Fire guts Georgia Theatre in Athens

Only brick exterior left standing; owner hopes to rebuild

Bill "Duck" Anderson remembers seeing huge music entertainment stars come through the Georgia Theatre when they were mere startups.

"Dave Matthews, this was the first place he drew a crowd," said Anderson, who owned the theater from 1989 to 2005. "Hootie and the Blowfish used to come on Tuesday nights for $3 and 200 people would show up. The Ramones, Wynton Marsalis, the B-52s -- you name it, they probably played there."

Some more names you might recognize: B.B. King, R.E.M., Wide Spread Panic, John Mayer, Drive-by Truckers, Tom Waits, Pylon, Sister Hazel, and on and on.

All that history went up in smoke when fire destroyed the iconic Athens landmark Friday morning.

"It sounds like a cliche, but it's like losing a family member," said Anderson, one of hundreds of onlookers watching firefighters pour water on building three hours after it caught fire. "When you spend 50 or 60 hours a week, six days a week for 15 years somewhere, that's what it feels like."

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Four fire engines, three ladder trucks, two rescue vehicles, a HAZMAT unit and about 50 firefighters responded to the 6:50 a.m. fire call, according to Chuck Gulley, emergency management coordinator for the Athens-Clarke County Fire Department.

Gulley said the fire was under control by 8 a.m. By then, the famous theatre at the corner of Lumpkin and Clayton streets in downtown Athens was totally gutted.

Fire officials could not say how the fire started. There had been numerous lightning strikes in the area overnight.

"It may be a while before we know," Gulley said.

Power was cut to the whole of downtown Athens shortly after 7 a.m. Jim Sikes of Georgia Power said about 450 customers were affected. Most had their power restored shortly before 11, he said.

Wilmot Greene, 38, the current owner of the theater, sat on a wall in a bank parking lot, drinking bottled water and smoking cigarettes while firemen fought the blaze. He said he bought the theater five years ago for $1.5 million and has been renovating it since then. He said he had spent nearly $750,000 on the 1930s-style art deco renovation.

"It was almost completely done," said Greene, his white Oxford shirt covered in soot. "It was really beautiful. It was in better shape than it's ever been in."

Greene said he was insured and intends to rebuild.

"The question is, do I have enough" insurance, Greene said. "Even if the insurance pays for it and we can rebuild, it'll never be the same," he said. "They don't build them like that anymore."

They certainly don't. According to Anderson, the building was erected around 1890 and became the first YMCA in the South. After that, he said it became a department store.

"They cut it half, built a balcony and made it a cinema in the 1930s," he said. "Bands started playing there in the 1970s. There's a lot of history in those walls."

Eleven acts were scheduled to appear in the theater as part of the annual AthFest music festival next weekend. Festival organizers were looking for alternative venues Friday but hoped to find a place for the bands to play. The Morton Theater and the Classic Center were among venues being considered.

"There are soldiers in Iraq who heard about this today," said J.R. Green, a former Athens club owner who works as a disc jockey now. "That gives you an idea of how notable that place is. It's an institution."

"It's emotional on a lot of levels," said Winfield Smith, the Georgia Theater's bar manager the past five years who also played there as a musician. "It's a place a business, a historical landmark, a pillar of the Athens music scene. And it looks like I'm out of a job.

"The best news is nobody was in the building," Smith said.

But a lot of somebodies have been.

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