Georgia Theatre: Rising from the Ashes

By: Wesley Hodges

Georgia Theatre - Athens, GA
There's Tipitina's in New Orleans, the Exit/In in Nashville and the Georgia Theatre in Athens, GA. Not necessarily the biggest and shiniest venues in town, but hallowed buildings loved by all who've been inside and cultural centers where music fans convene on a nightly basis to enjoy live music in a welcoming environment amongst friends and neighbors. These are the places where everyone from the bartender to the intern working the ticket booth could talk your ears off for hours about the bands coming to town. These are not just the places you go to see your favorite band but the kind of place you go just because it's the thing to do.

The Georgia Theatre in Athens, GA is one of these places, an 800-person theatre that originally served as a YMCA, where college coeds and local scenesters are given free reign to enjoy themselves within the outermost bounds of reason. Cheap booze, a friendly staff, a unique style and impeccable sound gave this place its charm. Like CBGB's, it's the kind of place legendary bands cut their teeth, where the now-defunct New York club had the Talking Heads and The Ramones, the Theatre is where legendary bands R.E.M.., Widespread Panic and The B-52's hit their stride. To date, Widespread Panic has played 41 shows at the Theatre, so needless to say it was a home game whenever Panic played. The stories that people have shared with me over the past few days speak volumes about the Theatre's relative place in the cultural makeup of the Classic City. As Bloodkin member Daniel Hutchens said, "If it's lost for good, the Classic City will suddenly seem a lot less classic."

Early last Friday morning, the pulse of the city skipped a beat as the Georgia Theatre went up in flames and now stands badly charred, de-roofed with firemen and city marshals walking where local heroes John Bell and Michael Stipe once poured out their souls. In the days since, the city of Athens has rallied around its employees to see to it that the Theatre rises from the ashes. Thankfully no one was injured in the fire but countless people have likened the fire to the loss of a close friend. The venue's owner Wilmot Greene bought the venue five years ago for $1.5 million and has been in the process of renovating it ever since. Greene has spent nearly $750,000 of his own money on the 1930s-style art deco renovation and has plans on rebuilding again if he can meet costs that insurance cannot cover. Brock Butler (Perpetual Groove) played a solo benefit show on the night of the fire and his band played down the street at the Classic Center with all proceeds going to the Georgia Theatre. This past Tuesday night local bands Dead Confederate and The Whigs rocked for a sold out crowd at the nearby Melting Point.

The outpouring of moral and financial support in the first five days since the fire has been astonishing. With the annual AthFest scheduled for this weekend, the wheels are already churning to get the Theatre back in working order, but it's going to take a great deal of work and philanthropy to make it happen. For the time being, UGA students and Athenians will miss hearing the sounds of whatever band is playing that night emanating throughout the downtown area, but the general attitude is that people are going to do whatever it takes to ensure that the beloved Theatre rocks again.

From Sunday afternoon revivals to Marilyn Manson to Phish opening for Widespread Panic in 1991, the storied venue has seen it all, and the people who knew it best took time to share their fond memories and hopes for its rebirth.

Rick Poss
Manager, Georgia Theatre from 1993-1998

Favorite memories of the Georgia Theatre:

By Allie Goolrick
Too many fond memories to list just one, so I'll tell you some of my favorite shows that I saw there over the years both as a patron and an employee. In no particular order: Butthole Surfers (scared the living shit out of me), The Pixies, The Ramones, Jesus and Mary Chain, The Feelies, Dave Mathews Band and Widespread Panic (those New Year's Eve show were legendary).

Actually, now that I think about it, one of the most memorable nights was when we had Marilyn Manson play. At the time, none of us knew who they were except that they were some new metal band out of Florida. They definitely had more t-shirt designs than paying audience members. When we got to work, they were staying on their bus and refusing to come off because some animal rights group got wind of the rumor that they sacrificed live chickens on stage. Needless to say that never happened. When they did finally come on stage I think they played like 20 minutes before Marilyn Manson threw his microphone stand at our monitor engineer. Show over! We all thought that it was a publicity stunt because no one was at the show. Of course, a year later he was huge!

Effects the fire will have on this weekend's AthFest and the Athens music scene going forward, and what you plan on doing to help:

Of course there will be a somber underlying tone to this year's AthFest, but hopefully the timing will be good in the fact that the entire city's attention will be focused on the Athens art and music scene, of which the theatre was such an integral part. Right now the entire community is behind [Theatre owner] Wilmot Greene and [talent buyer] Scott Orvold and are totally ready to offer support in rebuilding it. I just hope that that spirit doesn't die down after the festival is over and a few months have passed. That will be when support is the most vital.

Is there anything else about the Theatre that the normal music fan may not know:

There are so many rumors about the Theatre that I have heard over the years, such as it being haunted, that I can't really say for certain; too many unknown facts that I know are accurate.

Patterson Hood
Co-leader of Athens, GA band Drive-By Truckers

Favorite memories of the Georgia Theatre:

Patterson Hood
1) Playing a show the night our drummer Brad Morgan got married.

2) A super cool stop on the "Dirt Underneath Tour."

Effects the fire will have on this weekend's AthFest and the Athens music scene going forward, and what you plan on doing to help:

It's obviously a huge loss for the community. As one of the two premier venues in town (along with the 40 Watt Club), it is part of what makes Athens so special. As far as lending a helping hand, we haven't been in town since the fire and haven't had a chance to get directly involved but I'm very committed to getting involved because the Theatre plays as big of a cultural role as anything else in our town.

George Fontaine
One of the original investors along with Sam Smartt and Sheffy McArthur that opened up the Theatre in January '78

Favorite memories of the Georgia Theatre:

Probably coming back to Athens after moving to Houston and seeing the Dixie Dregs at the Georgia Theatre. Also, Randall Bramblett's CD release party and hanging with my kids at a Drive-By Truckers show or two are etched in my brain.

Effects the fire will have on this weekend's AthFest and the Athens music scene going forward, and what you plan on doing to help:

Hopefully, AthFest will not be affected negatively, and the fans and music community will rally around this tragic event.

Continue reading for more on the Georgia Theatre...

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