Lucas Theatre reopens its doors in time for a big birthday
Photography courtesy of SAVANNAH COLLEGE OF ART AND DESIGN
ONE HUNDRED YEARS years ago, Savannah received a spectacular Christmas gift when the Lucas Theatre for the Arts, 32 Abercorn St., opened its doors on Dec. 26, 1921.
Savannah-raised Arthur Lucas had recently purchased the city’s Odeon and Folly theaters when he began construction plans for the Lucas. He would go on to build more than 40 theaters in his career, but the Lucas Theatre is the only one to bear his name. Designed by Claude K. Howell, who used a combination of architectural styles, its exterior is Spanish Baroque Revival, while the exquisite interior contains Greek Revival, Adams and art deco influences. From 1921 until the late 1930s, the Lucas staged vaudeville acts and live theater as well as films, primarily serving as a movie theater as the years went on.
“In its heyday, there were seven gorgeous theaters within about a five-block radius of one another,” says Danny Filson, executive director in SCAD administration. “And there was hot competition between Arthur Lucas and Albert Weis for Savannah’s attention. Mr. Lucas and Mr. Weis did things constantly to upstage one another and to attract Savannahians to come and see the latest and greatest technology.”
In the days of silent films, theaters used their own pipe organs to provide a “soundtrack.” Arthur Lucas commissioned Wurlitzer to make one for the Lucas, which was removed from the theater in the late 1950s or early 1960s. “It was stored in a barn in Atlanta, exposed to the elements,” says Filson.
“Over the years, the Lucas has risen and fallen with the country in many ways,” Filson shares. “As the interest in theaters across the country declined, the fortunes of the Lucas declined. It closed [in 1976]. The Weis Theater closed. The Roxy closed. The Avon closed.”
In 1987, “preservationists Emma and Lee Adler and others saved the Lucas from the bulldozers,” says Filson, by creating a nonprofit group committed to restoring the theater. Fundraising campaigns and events went on for years, and included the wrap party for Clint Eastwood’s 1997 film version of Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil and an auction of props from the movie set. Eventually, the nonprofit had amassed enough funding for restoration to begin.
The restored theater reopened in 2000 with a showing of Gone with the Wind. “But then what do you do?” Filson asks. “How do you maintain a movie palace and put it to good use?” It was in danger of closing again, but in 2001, SCAD president and founder Paula Wallace accepted the charge of stewardship of the Lucas Theatre.
“Paula’s vision included the continued preservation of the Lucas as a cultural and community icon while moving it into the 21st century,” Filson explains. “For SCAD, the opportunity to have two of the most beautiful theaters in the country is an awesome tribute to Savannah’s love and support for theater,” he says, referring to the Lucas and the Trustees Theater (formerly the Weis Theater, also managed by SCAD).
Of course, like most of the world, the Lucas Theatre closed when COVID arrived. The 2021 SCAD Savannah Film Festival, which took place at the end of October, was the theater’s first public event since the start of the pandemic.
Another blessed return is happening as well. “A couple of years ago, SCAD became aware of the last opportunity to bring the Wurlitzer organ back to the Lucas,” Filson says. “We began a multi-year restoration process to bring the original Wurlitzer organ back to its original house.”
The centennial anniversary of the Lucas takes place in January and will include the unveiling of the fully restored, original Wurlitzer theater pipe organ. Programming will include a showcase of the organ as well as live musical performances and film screenings by SCAD.
“Much like the Lucas itself, we will be moving the original Wurlitzer pipe organ into the 21st century. There will be silent films accompanied by the organ, but also programming that presents the organ in new media, whether that’s dance, live performance, film orchestration, midnight concerts, or specialized concerts featuring musicians and artists from around the country,” Filson says, “and from right here in Savannah.”