After Three Decades, Miller Theater Comes Back to Life
By Gary Kauffman
Opulence is returning to downtown Augusta, bringing back memories of a different era.
Seventy-eight years after it opened and 34 years after it closed, the Miller Theater, 710 Broad St., is once again coming to life with a grand opening gala on Jan. 6. It is the culmination of a dream nearly a decade in the making.
The Miller Theater will be the home of the Symphony Orchestra of Augusta, but will host a wide variety of programs – country and rock music, comedy acts, plays and musicals and even kids’ shows.
In February 1940, Frank Miller opened his eponymous Miller Theater, one of five theaters he owned in Augusta. It was his grandest, and was considered a crown jewel among movie theaters in the South.
It was the first building in the Art Moderne style in Augusta and featured rich woods, marble, terrazzo, mirrors, glass block – and lots of curves. There are virtually no right angles in the building.
“Everything was playing to the idea of luxury,” said Marty Elliott, the new general manager of the theater. “It was intended that when you came into the theater it was like going into a cruise ship.”
After the theater closed in 1984, it fell into disrepair, including water damage from a leaky roof. Augusta businessman Peter Knox IV bought the Miller Theater in 2005 and had the roof repaired to stop further damage. In 2008 he offered it to the Symphony Orchestra of Augusta as a future home. After deliberating the offer, the SOA accepted in 2011 and began a fundraising project to restore it.
Fortunately, many of the original fixtures were salvageable and have been refurbished to their original condition. That includes almost all of the seats – they have new upholstery, but the wood and metal are all original.
“Every effort was made to use the original materials,” Elliott said.
Part of the original decor that will play a prominent role is the large murals of women on each side of the stage. Despite the years of the building falling into disrepair, the murals were undamaged by either vandals or the elements.
“I feel like these grand dames protected this theater, knowing one day it would again be used,” Elliott said.
The renovation has included attention to the tiniest details that made the Miller Theater exude luxury.
“We’re trying to reanimate everything, from the carpet design to the seats,” Elliott said. “Every little detail matters. The little things all together end up creating a phenomenal experience.”
There have been a few changes, though. The building was upgraded acoustically to provide the best sound possible for the SOA and the stage area was increased by nine feet. It will also integrate modern amenities without losing the historic feel.
A key to the renewed use of the theater, though, was acquiring the building next door. The bathrooms in the original theater were not adequate by modern standards, so the bathrooms will be located in the building next door, along with dressing rooms.
Elliott said the 1,300-seat theater creates an intimate theater experience.
“It’s almost like everybody is a VIP,” she said. “Every single person who walks through this door will get the full-on experience.”
The Miller Theater also has a number of smaller rooms to allow for parties and other gatherings on nights of shows. One room will be dedicated to memorabilia of Frank Miller and the Miller Theater.
Although the SOA is the master tenant of the Miller Theater, Elliott said they will need the space only 12 or fewer times a year. That leaves it open to schedule other events. Elliott hopes to book 70-100 dates per year.
She said the 1,300 capacity fits in nicely in size between the Imperial Theatre and the Bell Auditorium. Along with the James Brown Arena, City Spin Arena and the GreenJackets new stadium, promoters have a large variety in venue size within a few miles. Elliott thinks that will benefit the entire entertainment scene in Augusta.
“Collectively, we represent Augusta to the entire market,” Elliott said. “It’s imperative that we’re all successful. I don’t fear abundance. I fear the couch – people not getting out and doing anything.”