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Monday, August 1, 2011 - 11:30am

Georgia Theatre Reborn

The sounds of progress can be heard echoing off the 100-year-old red bricks of 215 Lumpkin Street. Construction workers use industrial floor waxers to put a final shine on the threshold leading into the Georgia Theatre’s 1000-capacity concert hall.

Apart from the building materials littering the space, there’s little evidence of the blaze that gutted the historic venue.

The fire nearly put an end to a musical legacy that began more than 30 years ago when world-renowned keyboard player Chuck Leavell and his band played the theatre’s inaugural show. 

We had just formed our band Sea Level out of the ashes of the Allman Brothers Band and so it was a very exciting time. We had a new band. We had fresh new material to play and the Georgia Theatre has such a rich rich history."

That history dates back to the turn of the century. Owner Wilmot Greene says it’s always been a place where people have come together. 

"When it was built in 1889 it was a YMCA and in 1889 if you wanted to hang out with your friends you went to the YMCA, that’s what people did. Then in the 30s it was converted to a movie theater and in the 30s that’s what people did with their friends. It was air-conditioned. This was the first air-conditioned building in Clark county."

During the theatre’s first run as a music venue in the late 70s and early 80's, now-famous Athens bands like the B-52s and REM played some of their very first shows there.

After nearly a decade of neglect, the theatre reopened in the early 90's and became a fixture of the jam band scene.

Bands like Widespread Panic and Phish, who would go on to sell out stadiums, played there regularly.

The theatre continued successfully into the 2000s when Wilmot Greene bought the venue.

He spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to restore the historic building.

But at 6:30am on June 19th of 2009 it all came crashing down with a single phone call.

I got a call from the Athens Clark County Fire Department and they said ‘Is this Mr. Greene?’ and I said ‘Yeah’ and they said ‘The Georgia Theatre’s on fire.’ That’s a hell of a way to wake up."

By the time Greene got there, firefighters were already battling the 40 -foot tall flames leaping from the Georgia Theatre’s roof.

That night Greene got a call from his friend, record producer and musician David Barbe who’d heard about the fire while playing a gig in Nashville.

Barbe says he was amazed by how calm Greene was mere hours after watching his livelihood literally go up in flames.

"That morning of course you’re shocked and you’re devastated but by the time I spoke to him that night and the sun had gone down he had already decided in his mind: ‘I’m rebuilding it. I don’t know how I’m going to do it but I’m rebuilding it.’"

Now two years, thousands of work hours and millions of dollars later Greene has kept his word. 

The theatre’s demolished interior is restored, much of it with wood salvaged from the fire. The finished bar-tops and wood panels are riddled with burn holes like battle scars preserved as a reminder of what happened.

A state-of-the-art PA system and rooftop restaurant are a few of the venue’s new features.

Chuck Leavelle is one the first artists scheduled to perform when the Georgia Theatre reopens.

It’s going to be there forever I hope for people like myself to come and play. And for me to come full circle having opened it back in ’77 and now the opportunity to reopen it…I think it’s just wonderful."

Rounding out the theatre’s two-week grand opening is a laundry list of musical luminaries including Outkast’s Big Boi, The Drive-By-Truckers and Bella Fleck.  

It’s a fitting welcome back celebration for one of the south’s most beloved music venues.