Georgia Theatre: Rising from the Ashes

By Team JamBase Jun 25, 2009 5:55 pm PDT

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…

Parker Gispert
Lead singer/guitarist for Atlanta/Athens, GA band The Whigs

Favorite memories of the Georgia Theatre:

Georgia Theatre – Proving it does snow in Athens
1) Seeing a Tony Clifton show last summer. It was the most entertaining, fucked up night of comedy and music I’ve ever seen.

2) The first night I ever came to Athens was for movie night with The Possibilities and there was a rumor that R.E.M. was going to come out. After a while at the show, the band did come out and did an hour-and-a-half set. After that I thought, “This is what every night’s gonna be like,” and of course that was not the case.

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 in the long run it’s gonna be a good thing; these sort of things have a way of bringing a town together. We got out of the studio on Monday completely spent from the recording process, but wanted to be prompt with the response so we, along with Dead Confederate, booked a benefit show at The Melting Point for Tuesday and it sold out in hours. People were willing to show their support even if they didn’t like either band. It’s been great to see the local scene come together.

Bruce Burch
Administrative Director, UGA Music Business Program

Favorite memories of the Georgia Theatre:

My favorite memory about the GA Theatre… there are too many memories from there for me to name one. I will say it’s the first place I went when I made the decision to move back to Athens. I walked in the Theatre and met Wilmot Greene, told him I was moving back to Athens and wanted to live downtown to be right in the thick of the music scene. He proceeded to walk me over to his apartment right across the street and show me where he lived and I ended up moving right down the street from there. Wilmot immediately made me feel at home and his friendship and support of our program has been very gratifying. That is probably my favorite memory of the GA Theatre now that I think about it.

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:

As far as the effect it will have on AthFest, obviously the event won’t be the same without the Theatre. But fortunately, the Morton Theatre is a great venue and as they say in the music business “the show must go on”.

Lastly, I want to pay tribute to Wilmot and Scott and the staff at the Theatre for all the great shows through the years. Sure hoping they will choose to rebuild as it is a true landmark musically and I would love to see the legacy continue.

Daniel Hutchens
Singer-guitarist for Athens, GA’s Bloodkin

Favorite memories of the Georgia Theatre:

Daniel Hutchens & Mike Mills (R.E.M.)
By Jackie Jasper
I have to say that I have a number of great memories – Bloodkin opening for Widespread Panic there very early on in the late ’80s was a real landmark for me. And then we just played there again, a benefit, a few weeks ago as “Bloodkin & Friends,” and it was another great night with lots of the same people attending as were at that late ’80’s show. It was like old home week, really special and a cool kind of full circle. Hopefully not the last time we’ll play the Theatre though.

As far as seeing other bands play there, I’ll always remember The Replacements and Soul Asylum as two of the best straight-up rock shows I’ve ever witnessed.

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 sad situation, but events like this also galvanize communities into single-minded action, and Athens in particular is great about things like that. The music community here is definitely full-force ready to help and get the Theatre rebuilt, and I think those attitudes will be on display at AthFest.

As far as Bloodkin doing a benefit concert, we’re definitely on call anytime Wilmot and the Theatre folks want us. I think we may do something a little later down the line, because things like this tend to be front-loaded as far as community involvement, and we’d like to help things keep rolling a little later down the road.

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

Everyone in the community knows pretty much what I know about the Theatre. It’s housed a big, old chunk of the Athens Music Story through the years and if it’s lost for good the Classic City will suddenly seem a lot less classic.

Continue reading for more on the Georgia Theatre…

Hunter Brown
Guitarist for Atlanta/Bay Area’s Sound Tribe Sector 9

Favorite memories of the Georgia Theatre:

My favorite memories of the Theatre would have to be hanging out under the marquee waiting to get into a show, that and walking on stage for the first time. I had seen so many shows there growing up it was surreal seeing the view from the other side.

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:

I think it adds another chapter to the mystique of the Theatre and the town, another strange episode in the long history of the Athens music scene. I can’t imagine an Athens, Georgia without a GA Theatre. We want to help out in any way we can. We reached out to some friends who work there and let them know that we’re here to help whenever things settle down. I know a lot of Athens musicians have come out to show support. I’m positive the Theatre will come back better than ever.

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

The Theater used to be a YMCA, and there’s a pool under the stage in the basement. Not somewhere you’d want an after party, but a great place to scare your percussion player.

Hardy Morris
Lead singer of Augusta, GA’s Dead Confederate

Favorite memories of the Georgia Theatre:

The first show I ever saw at the Georgia Theatre was in 1999. It was a memorial concert for a friend from Augusta named Lee Lawrence. The show featured Vic Chesnutt playing with members of Widespread Panic. Panic was HUGE at the time, so the place was absolutely nuts, and it was my first time seeing Vic Chesnutt play, which was amazing. That guy is like glue. You can’t help but listen to every word.

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:

We are actually doing a benefit tonight [Tuesday, June 23] at The Melting Point with The Whigs. We got a call on our way back home Sunday from The Whigs guys asking if we wanted to play with them to benefit the Theatre, and, of course, we said, “Hell yes.” As for this weekend, I think the Theatre will be in the back of a lot of people’s minds. Hopefully they can raise some funds with all the people that will be around.

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

The past few years, there had been TONS of work going into making that place better. You can imagine, a venue of that age and size takes a lot to keep up, much less improve, and those guys had done so much. Not to mention the tragic loss of some staff members over the past few years as well. They’ve just been through a lot of shit, and I hope people realize it and want to help out.

Owen Gray
Former GA Theatre Intern and Street Team Coordinator, Nimbleslick Entertainment

Favorite memories of The Georgia Theatre:

Georgia Theatre – Athens, GA
There are way too many show memories that are extremely close to my heart. One that is more personal than others is playing harmonica on a few songs to a 600+ packed house with a band I used to manage, Rhythm Token. Another would be seeing Beck for two nights in June 2006, the first two nights of my employment. The Christmas parties were always great.

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:

I think that people attending AthFest this year will hold the general emotion of a lost friend, a void or hole in the scene hovering over it and people will be very sad and reflective, but nostalgic. I think this will lend itself to the realization that we have such an incredible music community and scene here, and it’s more about the musicians and people here that make it what it is and we’re all united and ready to rebuild the iconic Georgia Theatre, whatever it takes. Within minutes of finding out about the fire, literally while the building was in flames, Perpetual Groove and Nimbleslick Entertainment [the band’s management organization] were already making moves to host a benefit for the displaced staff of the Theatre. Actions like this speak for themselves.

Moving forward we’ve taken a huge hit, but this fire is only a spark that has ignited the greater flame. What comes next and what is happening now is an incredibly vibrant community of artistic and eclectic individuals are rallying support and bridging differences to aid in the process of inevitably rebuilding such an incredible piece of musical history. It is music, after all, that transcends our common problems and brings people together. This is what the Georgia Theatre did for me and for generations of others. The Georgia Theatre hosted that intangible force of emotion that music brings to your soul. You better believe we’re not going to give that up.

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

There is an old tunnel system that ran from the basement. The destination is extremely secret.

The Georgia Theatre, too many, is the musical pinnacle of their Athens experience and what music in this town means to them. A lot of kids come to UGA because of the Georgia Theatre and the scene that surrounds it. Its destruction is like a dagger to my musical and social heart. But, I have hope and faith in a better tomorrow. I’d like to extend my endless gratitude to Wilmot Greene and Scott Orvold, the men in charge who were the best bosses anyone could ever ask for as well as two of my closest friends. They put their heart and soul into making rock & roll possible day in and out, and truly helped facilitate the magic.

Matthew Rain
Lead singer, Twin Tigers

Favorite memories of The Georgia Theatre:

When I was 17 I got to see a surprise R.E.M. show. Amazing!

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 a huge hit to the music scene. A lot of top names will have to compete for the 40 Watt stage. Hopefully it can recover over the next year but it will never be the same.

Continue reading for more on the Georgia Theatre…

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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