Georgia Theatre: Rising from the Ashes

Sam Smartt
One of three friends to open the Theatre as a concert hall in 1978

Georgia Theatre
Lots of great acts played there through the years and many got their start there. The band that got it all started that January night in 1978 was Sea Level, a band formed by Randall Bramblett and Chuck Leavell. Randall had been a friend for several years. In fact, Fontaine and I had actually done some booking for the Randall Bramblett Band through a venture called Harmony Entertainment that we started while still students at UGA. Chuck had played with lots of folks, including The Allman Brothers Band, and not long after the opening of the Georgia Theatre would go on to play keyboards for Eric Clapton, George Harrison and, for the last 25 years, The Rolling Stones.

We sold out two shows that first night. However, the guy we hired to run the place quit that night and suddenly we were faced with a major dilemma: who would run the Georgia Theatre? To me the answer was obvious: I would. The next week I quit my job with Sunbeam, turned in my company car and jumped in.

Several memorable shows come to mind from my days running the Georgia Theatre. Once we were doing a band called The Night Hawks. We generally booked them about once a quarter on a Thursday night. We'd pay them $400 for one show, sell about 400 tickets at $4.00 each and have a very good night. On the Wednesday afternoon before this particular Thursday concert I was just getting ready to leave the office when the phone rang. The caller asked me if The Night Hawks were playing the next night. When I told him they were he asked if he could come jam with them. I asked him who he was and he said, "Gregg Allman". Well, Gregg Allman was a pretty famous guy in those days, not only because of The Allman Brothers but he was also married to Cher. So, I asked him how much he wanted. He said he didn't want any money and he'd bring his own equipment and crew. He'd just heard The Night Hawks were hot and he wanted to play with them. I told him I'd see him the next day. After I hung up I grabbed a blank piece of paper and wrote:

Gregg Allman and The Night Hawks
The Georgia Theatre
Two Shows, tickets $8.00

Then I ran across the street to Copies Unlimited and made 2000 copies. The next morning, early, I grabbed a few guys from the Phi Delta house, headed to the parking lots on campus and put those fliers on every windshield until we ran out. We sold out both shows.

In the late '70s, The B-52's were just forming. They would come to the Theatre and say, "Smartt, you need to hire us to play here. We're going to be super stars!" I'd look at them with their crazy clothes and makeup and that red and purple hair and tell them, "No way."

Finally, one day they came by and told me they had an offer I couldn't refuse. They would pay us $150 to play the Theatre, provide all their own sound and lights, all the crew to set up and tear down and even handle the promotional expenses. They'd take the door and we'd take the bar. We did it, and it was a great show, a huge crowd, a win for The B-52's and us, and the next week they went to New York and signed their first record deal featuring a tune they had played at the theatre, "Rock Lobster." I don't know what the Riverbend Festival [in Chattanooga, TN] paid The B-52's to play this year but my guess is we got a better deal.

Another time, I got a call from a promoter who said he had this hot new band coming to the U.S. for the first time. They were going to be playing in Atlanta on the weekend and he wanted them to play our place the Thursday before. I'd never heard of them and initially the guy wanted way more than we could afford. Eventually we settled on a deal where we would pay them $400 and they would bring their own sound equipment and set it up and tear it down themselves. The afternoon of the show these three guys, all about my age, showed up in a Volkswagen bus packed with sound equipment and instruments. They were all nice guys and I ended up spending the afternoon helping them unload and set up. When they did their sound check a few hours before the show, I was pleasantly surprised. One song in particular sounded pretty good. It was called "Roxanne." The three guys were Sting and The Police.

Most of the groups we did were either on the way up or on the way down. However, one day I got a call from B.B. King's manager. B.B. would be returning from a tour in Russia in a couple of months. When he returned he had a weekend date at the Civic Center in Atlanta. B.B.'s manager was hoping to get him to play us the night before the Civic Center gig. The catch was that he wanted $5,000 for two shows and the price was firm. We would also have to provide an expensive sound system and light show as well as a long list of riders to the contract. After all that, even at $8.00 a ticket (a lot in those days) we'd have to sell out both shows to make any money. To top it off, they wanted a $2,500 deposit up front. We didn't have $2,500 but I hoped my friend in the construction business, Jack Vandiver, did. I called him and explained the situation. He and his wife, Sally, mulled it over for about 30 seconds and said they were in.

We sent the deposit to B.B.'s manager and went about buying our radio spots and newspaper ads promoting the show. Though we had ticket outlets all around Athens, college kids didn't generally buy tickets in advance until two or three weeks before the show. Well, about three weeks before B.B. was scheduled to play the Theatre the University announced that they were going to have Jimmy Buffett at the Coliseum the same night for free! I immediately called B.B.'s manager and explained the situation; we just couldn't go on with the show. He understood so I asked him to please mail me the $2,500 deposit. He quickly explained to me that the $2,500 was B.B.'s money and he wouldn't be mailing it anywhere. I told him I'd have to get back to him.

I called my buddies, Jack and Sally, and explained the new situation. Jack said, "If we're going to loose $2,500 I'm going to see B.B. King. Tell him to come on!"

Georgia Theatre by Wilmot Greene
The night of the show we had only sold 90 of the 1200 tickets we needed to sell to come out even. Then, amazingly, we sold out the first show at the door to an older crowd. We had never even considered them as a possible audience because we were so student-focused. They came dressed like they were going to church. They were a great audience, B.B. was great and we were halfway home, but the prospects were dim for the second show.

Then, just as the last show was getting started, a kid that normally worked for us but had taken the night off to go see Buffett came in. I asked him what he was doing there and he said, "You aren't going to believe what just happened! Buffett came out for his encore and said, 'Folks, I'd love to stay and play but I just heard B.B. King's in town. I'm headed to the Georgia Theatre'." Ten minutes later Buffett's bus showed up in front of the Theatre. Hap and I let them all in, grabbed Buffett and took him to our seats in the balcony. The students flooded the place and we sold out the second show. The best part, though, was spending that night with Jimmy Buffett. He was a wild and crazy guy!

There are so many stories but I'll share just one more. One time we rented the Theatre out to a church for a Sunday afternoon revival. It seemed easy enough to me so I didn't bother to hire anyone to help, I'd just do it myself and save some money. The revival was scheduled to start at 2:00 p.m. but the band, Pee Wee & the Psalmsters, wanted to have a sound check an hour before. Well, at the sound check I realized that Pee Wee & the Psalmsters were a pretty hot act and I began to think this revival might be a little feistier than I had originally assumed.

When the doors opened people just poured in. The Theatre was absolutely packed, everybody was standing and they were all pressed up against the stage. The Psalmsters were cookin'! I was in the back, all alone, looking in through the lobby door. Suddenly, there was a huge commotion down front and the crowd went crazy as they began passing something back over their heads toward the lobby from up by the stage.

As it got closer I realized it was a body, the body of a woman. They got her to the back then carried her into the lobby, laid her down and ran back into the theatre. I stooped over and touched her - she was stiff and cold as ice! I called an ambulance and within a couple of minutes they had the body on a stretcher and headed for the hospital. The EMTs had just left when the church members came into the lobby with another body! They looked around and said, "Where's Irene?" I said, "Irene's dead. They've taken her to the hospital." They looked at me like I was crazy and said that Irene wasn't dead, she was slain in the spirit! About that time here comes Irene with the EMTs trying to hang onto her and she's slapping their hands and shouting, "Let go of me!" All afternoon these folks, mainly ladies, would get slain in the spirit, carried out to the lobby over the heads of the crowd, lay there on the floor for a few minutes stiff as boards, then pop back up and head back for more of Pee Wee & the Psalmsters. Now that was one killer act!

I only ran the Theatre for 18 months. In the spring of 1979 Donna and I were expecting our first child and my Uncle Jim suggested that I come home and get a real job in our family business, which I did for nearly 29 years until I sold out a little over a year ago. All those years, though, have not diminished the memories. My days at the Georgia Theatre were, as my Uncle Jim would say "a slice of life." I'll never forget it and I, along with George, Hap, Sheffy and countless others who have enjoyed themselves there over the last three decades are a bit sad today.

Here's Widespread Panic's press release regarding the Theatre:

"Our thoughts go out to Wilmot Greene and everyone involved with the Georgia Theatre, past and present. We have a lot of great memories from performing there in the early '90s, including filming a concert with Billy Bob Thornton in 1991, Live at The Georgia Theatre. We are happy to hear talk of rebuilding and know that this will certainly not be the end of the Georgia Theatre's long legacy."

You can read R.E.M.'s press release regarding the Theatre fire here.

You can buy a t-shirt and help support the rebuilding process here.

Enjoy live music in the Classic City at AthFest this weekend, featuring Patterson Hood and the Screwtopians, Dead Confederate, The Black Lips and many more!

And please use our Geaorga Theatre Forum to discuss your own memories of the Georgia Theatre.

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[Published on: 6/25/09]

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