Interview: Georgia Theatre’s Wilmot Greene

Sometimes things happen that make you pause, look back on your past and remember your family & friends and the places that made you who you are today.

I experienced one of those moments last summer when I received a text message from my cousin saying, “I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but the GA Theatre just burned to the ground.” I had to stop and make sure I read it correctly. Throughout the day as I scoured the web to learn details of this musical tragedy, similar messages continued to pour in from old friends.

The GA Theatre was the place I regularly went to see live music as a young impressionable college student at the University of Georgia in Athens. Down on the left side in front of the speaker stack, just under the AC vent, was my spot where I unrepentantly drank 32oz. beers from the mythical dirty taps that supposedly gave bad hangovers and bobbed my head to up & coming local & national touring acts.

The GA Theatre was the place that  forged me into the live music maniac I am today, and the thought that future generations of music lovers will not be able to share similar experiences is deeply troubling to me.

One year after the blazing bad news, I had the honor of asking Wilmot Greene, the owner of the GA Theatre, a few questions in regard to the current status of ‘the Theatre’ and the efforts to revive this historic venue.

HeadCount: For those that are unfamiliar, what is the GA Theatre?

The Georgia Theatre is  a music venue in Athens, GA.  It occupies a building on the corner of Clayton and Lumpkin Streets in the downtown historic district.  The building was originally built in 1889 as the first YMCA in the South.  It was converted to an art deco movie theatre in the 1930’s. It was the first air conditioned building in Athens.

In 1978, ‘the Theatre’ was converted into a music venue and has some incredible early shows including; The Police on their first american tour, BB King, Sea Level, Tom Waites, the B52s, etc.  Unfortunately, the music venue was ahead of its time and closed down after a few years and returned to a movie theatre called the Carafe and Draft for many years.

In 1989 it was once again opened as a music venue, and this time the timing was perfect.  It became a mainstay of national and regional touring acts like Dave Matthews Band, Phish, Widespread Panic, and the like, as the early ’90s jamband scene gained ground.  It also provided a proving ground for local bands in the local Athens music scene which was gaining national notoriety. The art deco look, incredible acoustics, and friendly staff made for an amazing concert experience for the audience and the bands.

In 2004, the venue was showing signs of wear and tear, and I, Wilmot Greene, purchased the building and began extensive renovations. Audiences and bands noticed the improvements and the venue was re-established as a ‘must’ on many bands tour schedules…  In june of 2009 as renovations were nearing completion the Georgia Theatre suffered a devastating fire.  The entire building was gutted,,, only the exterior walls remained.

Why should people want to rebuild it?

The Georgia Theatre is one of those venues that are becoming increasingly rare.  A thousand capacity, standing only venue with the historic look and feel that can only come with a 120 year history.  It’s a place in the Athens music scene can not be overstated and the importance and relevance of the Athens music scene in entire scope of modern music can also not be overstated.

To ensure the venue is restored in a manner that respects it’s past and ensures it’s future will be expensive.  Luckily, the local community and people who have great memories from all eras of the Georgia Theatre are chipping to ensure the Theatre remains a concert venue for decades to come.

This process has been going for about a year. What are some of the roadblocks you’ve run into?

The roadblocks have been numerous and extremely frustrating.  The main problem revolves around the fact that the exterior of the building remains relatively in tact and therefore must comply with strict historic renovation standards, while the interior was completely gutted and therefore must comply completely with modern building codes.  This means that the interior will now need, an elevator, enclosed stairwells, three times the number of original bathrooms, etc.  This creates design issues, cost issues, and structural issues.

The insurance proceeds would only pay to replace what was originally there, and that layout does not conform to code.  So, this cost extra time and money also. The actual rebuilding costs will be more than three times the original loan amount.

There have been a some benefit concerts to help with the process. Who are some of the artists that are helping? How?

Local bands like Dead Confederate, the Whigs, Perpetual Groove, Abbey Road Live, and The Kinchafoonee Cowboys have raised significant funds through benefit concerts.

National artist have helped also,,, most notably the Zac Brown Band held a benefit concert in Atlanta last fall that raised $70,000.

Other bands are donating materials for our online auction, CD sales, etc…  I think the bands sympathize as well as anybody because they saw how hard we worked on any given day to make the Theatre a great place to see a show.

How can we lend a hand?

If everybody who has ever enjoyed a show at the Theatre would just donate $10 (www.georgiatheatre.com), we would have all the funds we need to ensure that she will come back better than ever!

Tell your friends!