Reclaiming theater saved memories

About 1977 the owner of this property proposed replacing it with a McDonald's. Phil McLemore, at that time the director of the Marietta Planning Department, had just completed a downtown revitalization plan calling for protection of unique buildings like the Strand. Urban renewal had already demolished a quarter of the original square.

Personally and professionally, McLemore felt compelled to make his concerns known about the loss of another iconic structure. He informed the Junior League and Garden Club of the pending vote on the Strand's demise, and the Marietta women folk packed the Downtown Development Authority meeting and voiced their opposition.

McLemore grew up on my street and was in my class at MHS. He and I share many memories of the Strand. I was 7 when I made my first visit. A neighborhood kid had a birthday party, and after cake, his mom dropped us off for the Saturday matinee. My first impression was the theater's temperature. This was before residential air conditioning, and for the first time I felt cool in the summer time. Not long into the first reel my companions started acting out, and we were herded into the lobby. The birthday boy disappeared into the manager's office, and I was sure I was going to jail. Instead, his mom showed up and took us home.

Next came a childhood of movies — "Bambi," some James Dean and a lot of John Wayne. By the time my children were ready to see "Bambi," the Strand had fallen on hard times and was a seedy music hall. The Strand and its environs were my generation's Twitter and MySpace. We went there to show off our dates, make a personal statement and let people know what we were about.

Its destruction was unthinkable, and that's why McLemore put his job on the line to save it. The concept of almost losing what the Strand has become is less apparent than its historical significance. I realized this only after my granddaughter auditioned for a part with the Lyric Theatre, which now calls the refurbished Strand its home.

If McDonald's had replaced the Strand, I never would have experienced the joy of seeing her perform in my childhood house of dreams. I know this is selfish, but earlier memories have also been enhanced for others because of what the Strand is today — a symbol of who we were and what we have become.

McLemore paid for going up against a politically connected property owner and was pushed from city government. He is now city administrator for Duluth. His name should be added to the list of contributors to our theater full of expanding memories.

Larry Wills, a retired environmental designer, lives in his childhood neighborhood in Marietta.

Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.

Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.