Lucas Theater reopens its doors just in time for the big birthday
Photography courtesy of SAVANNAH COLLEGE FOR ART AND DESIGN
100 YEARS Years ago Savannah received a spectacular Christmas present when the Lucas Theater for the Arts, 32 Abercorn St., opened its doors on December 26, 1921.
Arthur Lucas, who grew up in Savannah, had recently bought the town’s Odeon and Folly theaters when he began designing the Lucas. He has built more than 40 theaters in his career, but the Lucas Theater is the only one that bears his name. Designed by Claude K. Howell using a combination of architectural styles, its exterior is Spanish Baroque Revival while the exquisite interior incorporates Greek Revival, Adams, and Art Deco influences. From 1921 through the late 1930s, the Lucas staged variety acts and live theater, as well as films that served primarily as a cinema over the years.
“In its prime, there were seven beautiful theaters within about five blocks of each other,” said Danny Filson, executive director of SCAD’s administration. “And there was a fierce competition between Arthur Lucas and Albert Weis for Savannah’s attention. Mr. Lucas and Mr. Weis were always doing things to put each other in the spotlight and get the Savannahians to see the latest and greatest technology. “
In the days of silent films, theaters used their own pipe organs to provide a “soundtrack”. Arthur Lucas hired Wurlitzer to make one for the Lucas, which was removed from the theater in the late 1950s or early 1960s. “It was stored in an Atlanta barn and exposed to the elements,” says Filson.
“Over the years the Lucas has risen and fallen with the country in many ways,” says Filson. “As interest in theaters across the country waned, the Lucas fortunes declined. It’s closed [in 1976]. The Weis Theater is closed. The Roxy closed. The Avon is closed. “
In 1987, “conservationists Emma and Lee Adler and others saved the Lucas from the bulldozers,” says Filson, by starting a nonprofit group to help restore the theater. Fundraising campaigns and events lasted for years and included the closing party for Clint Eastwood’s 1997 film version of Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil and an auction of props from the set. Eventually, the nonprofit had raised enough money to begin the restoration.
The restored theater reopened in 2000 with a performance of Gone With the Wind. “But what do you do then?” asks Filson. “How do you maintain a film palace and use it sensibly?” It threatened to close again, but in 2001 SCAD President and founder Paula Wallace took over responsibility for the Lucas Theater.
“Paula’s vision was to continue to preserve Lucas as a cultural and social symbol as it moved into the 21st century,” explains Filson. “For SCAD, the opportunity to have two of the most beautiful theaters in the country is a great tribute to Savannah’s love and support for the theater,” he says, referring to the Lucas and the Trustees Theater (formerly the Weis Theater, also managed by SCAD).
Of course, like most in the world, the Lucas Theater closed when COVID hit. The SCAD Savannah Film Festival 2021, held in late October, was the theater’s first public event since the pandemic began.
Another blessed return is also taking place. “A few years ago, SCAD became aware of the last chance to bring the Wurlitzer organ back into the Lucas,” says Filson. “We have started a restoration process lasting several years to bring the original Wurlitzer organ back into its original house.”
The 100th anniversary of Lucas takes place in January and includes the unveiling of the fully restored, original Wurlitzer theater pipe organ. The program includes a demonstration of the organ as well as live music and film screenings by SCAD.
“Similar to the Lucas itself, we will move the original Wurlitzer pipe organ into the 21st century. There will be silent films with organ accompaniment, but also programs that present the organ in new media, be it dance, live performance, film orchestration, midnight concerts or special concerts with musicians and artists from all over the country, “says Filson,” and from here in Savannah. “