Splendid Stages


The Lucas Theatre’s closing was a sorry near-end for what was once a grand and widely admired building. Built during the prosperous post-World War I era by Savannah native Arthur Lucas, the Lucas was one of the many “movie palaces” that went up all over the United States to feed Americans’ feverish appetite for moving pictures. Opulent and state-of-the-art for its time, the theater was designed by C.K. Howell, nationally known for his designs of “amusement houses.” Yet the Lucas was no clone—its design, size, and decadence was one-of-a-kind, singularly unique to Savannah. Even today, the theater’s architectural style defies any one label. Meaghan Walsh, managing director of the Lucas, notes that it comprises elements of Adamesque Italianate, early Art-Deco, neo-Classical, and Adam Style, among others. Perhaps its most distinguishing architectural feature, then, is its history—the fact that Arthur Lucas selected elements from theaters he owned or managed all over and combined them to make one his own. “It was his baby,” Walsh says.

Spending $400,000 to build the place in 1921, Lucas declared that no expense was spared to make “Savannah second to none in having a motion picture theater worthy of the most progressive city of the South.” Decked out with a marble lobby, 1,400 seats, 36 ornate boxes, plush green carpet, a central dome of 620 lights of changing colors reminiscent of a Lowcountry sunset (and later the first air-conditioning system installed in an existing Savannah building), the Lucas emanated post-World War I prosperity as much as the crowds that came for the first showing of Camille and Buster Keaton’s Hard Luck. The largest screen in the city and access to all the first- run pictures coming out of Hollywood—not to mention the spectacle of the theater itself—set the stage for Savannah’s social scene for decades to come.

Though Savannah had had a theater on Bull Street since 1818 (the Savannah Theater), the majority of action, adventure, and romance movies in the 20th century came to the Lucas on Broughton Street. Over the years, venues such as the Bijou, Avon, Odeon, Roxy, Arcadia, and Eastside created a cluster of entertainment that, although segregated, attracted all segments of Savannah’s population. With future competition in mind, Lucas kept vigil over birth announcements, birthdays, and newcomer arrivals during the first year, sending out vouchers for a free theater visit to mark such occasions.

The Lucas was renovated several times with the latest technology and styles, including a theater organ featuring a full range of sound effects for silent films. Later, in 1953, the Lucas kept up with its competition (mainly the nearby Weis Theatre) by installing a Cinemascope screen, which required one projector rather than three. During the leaner years of the Depression, the Lucas and Jenkins theater chain started the very popular Bank Night, where patrons entered drawings for winnings ranging from $25 to $700. Eventually, people were turned away in droves and the State of Georgia had to shut down the fun, calling the scheme an illegal “lottery.”

During the World War II era, the tentacles of television and other forms of mass entertainment had yet to begin strangling theater attendance, and another era of prosperity was about to begin. In February 1946, Mr. and Mrs. Fred Weis, owners of such venues as the Savannah Theater, opened their own namesake picture house. The Weis opened on Broughton Street across from the Avon (currently Seasons Restaurant) and adjacent to the Lucas. A signature neon vertical sign that read “WEIS” became a trademark of the late Art- Deco/Art Moderne structure. “It was an icon of Savannah architecture,” says Danny Filson, executive director of the theater today.

The Weis truly embodied its time period. Wearing a pre-modern façade that, when it opened, was described in the Savannah Morning News as having an “imposing appearance,” The Weis is more likely to be linked with the American optimism that emerged from World War II. Red velvet curtains, a terraced ornamental ceiling, and a red structural glass pylon with neon lights were in contrast to a line of green plants along the base of the building walls. Another all-important feature: air conditioning—this was the first building in Savannah to have a cooling system built right into its original construction. Though certainly “modern” in terms of technology at the time, the theater’s appearance still resisted impersonal modernity: as Filson notes, “you can’t mistake a mile and a half of neon” for anything but a place of entertainment that invites you in.

Yet theaters were not simply places to sit and consume performances. They were centers of pageantry, drama, romance, status, and belonging for the audience. Back in the heyday, for instance, locals knew that all the socialites went to the Avon, dating couples went to the Weis, and when love became serious, The Lucas was the place to go. Different venues had different scenes, and some attribute the beginning of the Lucas’ demise to a popcorn machine imposed upon its ultra-classy atmosphere.

For Arthur Lucas, his theater was truly more than just a business. When he stood before his city on opening night in 1921, he proclaimed, with almost prophetic caution, the Lucas’ “future success is in your hands.” When it closed in 1976, of course, no one was there to remember his words. Over the next decade, the demolition effort was halted, but the years and Savannah’s heavy air started to press their weight upon the Lucas—by the time Lucas Theatre for the Arts, Inc. (LTA) had organized and bought the rotting structure in 1986, the seats and carpet were long gone, ornate plaster was falling off the ceiling and walls, and the orchestra pit was filled with water that had collected drop by drop.

To be sure, if it had not been for a steady stream of visionaries who understood the Lucas’ significance to Savannah, this may well have been just another paradise-turned-parking-lot story. The life of Broughton Street’s theater district was all but completely sapped; as one Savannah News-Press journalist described in 1981, the year the Weis closed, “[S]hort of patronizing the porno booths in an adult bookstore, the public can’t see a film in downtown Savannah anymore.” Before Elizabeth and Ben Oxnard and Emma and Lee Adler organized Lucas Theatre for the Arts, Inc. (LTA), there were efforts to turn the Lucas into a café, bar, dinner theater, and comedy club. But without a big draw—say, a grand theater—to bring people back downtown, each attempt fizzled.

When the LTA purchased the theater in 1986, a 14-year and $14- million reanimation was about to begin. The roof, walls and plasterwork needed repair. But that was the easy part—at least relative to the fundraising required. At first, the group looked forward to a re-opening in 1991, but the funds did not flow as steadily as needed. Restoration did not begin until May 1995. Considering the deserted state of downtown at the time, Walsh notes the risk LTA took was enormous. Aware of the skepticism, David Jenkins, executive director in the 1990s, stressed the business benefits the Lucas could bring to downtown: “It’s about jobs and opportunity and a real, tangible, verifiable boost to the downtown district…It’s about keeping our cities alive and exciting,” he told the Savannah Morning News in 1996.

Nevertheless, it was hard to generate excitement and cash flow when the public saw only scaffolding and heard about structural improvements every so often. In order to show Savannah what a treasure the Lucas really was, the restoration team began work on the crown jewel of the theater—its 40-foot dome—but not without some controversy. Since this area had been covered up years before, the dome was in relatively good shape. Workers began painting and repairing; but when lack of funding meant that work would halt for a year, the theater was left vulnerable to an unsealed exterior, a missing HVAC system, and no temporary wall supports. Once again, it seemed the Lucas was lost.

Savannahians know how the story ends. Money was eventually found to finish the entire restoration, thanks in part to high-profile benefits held by Universal Studios, the cast and crew of Forrest Gump, and Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil star Kevin Spacey and director Clint Eastwood. Spacey was even recognized with a private, permanent box at the theater that he shares with Paula Wallace. Entirely updated, the theater got new sound, lighting, and stage rigging systems. In addition, the terra cotta façade was cleaned and repainted, the floor was resurfaced and re-carpeted and, on December 1, 2000, the Lucas finally re-opened, with a showing of Gone With the Wind.

Just around the corner, The Weis was also alive and well, though now as the Trustees Theater. In 1989 the Savannah College of Art and Design purchased the abandoned Weis to accommodate its growing performing arts department. Filson notes that the theater was also acquired with Savannah in mind. The college recognized the historic significance of the theater to the community and found it a natural fit as a premier venue for performing arts and other cultural and community events.

But was there room for the Lucas? After just 1.5 years and several expensive Broadway shows, the Lucas was again floundering with $2 million in debt. Enter SCAD. Today the college covers the Lucas’ day-to-day operating costs, and because of its support, the community has even wider access to the venue in terms of lower rental fees and expanded SCAD- sponsored events such as the Savannah Film Festival.

The vitality of Savannah’s downtown is, and seems to have always been, wholly integrated with its centers of leisure and art. With their glow and pageantry, the few remaining theaters of Savannah essentially offer a place to add a dramatic flair to everyday life, a chance to participate in the city’s history and future at the same time. The re-birth of the Weis and the Lucas now offer positive examples for another local venue, the Post Theater on Tybee. Originally built for soldiers at Fort Screven in 1932 by the United States government, and later bought and renamed Beach Theater after World War II, the movie theater was once a central social hub for the island. It was saved from the wrecking ball in 2001 by the Tybee Island Historical Society, who has since transferred ownership to the Friends of the Tybee Theater (FOTT) organization.

If Savannahians could see only pornos downtown at one point, at least it was something—for Tybee Islanders, when the Beach Theater closed in the 1960s, there were no other local theater options except those inland. According to president Susie Morris, the FOTT recognizes a need for a theater and performing arts venue, even one with only 300 seats. She says with a rising appetite for films and other cultural events in the area it’s time for Tybee to offer visitors and residents something more than the beach, not to mention restoring a center of nostalgia and memories for many. So working with SPLOST funds and money raised from grants and a capital campaign, FOTT hopes to turn the Post Theater into a cultural destination for Tybee— and one that creates an economic impact.

But there is still a long way to go to bring the Post up to date. At one point in the ’90s there were plans to turn the old theater into condominiums. The plan eventually fell through, but only after the theater was gutted. As it stands now, the structure lacks windows and doors, and has a very poor roof (currently being repaired), but the brick and clay tiles walls and concrete floor are in good shape. Since the theater was one of many built for soldiers during wartime, it does not have the ornate glamour of the Lucas or the Weis, but does have Greek Revival elements, such as a pediment supported by columns; and Classical Revival style elements, such as keystones above the doors and windows. Based on historic photographs, the interior was correspondingly simple. But the Post is still uniquely Tybee; as with the other Savannah theaters, its true charm and identity comes with the experiences that people remember and associate with the structure.

The restoration plans aim to turn the Post Theater into a new “community asset,” in Morris’ words. With its original appearance as a guide, replicated windows and doors will be replaced, and lighting and sound systems will be re-installed. All dressing and restrooms will be returned to their original uses as much as possible. When all is said and done—meaning a lot of fundraising and construction work—Tybee will have a historic and modern movie and live-performance theater all in one. Until (re-) opening night, however, beachgoers can purchase their seats in the future theater by donating to the cause—and ensuring that the demons and gremlins, this time, are kept at bay.