It's hard to imagine the Thin White Duke—never mind Ziggy Stardust—in a tiny stage-right dressing room of the Community Theatre on the Memorial Auditorium’s third floor. Yet, said Melissa Turner of the city’s Education, Arts & Culture Department, “I did confirm that David Bowie was in fact one of the performers who graced the stage at the Community Theatre.”
The almost-forgotten Community Theatre has a long and checkered past: The building’s cornerstone was laid Nov. 11, 1922, and over the years the 750-seat facility has hosted dance, music, movies, school events, theatrical productions, “and even churches,” said Turner. “Calvary Church incubated there and is now located on Broad Street.”
But the theatre’s last significant upgrade was in 1965, and by 2000, the better days had been seen. Though Destiny Theatre Company produced the play “Crowns” there in 2006, word in the local theatre community was that the facility was dilapidated, with awful acoustics.
Others, however, recognized that Chattanooga needed a mid-sized venue—the city’s former mayor, the late Robert Kirk Walker, left $300,000 dedicated to the Community Theatre’s restoration. In June 2010, administrator Missy Crutchfield and the EAC secured city council approval for a plan to renovate the theatre, and in summer 2011, Phase One of the restoration, which would include new seats, painting the audience chamber, new carpeting and most importantly, bringing the facility into Americans with Disabilities Act compliance, began.
Phase Two, estimated to cost $2 million, will update the facility’s lighting, sound and other technical systems, “making it a true state-of-the-art multi-use theatre,” said Crutchfield.
The Allied Arts (now known as ArtsBuild) Imagine 20/20 cultural plan, released last year, backed up the importance of a mid-sized venue for continued arts growth. At a preview of the renovations on Dec. 4, Crutchfield pointed out that eight Broadway tour launches have been hosted at either the Memorial or Tivoli since 2006, with an economic impact of more than $3 million, and that having a smaller space available for more intimate productions increases the appeal of Chattanooga for these launches.
Deputy EAC administrator Thad Oliver revealed that the entire Memorial Auditorium, including the Community Theatre, is being offered to “presenting sponsors,” so that in the near future a business’s name may be coupled with certain areas (think AT&T Field). “We’re using Ashville and Raleigh as models for this,” Oliver said.
Based on the preview, work that has been done is impressive. Architects Franklin & Associates have kept the main floor’s formal feel with a blue-and-gold motif, stripped the floors back to beautiful old marble, and revealed a small but functional orchestra pit. Yet a tremendous amount needs to be finished before the targeted completion date of Feb. 28, 2013. Neither the stage itself nor the balcony, with its wonderful sight lines to the stage, are close to being restored, and a trip to the booth, where lights and sound are operated, revealed tiny spaces that couldn’t possibly be used for modern technical theatre.
But once the Community Theatre is open for business, expect big interest from local arts groups. Its location, size and projected technical capacities all add up to a rousing chorus of “Let’s Dance.”
Editor’s note: We’ll forgive Melissa Turner if she’s mistaken, but David Bowie has, to our knowledge, never before appeared at any venue in Chattanooga. The only reference we can find is a tribute show by local musician Eric Scealf performing “The David Bowie Experience” at the theatre in March 2006.