The Miller Theater: A History

IMG_1348MLLER
Seats of the Miller Theater in Augusta, Ga. (Photo: Joshua Adams)

By Joshua Adams | Staff Writer

After a 30-year coma, the Miller Theater has opened her dusty eyes. The theater, located on the 700 block of Broad Street, is in her very own dressing room, getting renovated for her long awaited return.

The theater was donated to the Symphony of Augusta by Peter Knox in 2008. Since then, there has been a quiet campaign to raise the funds needed to revitalize the building and in turn, Augusta’s theater district. The campaign has raised $17 million, roughly 80 percent of the $21 million needed to complete renovations.

It’s easy to notice the marquis, but most people don’t realize that beyond her narrow façade lies a grand theater, rich in history, the Chairman of the Miller Project Levi Hill IV, said.

“It opened in February of 1940 with a show called ‘A Night at The Moulin Rouge,’” Hill said. “Frank Miller was the proprietor of The Miller Theater. He had three or four partners. They were called the Augusta Amusements. They were the entertainment figures in Augusta at that time. They owned and operated five theaters: the Imperial, the Modjeska, the Rialto, Dreamland and the Miller. He died four years after the Miller opened.”

In the mid-1800s, the Miller was a funeral home and furniture store, a part of a building named after J.P. King.

Throughout 40 years of business, the Miller became mostly known as a movie theater. Hill said that people would dress up to the Miller for a fancy night out on the town. Patrons would line up in the theater’s arcade, where they would get their tickets torn and find posters advertising upcoming showings. They would then walk through silver doors into the theater’s narrow hallway of a lobby. The floor is made of Italian marble, with quarter circles that directed audiences toward the theater on the right side and toward the exit on the left. The lines of people were separated by red velvet ropes. Before entering the door, under a large no smoking sign, to the audience chamber, patrons would pass by popcorn machines and soda vendors.

“The Miller was noted to be one of the South’s finest theaters,” Hill said. “It had all the state-of-the-art, from the air conditioning units to the neon lighting. The style is called Art Moderne, a post-depression form of art deco otherwise known as streamline. You’ll notice the vertical and horizontal lines as you go through the theater. It reminds [me] of cars and boats from the ‘40s and ‘50s.”

She was designed by a Floridian theater architect named Roy Benjamin, a prominent theater architect at the time. Hill said the building was well-designed and that the quality of its natural features are surprising. For example, a wall was planned to be built to separate the hallway from the audience chamber. The natural acoustics are so great that the plans were dismissed.

Bobby Moretz, a dentist with an office in Montezuma, Georgia, grew up going to the Miller with Jack Miller, Frank Miller’s son, for popcorn and movies. Moretz recently went on a tour of the theater and said he felt his life had been augmented. His memories were revisited.

The original backstage door still stands underneath the stage. (Photo: Joshua Adams)
The original backstage door still stands underneath the stage. (Photo: Joshua Adams)

“The sound was so clear,” Moretz said. “The curtains would open and there would be a news reel followed by a movie and ended with a cartoon.”

Moretz was delighted to take a tour of the theater he remembers from his boyhood. He was able to see rooms that he had not seen before, as well as recall memories of the now dusty seats and rusted stairwell.

The theater closed in 1984 with a live performance of the musical, “Regina.” Hill said the trending “flight to the suburbs” caused the Miller to go out of business.

“It was a time when cities across the country were essentially abandoned,” Hill said. “People went to places with more land and a sense of freedom, as cities became more populated and dirty. Now they’re coming back to the cities. Across the country, you’ll see cities being revitalized.”

In 2005, Peter Knox bought the Miller because he wanted to bring her back to life, Hill said.

“He hated to see a building asleep for 30 years in downtown Augusta,” Hill said. “Peter’s such a philanthropist and has such an interest in the history of buildings like this. He’s done it before. His mark is downtown, in a number a buildings. Thankfully, we have folks like Peter that want to save old structures like this and do something with them.”

In 2008, Knox donated the theater to the Symphony of Augusta.

“He thought well to offer it to the Symphony as a place for the performing arts and home for the symphony,” Hill said. “The SOA hasn’t had a permanent home in its 60 years of existence.”

The Symphony of Augusta has since organized a campaign to bring the Miller back to life. Hill said the Miller campaign is a huge project.

“This particular project involves not only renovating the Miller Theater, but also the adjacent building that the Miller LLC acquired,” Hill said. “So we’ve got about 20 thousand square feet of space over there that will house restrooms, a founder’s room, a music institute on the second floor and dressing rooms for performers.”

Hill said the core structure of the building has endured the test of time and weather, but there is quite a lot of work to be done. Hundreds of exposed wires hang from walls of decaying paint and plaster. Many windows have been broken. Signs of vandalism litter the theater, including a “666” on the windows of the projection room. Parts of the ceiling have caved in. Aside from these largely cosmetic problems, the Miller needs to be updated for the people of today.

There are many pieces of the theater’s history scattered throughout the building. There are two statues just before a stairwell, which have been defaced with anarchist symbols. The old stage lights now sit on the floor of the stage with sandbags that were once used to weigh down the curtains. There is also an old control panel for lights on the stage. Underneath the stage, there are dressing rooms with old, broken mirrors. On a power box under the stage sits a Barbie doll, which Hill says has been there since the ‘80s.

“For modern day occupancy, it requires updates for code compliance, such as handicap accessibility and fire code,” Hill said. “We’re going to make the stage bigger. It’ll be deeper and wider so we can hold different types of events, not just the symphony, but ballet, plays, comedy and any kind of music.”

Even though the Miller will go through a great amount of change, most of its iconic features will remain. The two nude paintings on the sides of the stage, which have been there since the Miller’s opening, will not be going anywhere. The Italian marble floors and flashy, silver doors lit by neon lights will still be the first things you see when you walk into the theater.

The two blocks surrounding the Miller are what used to be known as Augusta’s theater district. The Miller’s reanimation hopes to bring that district back to life. Although many groups are pushing for this goal, Hill said the Symphony of Augusta and the Miller campaign are some of the leading organizations pushing to revitalize the art scene. He said there are similar things happening across the country.

“In Newbury, SC, there is a theater called the Newbury Opera House that was restored in a similar fashion,” Hill said. “Since the restoration of the Opera House, property values have gone up five thousand percent in the Newbury downtown area. Bringing an arts district back makes a lot of sense in regards to the economy and quality of life in an area.”

Ansley Easterlin, the Miller campaign’s development director, said she views the Miller as an anxious actress about to go on stage.

“There’s a lot of anxiousness,” Easterlin said. “[The Miller was saying] ‘Am I going to trip?’ or ‘Is this going to work out?’ And now she’s like, ‘alright, this is happening.’”

One of her favorite features of the Miller is the secret apartment on the third floor. The apartment is right above the arcade and has about four rooms. In these rooms are dusty old chairs and a broken down organ, which was last used for performance in the 1980s. One bathroom was renovated, although it does not work.

In an effort to spread excitement about the Miller, Levi Hill wrote a children’s book about a family of mice that live in the third floor’s “secret” apartment. The mice would go down into the theater and venture through its many vacant rooms.

Hill said the theater has become like a person to him, as well.

“She has a lot of personality,” he said. “She wants to come back to life. I’ve argued with her. I have thanked her a couple of times.”

The Miller has plans to open her doors to the public by the fall of 2017.

Contact Joshua Adams at: jadams35@gru.edu.

Published on November 18, 2015 in Volume 58, Issue 4 of The Bell Ringer newspaper. 

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