For years, those involved in downtown Wytheville’s rebirth have had their eye on one particular prize: a grand old lady smack-dab in the middle of town with arms wide open, just waiting to give visitors and businesses a great big hug. It’s an iconic, Main Street building where people of all ages can learn and play – a welcoming beacon with movies and classes and performances of all kinds.
The Millwald Theatre could be the jewel in the town’s revitalization crown.
On Friday, a group dedicated to restoring the theatre took action.
Millwald Theatre Inc., a nonprofit organization created specifically to purchase, renovate and operate the property, bought the former movie theater from Wythe Realty Corporation. The group paid $600,000 and will spend millions to renovate it and turn it into a multi-purpose entertainment and education venue.
For more than 92 years, the Millwald Theatre has been the centerpiece for the Downtown Historic District. Many believe it is the most important historic property remaining in the downtown district required to ensure economic revitalization continues.
Wytheville Mayor Beth Taylor said the acquisition brought the downtown revitalization project up several notches.
“Now, having this as an anchor, there are going to be more eateries and retail willing to make that commitment and come downtown,” she said. “Talk about a boost in our economy! This is so exciting in so many ways!”
Todd Wolford, executive director of Downtown Wytheville Inc., agreed.
“What one must understand is that by restoring and bringing the theater back to life, it will enrich the lives of many in our community, young and old. This is not just a theater, this project will generate opportunity for music education, theater education, art education and much more, while providing a venue for live entertainment, movies, special screenings, satellite conference space and shared use space for many events and activities that we haven’t even thought of yet. It’s exciting and a long time coming. We can’t do everything we have done downtown and leave the Millwald to sit as it is, that would be counterproductive to our mission and vision for our community.”
Efforts to acquire the theater gained momentum in May 2017 when the Wytheville Town Council allotted $600,000 for the purchase. The council agreed to give the money to the Wytheville Industrial Development Authority, which in turn provided funding to Millwald Theatre Inc.
Although it provided the seed money, Town Council will not be involved in running the theater. That tasks will be handled by Millwald Theatre Inc.
Wolford said it is important to leaders that the Lester family, whose company sold the building to MTI, be recognized inside the renovated theater.
“The Lester family has owned the theater since 1929, so naturally, we knew it would be hard for them to part with it, so building a relationship with the family through this process was very important to me and respecting them while trying to acquire the property at the same time,” Wolford said. “We hope that we can honor the family in some fashion in the lobby area with some of the historic relics that they have collected over the years; I think it is important to preserve and celebrate that.”
The Millwald Theatre opened Aug. 28, 1928, with a screening of the silent film “Beau Broadway,” starring Lew Cody and Aileen Pringle. It wasn’t long, though, till the theater showed its first “talkie,” Al Jolson’s 1927 musical “The Jazz Singer.”
In 1986, the theater operated as a single-screen movie house with a few live shows sprinkled into the schedule. That year, Richard and Jan Herring, who were leasing the property, decided to divide the balcony into two additional movie screens.
In August 2005, the Millwald showed its last two films: “Four Brothers” and “Deuce Bigalow: European Gigolo.”
Restoration plans include re-establishing the original single 500-seat auditorium with a full stage, adding state-of-the-art sound and projection equipment and developing a green room, classrooms and support facilities on the lower level. It will also serve as the community’s auditorium.
“This is a community project that has been talked about for years. Wytheville Town Council’s vision of a revitalized downtown and a grant from the Wytheville IDA made it possible to acquire this historic property,” said Mark Bloomfield, MTI board chairman. “Now, it’s our job to put all of the puzzle pieces together and complete the project.”
Bloomfield said construction is expected to begin in the spring of 2020 after current tenants in the building have relocated. Most recently, the theater housed a church, a barbershop and a video game store.
“The total project is expected to cost nearly $4.5 million dollars and take approximately two and half years to complete,” Bloomfield said. “Although, public and private grants will pay a major role in covering the renovations, a local fundraising effort will be required to cover about 25 percent of the costs.”
A quarter of the cost is about $1.1 million.
Bloomfield said that studies commissioned by the group indicate that a renovated Millwald Theatre will be able operate on a nearly daily schedule and will attract more than 40,000 visitors annually. Not only will the added guests contribute to the success of the downtown merchants, but they will lodge and shop throughout the town, creating a positive impact for all, he said.
Members of Millwald Theatre Inc. are: Mark Bloomfield, chairman; Rusty Jones, vice chairman; Rebecca James, secretary; Bruce Stevens, treasurer; and board members Jennifer Walters, C.M. Walters, Teresa Hagee, Terry Beamer, David Manley and Glenda Crockett-Eans.
To reach Millie Rothrock, call 228-6611, ext. 35, or email firstname.lastname@example.org