Historic Theatres and the 21st Century Community

Pabst Theatre

Milwaukee’s Pabst Theatre

(NOTE:  Two weeks ago, I presented the keynote address to the 40th annual meeting of the League of Historic American Theatres.  The following is an excerpt from my remarks – given from a personal perspective – about why these places mean so much to me and other Americans.)

It is an honor to be here with so many individuals who work day-in and day-out to ensure that America’s historic theatres have a bright future.

I think of your work – in part – as a form of storytelling, and I am so grateful for the work you do to tell the story of your special places.  Our efforts to identify and mark who we are is not only important to our history and our understanding of that history, but also to our understanding of the issues we face on a daily basis.

The places we choose to preserve around the country tell us a great deal about who we are as a people.  Historic theatres are often beloved landmarks in our communities – places that matter – and we honor people when we save and reuse the places they love.

“This Place Matters” is a program we’ve used at the National Trust for the last decade to allow everyone to identify the places in their communities that are important to them.  To many individuals in countless communities, the theatres you love and care for clearly matter.

Historic theatres not only serve as a place to tell stories to the public – through movies, plays, and music – but they also tell us what we value as a people and the stories we want to share together.  These places speak of the type of vibrant economy and sustainable jobs – the type of future – we want for our citizens.

In a recent study by the Knight Foundation, their Soul of the Community project found that

1) social offerings,

2) how welcoming a place is to others,

3) and physical beauty

perform key roles role in attracting people to a place.  In fact those things don’t just attract people to a community; they help them form an attachment to that place.

It turns out that attachment to place is an important indicator of how economically successful a community will be.

Just as actively engaged employees are more productive and committed to the success of their businesses and organizations, highly attached residents are more likely to actively contribute to a community’s growth.  Your work in saving, reusing, and re-energizing America’s historic theatres – places that attach people and place – is key to the future of your communities.

It is no longer enough just to save a place we value.  We also have to sustain them and re-weave them into the tapestry of our 21st century communities.  I believe we do that best when we use places such as our historic theatres to tell a broader and richer story, that reflects the lives and stories of all Americans.

Like many of you here, I have my own personal story about a historic theatre.

Bearden-Brown House

Bearden-Brown House in Franklin, TN

My story takes place in Franklin, Tennessee, a small town about 20 miles outside of Nashville.  Both my parents were raised in Franklin, and I went there often as a child to visit my grandmother.

My grandmother had a wonderful way with words, and I’ll never forget the times she told me to “Make yourself useful as well as ornamental!”  Come to think of it, “Make yourself useful as well as ornamental” could easily be the goal for our historic theatres!  My grandmother believed that idle hands were the devil’s workshop, and so my father went to work as a young teenager – at the Franklin Theatre.

Franklin Theatre

Franklin Theatre (Historical Photo courtesy of Heritage Foundation of Franklin & Williamson County)

For decades, I heard stories of my father’s job – taking tickets, making popcorn, and serving as the back-up projectionist.  The theatre’s marquee was first illuminated on Franklin’s Main Street in the summer of 1937, inviting the public in to laugh, cry, and dream.  Money was scarce, so my father appreciated the opportunity to see the current movies without having to pay for a ticket.  Like many of his friends, he walked away from the theatre with a lifetime of memories.

The Franklin Theatre was one of the landmarks of this small Tennessee community.  But over the years, it suffered the same fate of many theatres struggling to survive in the world of the Cineplex.  Bad remodelings and time eventually took their toll on the movie house, and the doors closed in 2007 under the pressures of rising rents and the trend toward mega-theaters.

Franklin Theatre 1970s

Franklin Theatre in the 1970s (courtesy of the Heritage Society of Franklin & Williamson County)

That’s when the Heritage Foundation of Franklin and Williamson County stepped in. Rather than lose the heart of Main Street, the nonprofit preservation group bought and rehabilitated the historic landmark. After three years of work – and an investment of more than $8 million – the historic Franklin Theatre re-emerged better than ever.

In his 80s, my father liked to connect with Mary Pearce and Rick Warwick at the Heritage Foundation. He attended the relighting of the marquee in 2010.  Knowing of his love for this special place, my wife and I bought a seat in his honor as part of the restoration campaign.  On a trip to Franklin just a couple of years ago, we toured the restored interior and showed him his name among the patrons of the restoration.

Tom Brown at the Franklin Theatre

Tom Brown at the Lighting of the Marque at the Franklin Theatre

The new Franklin Theatre continues the cherished tradition of showing movies, but also adds a new dimension to Main Street – live music. With a state-of-the-art sound and lighting system, and undeniable charm, the Franklin Theatre is destined to be an entertainment and cultural icon for years to come.

Restored Franklin Theatre

Grand Opening of the Restored Franklin Theatre (photo courtesy of the Heritage Society of Franklin & Williamson County)

My father passed away just two months ago at age 90.  Hard-of-hearing, he was never able to take in a new movie or show at the Franklin Theatre.  But he was so proud that the place he loved as a child – and the place where he and my mom went on dates after the war – had a new life and proud future.

And I have taken up his passion.  Just two weeks ago, my wife, son, and I saw a total of five different movies over three days at the AFI Docs Festival at the historic Silver Theatre in downtown Silver Spring, Maryland. It is a theatre as much the life blood of our town as the Franklin Theatre is to my parents’ community.

Why is all of this important?  Because identity is important.

Old places embody our identity – both our personal identity as well as our civic identity.  Historic places like the Franklin Theatre or the Silver Theatre also create a sense of continuity and variety that helps people feel more balanced, stable, and healthy.  And they help us remember.

By saving and reusing these wonderful community landmarks, we can do our part to ensure that all of our citizens can see themselves and remember their stories in the work we do….

Let’s take a few minutes and consider why these places that we love so much point the way forward for your communities. And let’s do that by thinking anew about historic preservation.  Today’s work in saving the things people value in their communities is not your father’s (or mother’s) preservation.  We no longer have an exclusive focus on museum-like restorations.  Instead, we speak to the need to reuse and recycle what we have.  We speak to the need to use preservation to build sustainable communities.  When you look up the definition of sustainable, it is about creating enduring value.

Preservation today is more about the future than it is the past.

Economic vitality which comes from preservation is directly linked to progress.  Contrary to popular perception, change is constant and important to our work as preservationists.  Buildings, landscapes, and neighborhoods all change. So do historic theatres.  Progress is key to our work, because “Successful preservation makes time a continuum.”…

When thinking of preservation, many see a narrow set of interests focused on architecture.  But as Herbert Muschamp, former architecture critic for the New York Times, has said,

A building does not have to be an important work of architecture to become a first-rate landmark. Landmarks are not created by architects. They are fashioned by those who encounter them after they are built. The essential feature of a landmark is not its design, but the place it holds in a city’s memory.

Americans care about the loss of places they love – the places that provide them with emotional resonance and a sense of continuity. In your community and in the work you do, we can choose to focus preservation on people…their memories…and their future.

More to come…

DJB

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