TV tried to kill the Lucas Theater but the Lucas Theater refused to die. The first movie to play it was Camille in 1921. It starred Rudolph Valentino. For more than 70 years Lucas attracted audiences. The big movie palaces were often the first places in cities to have air-conditioning and the Lucas was no exception. The last movie to screen before it went dark was The Exorcist in 1976.
Ruth and I had ice cream at Leopold’s in downtown Savannah and decided to take a walk. Just around the corner from this restored ice cream parlor was the brightly lit marquee of the restored Lucas. We wandered in and received a mini-tour. A music group was rehearsing on its large stage. The Lucas was clearly back in the entertainment business.
Lucas owners had tried to keep it going as a comedy club, then a restaurant. Both failed. Lucas was set for demolition in 1986. However, just as Savannah citizens saved 2,500 historic houses, they collected $14 million to renovate their beloved Lucas. The cast of Forrest Gump, which was filming in Savannah, contributed. Kevin Spacey, star of Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, got involved.
The Lucas reopened in December, 2,000 as an entertainment venue. Upcoming at the time of our visit were classic films–Gone with the Wind, To Kill a Mockingbird, etc,.–local productions like Broadway Rocks, and A Motown Christmas starring old and new members of the 1960s and 70s soul group The Temptations.
About six months previously, Ruth and I were in Abilene to check out Frontier Texas!, a slick western heritage center. Afterwards, we wandered downtown and found the Paramount. This Spanish/Moorish movie palace opened in 1930 with the Carole Lombard film Safety in Numbers. Like the Lucas, the Paramount was a movie house until the mid-1970s and then closed. A few years later it reopened as Paramount Opry, a country music venue. That didn’t last.
An anonymous benefactor in the 1980s bought the Paramount and paid for its restoration. It reopened as a mixed entertainment venue in 1986 and has been upgraded twice since. Now a beloved Abilene landmark, the Paramount attracts more than 50,000 patrons each year to such events as an international short film festival and local talent productions such as Les Miserables in March, 2015. It’s also a place to see classic films like Casablanca again.
This morning I got to thinking about all the old movie houses and live theaters across America I’ve been in that have been saved and renovated. Within 3 minutes I had a list of 10 including the 2 above–the Fox Oakland Theatre, Vancouver BC’s Orpheum, Nashville’s Ryman, the Pantages in Hollywood, Chicago’s Biograph, the Pageant in St. Louis, Wilmington Delaware’s Grand Opera House, and Napa’s Uptown. I like this ongoing trend.