by Jana Riley
As a mid-size city with seemingly unlimited ways to spend an evening, Augusta is always full of surprises when it comes to options for an unforgettable experience, and some--like the Imperial Theatre downtown--hide in plain sight. Among the many popular dining and entertainment options along bustling Broad Street, the Imperial Theatre often sits quietly, waiting for its turn in the spotlight. With some of the most incredible performances in Augusta's River Region, the venue doesn't stay quiet long, charming guests from the moment the curtain lifts to the final bow.
Before the Imperial became the premier location to host stage shows in Augusta, it was first a vaudeville showcase called The Wells Theatre, created by performance manager Jake Wells. The building was designed by architect G. Lloyd Preacher in the Victorian Renaissance style, and the place officially opened to the public on February 18, 1918. The Wells Theatre enjoyed a few month’s success, but an outbreak of the Spanish Flu--and a city-wide quarantine of all public venues--caused the success to come to a screeching halt. Jake Wells, under a great deal of financial difficulty, was forced to sell to Lynch Enterprises.
The space opened once again a short time later, eventually being renamed after the Imperial Theatre in New York City. Vaudeville acts continued at the venue for a little over a decade, hosting Charlie Chaplin, Anna Pavlova, and other celebrities.
Eventually, in 1929, the Imperial was renovated into a full-time movie house, with an Art Deco remodel to usher in the change. Afterward, the theatre’s success boomed, thanks in large part to the soaring popularity of silent movies, “talkies,” and full color films. Visitors from all over gathered in the 853-seat theatre, taking in films featuring their favorite stars from all over the world. After attendance spiked during the middle of the century, would-be movie-goers flocked to the suburbs, and before long, the downtown theatre was a desolate place.
In 1981, management was forced to shutter the Imperial Theatre due to the dwindling ticket sales. It remained empty, threatened with the prospect of being razed to make a parking lot for nearby businesses, until local performing arts groups stepped in to save it from its fate. The Augusta Players, Augusta Ballet, and other organizations helped transform the space into a performing arts venue, reopening the theatre in 1985.
Today, the Imperial Theatre welcomes a variety of performances to its stage. From dance performances to full-on musicals, concert shows to stand-up comedy, festival events and film series, there is always something exciting happening at the Imperial. The theatre is considered the home of Dance Augusta, the Augusta Ballet, and the Augusta Players, and is the annual location of the Morris Museum of Art’s Southern Soul and Song Series, Westobou Festival events, and the Poison Peach Film Festival. This fall and winter, the Imperial Theatre will host a number of exciting performances, including stage productions of Cinderella, The Nutcracker, and Swan Lake, among others.
Though the Imperial Theatre is not the largest performance space in Augusta, nor is it the most modern, there is something incredibly charming about the quaint space, and it deserves just as much attention as any other venue in town. Its relatively small interior lends itself well to a great time from an audience member’s perspective, ensuring that there is no bad seat in the house. Swanky luxuries of years past are delightful, and a visit to watch a show at the theatre feels like both an exciting evening out and an opportunity to imagine stepping back in time. Stately and full of class, the Imperial is a jewel of Broad Street, and the perfect place to spend any evening.