Lights... Camera... Ashland Theatre!
Hanover Lifestyle, cover story . January / February 2019
If you are planning to spend a Saturday night in the town of Ashland, you may have dinner reservations with friends at the well-known Iron Horse Restaurant. Or you may be on a date night, taking in live music at the newly renovated Ashland Coffee and Tea, with plans for brews at Center of the Universe Brewing Company afterwards. But decades ago, the place to be was the Ashland Theatre. In fact, on weekend nights, the line for the 70-year-old theater wrapped around the corner by the old post office. These are memories fondly held by many long-term residents of Ashland, and after nearly two years of renovations, the doors of the Ashland Theatre are open once more.
“I moved to Ashland in 1963,” Melissa Hoar tells me. “Going to the Ashland Theatre was always a big deal, and a big treat. Fifty cents paid for your ticket, a drink and popcorn, or Sugar Babies.” She is one of many Ashland natives who shared stories with me when I reached out on social media searching for those with memories of the theater. Alan Saunders remembers, too. “My dad set our weekly allowance based on what the theater charged for a Saturday matinee, plus popcorn and a soda.” He doesn’t remember his allowance ever being more than thirty-five cents! Those days have long passed, but behind the scenes, a group of diligent believers in the theater has been tirelessly working to bring them back to life.
Reopening these doors has been no small feat for President and CEO of the Ashland Theatre Foundation, Douglas Love, and his team. In addition to receiving a $500,000 grant from the Virginia Department of Housing and Community Development that was matched by the town of Ashland, the Full Steam Ahead campaign brought together caring sponsors, foundations, and donors to raise over $1 million in additional support. Fundraising efforts continue with the opportunity to make tax-deductible donations, or to purchase brass nameplates for the theater’s almost 300 new, plush seats (ashlandtheatre.org/sponsor-a-seat/). The theatre plans to be open five days a week (Wednesday through Sunday), and hopes to bring new economic development to the town – a projected potential of upwards of a million dollars yearly.
Their goal is “to reinvent the classic American movie house experience through exceptional film, live performances and live music.” The theater plans to do this in a number of ways, including “Ausome Afternoons” – creating a space for families with children on the autism spectrum to take in a movie with brighter lights, lower sound, getaway stations, and specially trained volunteers on hand. The new theater is also fully ADA-accessible with wheelchair ramps, handicapped-accessible bathrooms, as well as assisted-listening and closed-captioning devices.
The new theater will feature three VIP boxes with a total of fifteen box seats, high-top tables in back, two dressing rooms, on-site offices, two concession stands serving adult beverages (full liquor license has been obtained), snacks by Ashland’s own Homemades by Suzanne, as well as candy and popcorn. I found it amusing that when interviewing long-term Ashland residents, the popcorn really stood out in the memories of theater patrons of many years past. The memories weren’t just of how good the popcorn was, or about David Borkey, who ran the snack bar, although many shared those. Katie King remembers mischievously throwing popcorn – an action which apparently was known to prompt Mattie Stone, former theatre proprietor along with her husband Earl, to stop the movie and turn on the lights until order was restored! Patti Beasley also remembers the popcorn being thrown – but for her, it was thrown at her by her now-husband Ronnie, who was too shy to talk to her back in those days!
Mary Mallory-Turner, whose great-uncle Earl and great-aunt Mattie Stone ran the theater, also remembers hearing stories of her dad’s high school job – taking the reels from Ashland Theatre to the old Cab Theatre by bicycle. But the olden days of reel-to-reel are over – they have been replaced by a top-of-the-line 7.1 Sony surround sound system and Sony 4K digital projection system. And the sounds of blockbuster films won’t be the only ones coming from the Theatre stage – they have partnered with The Broadberry Entertainment for exclusively booking live music talent.
Although the theater began with a December soft opening featuring the Disney musical “Mary Poppins Returns”, it plans a grand opening in March, with the exact date to be determined.
Whether you remember the old days of taking in a movie and hitting High’s Ice Cream afterwards, or this will be your first experience at the Ashland Theatre with a visit afterward to Sweet Frog across the street, take the time to celebrate the Town of Ashland’s jewel, the Ashland Theatre, and create a little piece of history for yourself.
Kari Smith is a professional musician and writer whose winding path has led her through Nashville for a decade, and now back to her native Richmond, Virginia. Follow Kari’s writing adventures at KariSmithWrites.com, or facebook.com/KariSmithWrites.