A dream dims

Published 1:06 am Sunday, December 4, 2011

The Turnage Theater marquee, illuminated for Friday evening’s concert — one of the last to be staged there before the historic building’s doors close on Dec. 17. (WDN Photo/Jonathan Clayborne)

Volunteers reflect on Turnage as historic theater closes
It started with shovels, bumper stickers and stubborn determination.
In 1996, a group of historic-preservation enthusiasts teamed up with arts advocates to form the nonprofit Turnage Theaters Foundation.
The organization’s goal was to acquire, then recreate to historically accurate standards, the crumbling Turnage, a palace-style movie house that had been closed for more than 16 years.
The ownership goal accomplished, the group’s members engaged professional construction crews to stabilize the structure — and began shoveling pigeon carcasses and other waste from the shabby theater.
Volunteers envisioned bringing back the Turnage as the cultural heart of Washington.
The first fundraiser for the foundation was a bumper-sticker campaign approved by the board of the Washington Community Theatre Association. Subsequently, tens of thousands of dollars in private contributions were committed to the initiative.
As donations began rolling in, enthusiasm surged around the renovation project.
It would take around 11 years and the investment of millions of public and private dollars, including more than $1.5 million from the state and the City of Washington, but the historic Turnage — its marquee gleaming again — reopened in November 2007.
Now, after a little more than four years and dozens of performances, the Turnage is going dark.
Citing stubborn financial difficulties, last week the foundation announced the theater would close Dec. 17.
For many people, the news was devastating, though the end — if this is the end — was a move some past and present Turnage leaders saw coming.
“It’s very sad to see it close and I hope that a way can be found to do something,” said Sally Love, who served with the foundation in the 1990s.
“It’s not just a matter of the closing of the Turnage. It’s going to leave a big hole for the community,” said Jerry Smyre, a past president of the foundation.
“We cannot afford to lose the Turnage,” said Larry Turner, founder and president of the nonprofit East Coast Jazz Revue, which stages concerts at the theater.
Already there is informal talk of reviving the theater, buying it from the banks as control slips from the fading foundation.
So far, this talk has come to nothing, and it’s unclear whether any organized entity will purchase the Turnage any time soon.
In interviews last week, members of the Washington City Council and Beaufort County Board of Commissioners indicated they would favor withholding public financial support of the theater, absent certain conditions.
Asked what would lead him to vote for supplying county funding for the theater, commissioners Chairman Jerry Langley said, “Probably a really good business plan and how they would make it profitable. But beyond that, just another hit and miss, no, I would not.”
Langley is confident his six board colleagues feel the same way.
Asked what effect he thinks the shutdown will have, Langley replied, “I don’t think there will be a major impact. I really don’t.”
“It’s certainly not the last chapter in the Turnage,” Washington Mayor Archie Jennings forecast. “It’s a tough time for all nonprofits and I know the Turnage, to a great extent, got caught up in that. … I’m confident that the Turnage will have another day and, hopefully, that day won’t be too far in the future.”
Yet, Jennings added, “The city doesn’t have in its plan a full underwriting of the Turnage, that’s for sure.”
Smyre, the foundation’s past president, began his tenure on the Turnage board in 1996 and led the nonprofit when the theater reopened in 2007.
He recalled the facility being “jam packed” during children’s performances, and said the place was sold out Friday during a concert featuring the Beaufort County Choral Society and the River City Ringers handbell choir.
He nodded to the theater’s architecture and its structural benefits to performers, perhaps referring to the aesthetic value of the rosettes embedded in the ceiling or the comedy and tragedy masks over the opera boxes, or the auditorium’s renowned acoustics.
“It’s just an absolute jewel,” Smyre said. “It is absolutely beautiful. It’s like having to get rid of a beautiful, beautiful Rolls-Royce and putting it in the junk pile.”

The Turnage Theater — a brief history
• Construction of the three-story building that would house the Turnage begins in 1910. The New Theatre is equipped with a vaudeville stage and a projector for silent movies.
• In 1912, owner C.A. “Cat” Turnage begins using the top two floors for movies and vaudeville. The downstairs portion is home to a retail establishment.
• Construction concludes in 1913.
• The Turnage Theater, a palace-style movie house, is built in 1930, on the ground floor at 150 W. Main St., below the New Theatre.
• C.A. Turnage dies in 1963. Following his death, and through 1978, Bill Butler runs the theater until it closes. Movies continue to be shown there sporadically through the early 1980s.
• In 1984, the Washington Community Theatre Association makes an unsuccessful attempt at reviving the Turnage as a performing-arts center.
• In 1996, the Turnage Theaters Foundation forms, acquires the building and starts restoration.
• In November 2007, the Turnage reopens to the public.
Sources: Scrapbook prepared by Donna Wagner, interviews with volunteers.