structure, and they are supported by the I-beams. "They aren’t holding anything up," said Greene. "What they really are is expensive old wallpaper."

Blackened walls are reminders of the theater's past. Greene expects good times to be in its future. The rock concert is "a primeval, primordial thing," he said, "everyone facing the same way, listening to the same music, dancing to the same beat. There is something about that that will never go out of fashion."