Story by Jana Riley • Photos by Brent Cline & Dottie Rizzo
For the past few decades, the historic Miller Theater on Augusta’s Broad Street occupied an unassuming space in the lives of locals; a slowly dying reminder of years gone by, the building had fallen into disrepair, and the possibility of it being saved looked bleak. For a time, the Miller Theater remained vibrant only in the memories of those who spent time there--and
oh, what wonderful times they were. Now, the Miller returns, resplendent and ready for action.
In 1938, nationally recognized and locally impactful entertainment promoter and businessman, Frank J. Miller, commissioned architect Roy A. Benjamin to design a showstopper of a theater. Benjamin returned with sketches depicting a dreamy Art Moderne establishment, with curving forms, long, horizontal lines, and columns of stacked glass blocks atop an inviting marquee. After two years of construction, the Miller opened in 1940 as the second-largest theater in all of Georgia, second only to Atlanta’s Fox Theatre. With seating for over 1600 people, the venue immediately became one of the most popular destinations for a night (or day) out on the town as locals and visitors alike took in first-rate, first-run movies on the building’s singular screen. For over four decades, the Miller Theater served as a constant in the Augusta landscape as the world changed around it. It offered distraction between training exercises at the newly constructed Camp Gordon after the attacks on Pearl Harbor. It was a place of comfort for new recruits, away from home for the first time, attending basic training at Fort Gordon, especially during World War II and the Vietnam War. It stood stoically as the battle for equal civil rights was fought all around it and remained standing after the Augusta Riot of 1970 resulted in twenty downtown buildings being destroyed by fire.
The Miller Theater was a place where people of all political leanings could gather, through the inaugurations and terms of nine different presidents, and where both the wealthy and working class communed in common pursuit of entertainment. From the glamorous films of Hollywood’s heyday featuring the likes of Marilyn Monroe, Fred Astaire, and Ginger Rogers, to the gritty movies of the 70’s and 80’s like The Godfather and Friday the 13th, the Miller showcased an impressive array of films over the course of its 42 years as Augusta’s premier downtown theater. But, as people and businesses moved toward the suburbs and downtown became less popular, the Miller Theater began to lose its lustre and appeal, and the once-dazzling venue was forced to shutter in 1984.
As the Miller sat, empty and lifeless, the world continued to change around it. Slowly, people began to invest in downtown again, and businesses began dotting the urban landscape. In 2005, sensing an opportunity to save an important part of Augusta’s culture from possible demolition, local philanthropist Peter Knox IV bought the theater. He replaced the old, leaky roof, removed the waterlogged carpets and damaged fixtures, and updated the ventilation system before giving careful thought and attention to the most important matter at hand: who would be the best steward of the theater? Who would ensure the revival of the Miller to what it once was, and how could the community best use the space? After much consideration, he decided to offer it to the Augusta Symphony in 2008. At the time, the Symphony had no permanent home, and their performance space was not the ideal location for optimal acoustics. With due diligence, and under the direction of Executive Director Anne Catherine Murray, the Symphony conducted a number of studies regarding the viability and feasibility of renovating and moving into the Miller. Once they came to a conclusion, they responded to Mr. Knox’s offer, accepting the donation with immense gratitude. The paperwork was drawn up, the building changed hands, and the Symphony got to work. It would be a long road, they knew, but it would be worth it.
The first order of business for the Augusta Symphony was to raise money and with the building being in such rough shape, they knew they’d need a lot of it - around $23 million. A capital campaign was launched, and over the better part of a decade, they raised money, accepting donations, grants, and tax credits from community members, foundations, and more. After 8 years, the team finally raised enough money to begin the next phase of the project, and their efforts switched from fundraising to tackling the enormous project at hand. The most pressing matter when it came to converting the old theater into a symphony performance venue was space, particularly for the musicians on stage. After a little demolition, the removal of some seats, and a buildout into a back alley, the very spot where movies were projected over 75 years ago was transformed into a place where up to a hundred musicians can now play. With the stage set for the performers, the team turned to the issue of acoustics, an element of the space that they wanted to have absolutely perfect for their audiences. They brought in a crew from the big leagues of acoustic design, Kirkegaard Acoustics, to update the space for optimal sound. The Kirkegaard team meticulously pored over the details of the theater, committed to ensuring that every aspect of the new design was thoughtful when it came to presenting the very best possible sound. From consulting on the quietest, most optimal HVAC system to assessing the breathability and sound-dampening qualities of the chair fabrics, no element was overlooked. The result: a state-of-the-art facility where the music sounds exactly as it should, without distraction or dead space, no matter where an individual is seated.
As construction progressed, the Augusta Symphony orchestrated an essential part of their plan: bringing in a team to manage the venue and book performances for the vast amount of days and nights that the Symphony is not scheduled to perform at the Miller Theater. With six symphony concerts a year, four Pops! concerts, and education, outreach, and rehearsals, the Augusta Symphony is a busy group, so they contracted with SMG Venue Management and hired an experienced General Manager, Marty Elliott, to lead the operations.
With these decisions, the Augusta Symphony opened the doors of the Miller to the world, inviting performers of any sort to come to Augusta and share their talents for locals and visitors alike. Elliot quickly set to work, booking an impressively diverse array of performers, ensuring that everyone can find something they like at the Miller Theater. From gospel to spoken word, heavy metal to acoustic guitar sessions, comedy performances to kid’s character shows, the venue will feature shows of all kinds, similar in spirit to its days as a movie house, showing everything from romance and comedy to horror and documentaries. Elliot and her team also helped advise the direction of construction regarding other types of performances, emphasizing the need for dressing rooms of all sizes, separate entrances for high-profile performers, a unique space for supplementary events prior to and after shows, bathrooms to accommodate large crowds, and wi-fi connectivity to enable visitors to engage with different acts and share their experiences on social media. With the acquisition of a department store next door, the venue was able to nearly double its size, and dressing rooms, bathrooms, educational spaces, and more were added to the Miller Theater, making it enticing for even the most well-traveled touring performers.
In every aspect of the renovation, the team sought to repair rather than replace at every opportunity. Lights, seats, hardware, and other design elements were removed, shipped out to experts, and restored to their original condition before being reinstalled. The carpet pattern, a dreamy Art Moderne design, was replicated in the cushy new carpeting. The original travertine marble, ordered from Italy three times, sunk by enemy ships in wartime twice, and finally making it to Augusta in 1939, was polished and restored. Even the famous nude dancing ladies, two huge art pieces flanking either side of the stage, were restored, a consideration many Miller Theater veterans appreciate as the artwork holds a strong place in the memories of many a childhood. Seating was reduced only by 300 seats--from 1600 to 1300, while gathering places were increased around the venue, including a swanky lounge for artist meet-and-greet sessions and similar events.
As the curtains part on the Revival of the Miller Theater, the spirit of entertainment once again awakens within the venue. Once again, the Miller Theater is dazzling, ready to give the crowds what they want. Once again, excited patrons will walk through the doors, feeling their heels click against the original travertine marble floors as they progress up the ramp toward the show. Once again, visitors will ascend the stairs as they wonder aloud about the performance they are about to experience, exchanging viewpoints with friends new and old. Once again, women will gather in front of the original mirrors, chatting with friends while gazing at their reflections. Once again, throngs of people will congregate outside of 708 Broad Street, joined together by the pursuit of culture. Once again, the conversations and laughter coming from the vicinity of the Miller Theater will be picked up by a Southern wind, enlivening the city with its vibrancy. Once again, the citizens of Augusta have shown that they are a beautiful community, capable of truly great things when they band together toward a common goal. Once again, the Miller Theater will thrive.