One by one, they shut their doors. Years would drift by and the only things remaining of those theaters were the buildings, which had been converted long ago into something else, and childhood memories of those who attended shows.
“A lot of people’s memories are of the Gate City Theater,” said Allan “Cotton” Roberts, a business owner and member of the Town Council. “Going down and watching movies when they were kids, things of that nature.”
The Gate City Theater was one of the first to open, according to Roberts, and was located on Main Street. The building still stands, a beige structure with no door on the front and no back wall, and is located between the Scott County Virginia Star building and the Scott County Public Library.
Now, one organization hopes to restore the theater to its previous prominence and make it the centerpiece of downtown revitalization.
Gate City Frontier, a nonprofit group founded a year ago, is taking on the task of restoring the old theater.
“Not only is it a great project, but in a lot of cities, the theater has kind of been the rallying point for an effort to redo downtown," said Craig Gardener, executive director of Gate City Frontier. “In a lot of ways, the theater is a way to take (downtown Gate City) to a whole new level.”
The city purchased the building which housed the old theater a number of years ago. Roberts said there had been efforts in the past to bring the theater back to life, but those fizzled out. Roberts said Gate City Frontier is determined to succeed where those other projects failed.
Not only will the theater show movies when restored, but it could also host plays and live music. Volunteers hope it becomes a hive of activity for the entire county.
A lot will need to be done before the building becomes the community hub envisioned by the nonprofit group. Restoration may take years, but work has already begun.
First, the back wall was dilapidated and about to collapse. The city had to take it down for safety purposes. The previous owner of the building had used the space for storage and had a lot of antiques in it. The roof leaked, which ruined the antiques, and a lot of rubbish was left inside the building.
When Gate City Frontier got in a position to clean out the building, the organization discovered a new obstacle: asbestos.
“Most people know back in the ’30s and ’40s, a lot of asbestos was used in the steam and it had steam heat in there,” Roberts said. “So the asbestos had created a problem where it has to be professionally cleaned out."
Recently, the Gate City Town Council approved $16,000 to get rid of the asbetos. Roberts said he expects the crew to remove it within the next 20 days. Crews have been working the last week and have cleaned out most of the junk from inside the building.
The next step is for the city to conduct a study on how much it would cost to restore the theater. Members of Gate City Frontier also plan to go to surrounding communities which have restored their old theaters, like Pennington Gap, to get information on how those municipalities did it.
It will take a lot of money to fully restore the theater.
“One of the first things we’re doing is working with the town on events, and we’re trying to help there as far as trying to get donations from people coming into events as well as selling some items,” Roberts said. “Anything we can do to try and raise money, that’s what we’re going to do.”
To help jump-start those efforts, Gate City Frontier will be hosting a 5K race on July 29 dubbed Run the Gate.
Roberts also said grants are available and Gate City Frontier will try to pursue those. He has spoken with people who are willing to donate money toward getting the theater restored. Roberts said anyone interested in donating or volunteering should contact City Hall.
Gate City Frontier is taking the process one step at a time and hopes to bring this theater back from the dead.
“We’ve been looking for an icon for something that’s going to be a stimulus to the downtown area,” Roberts said. “As well as a stimulus for community involvement to get more people involved ... it seems like we’ve not got something people can get their hands on or arms around that they want to be involved in. I’m hoping this project will do that.”