With all the things going on in Historic Downtown Savannah, I spend a lot of time talking about the interesting events and thought this might be the opportunity to talk about some of our interesting venues. The Lucas Theater has an especially fascinating history, well told on its website, from which the following comes directly.
Arthur Lucas and architect C.K. Howell opened the Lucas Theatre in December 1921. The theater’s design was a culmination of more than two years of collaboration between Lucas and Howell, and combined Lucas’ favorite architectural details from the Greek revival, Adams-inspired, Art Deco and Neoclassical periods. Lucas owned more than 40 theaters in the South – six of them in Savannah – but the Lucas was the only one to bear his name.
The theater’s grand opening event was a screening of “Camille” on the largest screen at that time in Savannah. The Lucas became a favorite venue for movies, touring vaudeville acts and a short-lived, in-house theater stock company. Staying on the cutting edge of technology, the theater was the first building in Savannah to install air conditioning in 1923, making the balcony a welcome retreat during the sultry summers. The front row in the mezzanine became known as “lawyer’s row” after local businessmen began spending their lunch hours sleeping in the cool, comfortable balcony.
The Decline of the Theater Era
With the advent of television and the population shift to the suburbs, the theater era began to wane. Downtown businesses began to feel the sting of suburbia, and the Lucas Theatre was no exception. Instead of going to a show two or three times a week, former faithful patrons opted for the comfort of watching entertainment from the living room.
The Lucas Theatre closed in 1976 after a deserted screening of “The Exorcist.” Different owners attempted unsuccessfully to convert the venue into a comedy club and restaurant, and the building was eventually slated for demolition.
In 1986 the owners obtained a demolition permit and made arrangements to turn the once thriving Lucas Theatre into a parking garage. The news motivated a group of Savannah citizens who founded The Lucas Theatre for the Arts. The group pooled their resources, purchased the building and began what would be a $12 million restoration.
With a starting budget of $3 million and a looming workload ahead, the nonprofit Lucas Theatre for the Arts planned to restore the building in just a few years’ time. Several feet of water stood in the seating area, boxes were torn off the wall, all the seats were removed, the roof was leaking and the building had been stripped of its fixtures, all making the original estimated budget overly optimistic.
Supported by donations from Savannahians and celebrities such as Kevin Spacey, Clint Eastwood and the cast and crew of the film “Forrest Gump,” the complete restoration spanned nearly 13 years.
The Lucas Theatre reopened in December 2000 with a screening of “Gone with the Wind,” and in the following months hosted Broadway shows and famous musicians. Although show attendance was high, the operation of the building proved too expensive to sustain on its own. The Savannah College of Art and Design recognized the theater as an important cultural asset in the community, and formed a relationship with The Lucas Theatre for the Arts. The theater’s future is now assured by the college’s support, which allows for a wide range of community uses in addition to top-notch entertainment such as operas from London and Italy, European orchestras, country stars, traveling repertory companies and film series.