Foundation looks to breathe new life into old Muse Theatre in downtown Perry

bpurser@macon.comApril 29, 2013 

  • Connect with the Muse Theatre project

    Billy Milby, president of the Muse Theatre Foundation, may be reached at (478) 997-9641. The foundation’s mailing address is 1303 Forest Hill Road, Perry, GA 31069. It also can be found online at www.facebook.com/MuseTheatre.

PERRY -- Betsy Portman recalls the smell of fresh popcorn, the “click, click, click” of the movie reel turning on the projector and the cloud of cigarette smoke hanging overhead.

Portman, 61, reminisced about Saturdays spent at the Muse Theatre, a popular hangout. She and her middle school friends would munch on popcorn, Necco Wafers and Junior Mints through a cartoon, news reel and two movies.

“It was wonderful,” said Portman, a retired college administrative assistant who lives in Perry. “It was the only place to go and the only place to be. ... You could spend all day there.”

Now, after being closed for more than 30 years, an effort is underway to renovate and reopen the Muse Theatre at 806 Commerce St. in downtown Perry.

Portman said she’s excited about the possibility of the theater being restored to its former glory.

“I think it’s fabulous,” she said. “Every time I drive past, it brings back memories.”

New life

Billy Milby, of Kathleen, also often drives by the former theater. A vintage movie buff and a cinema art fan, the 25-year-old thought about how much he’d like to see the old movie house restored.

“To me, it’s definitely the ultimate hobbyist’s dream to have an old movie theater where I can project old movies and be a part of that culture,” said Milby, who partners with his dad and brother in a for-profit venture, Visiting Angels, an alternative to assisted living.

To work toward that goal, Milby joined with other like-minded people and last year began forming the Muse Theatre Foundation, of which he is president.

Jon Pierce, 52, a sales manager of a plant for Tolleson Lumber, also had a desire to see the old theater restored. He gathered there as a child with his friends. A disc jockey on the side, Pierce -- the foundation’s vice president -- said the theater would be the perfect place for bands to play.

Others such as Beth Cleveland became interested in the project when Pierce started talking it up. Cleveland operates an organic pecan farm and coffee roaster business in Fort Valley and a pottery painting studio in Perry. She was involved with the Austin Theatre in Fort Valley for many years and managed it for two years. She also has an interior design degree.

“I love the renovation of old buildings,” Cleveland said. “Theaters are an exciting thing because you can do all kinds of community events. They’re just a great asset to the community.”

Foundation board members envision the rebirth of the Muse Theatre to serve a variety of community interests from showcasing vintage movies to offering live music.

They’re also looking at renting the facility for weddings, high school reunions, church and school plays, and meetings. The 5,000-square-foot theater constructed in 1949 can seat about 350 people.

The foundation expects to receive its nonprofit status soon. Once finalized, it can begin fundraising in earnest. However, it can accept tax-deductible donations specified for the Muse Theatre through the James E. Worrall Foundation, which has an account set up for the foundation, Pierce said. Donations written directly to the Muse Theatre Foundation would not be tax deductible until its nonprofit status is received, Milby explained.

Sara Barron, secretary for the foundation, said she likes the idea of breathing new life into the old theater and providing a place for people to gather in Perry. Barron, an interior designer for Myers Construction Co., came on the board of directors when her boss, Marty Myers, stepped off.

Myers also had his eye on the Muse Theatre and wanted to see it restored. When the sale of the building appeared imminent, Myers had to step back from the foundation in order to step up and purchase the building. He and a business partner bought the building last year under his other company, Myers Industrial Construction, he said.

Myers said he made a verbal agreement to sell the building to the foundation for about $115,000 if the foundation can make a go of it within the next two years. The price tag includes the cost of improvements he’s made to the structure. Also included is a $25,000 profit for his partner, Myers said, as part of the agreement to purchase the building under the company name.

“I want to do everything I can to always have something in there that people can enjoy,” Myers said.

Getting there

For the time being, Myers has converted the building into Antique Theatre to display and sell antiques and consignment furniture and goods. The business helps offset the cost of the building’s insurance, taxes and utilities, he said.

If the foundation is successful in raising the startup money, the antiques mall would move to another location in Perry, Myers said.

Antique Theatre already has proven successful with most of the space already rented. This has delighted the foundation because people already are becoming accustomed to the building being back in use, Pierce said. The original Muse Theatre sign hangs on brick wall inside Antique Theatre, and T-shirts to support the Muse Theatre are sold inside.

Peggy Jerles, who rents space in Antique Theatre, was busy last week arranging an eclectic mix of wares for sale. Thrilled with Antique Theatre, Jerles said she also supports the Muse Theatre project.

“I think it would be wonderful to have something like the Austin Theatre,” she said.

Myers said he expects the foundation will need to raise about $1 million to renovate the building and open its doors. Milby hopes the cost will come in lower but expects about $750,000 to $1 million may be needed.

Right now, foundation members are in the initial planning stages.

A private company has been asked to develop three floor plans for how the theater would be laid out to best meet the proposed multiple functions, Milby said. Meanwhile, a golf tournament is planned for Sept. 19 at Houston Lake Country Club to raise funds for the project, he said.

Until the foundation purchases the building, though, it cannot begin grant writing since ownership is a part of the grant criteria, Cleveland said.

“We’re just trying to raise enough money to buy the building and renovate the building,” she said.

The building itself is structurally sound and in good shape, Milby said. The electrical system and plumbing will have to be updated, and drywall will have to be added. The interior needs a face-lift through the addition of seating, curtains and such, Milby said.

The Muse Theatre ceased showing movies after more than 25 years about 1976. During that time, it changed names to the Perry Theatre in the early 1970s. After movies were no longer shown, the building was used for live bands for about five years before closing its doors in the early 1980s, Milby said.

“It’s been boarded up for more than 30 years,” he said.

Alcohol sales debated

Perry natives Charles and Nelle Shelton, both in their early 80s, have fond memories of the Muse Theatre from when they were young and dating. But the Sheltons expressed reservations about the restoration project because of the possibility of alcohol sales.

“We want it to be family oriented,” Nelle Shelton said.

Milby said alcohol certainly would not be served for movies but might be available through an outside vendor for concerts or through a caterer for weddings.

But he said he does not believe the foundation as a whole desires to go into the alcohol-sales business.

However, Pierce said he favors the Muse Theatre having an alcohol license. He said he doesn’t believe the nonprofit could remain afloat without revenue from alcohol sales.

Cleveland said the board has been so focused on the building purchase and renovation that its members haven’t sat down and talked about alcohol sales. Representatives of the Fox Theatre in Atlanta offered the board input and recommended obtaining an alcohol license, but that was about it, she said.

Cleveland said she doesn’t believe alcohol would be promoted, though an event-specific exception for wine or beer probably would be considered. However, Cleveland also noted that she would not want to continue serving on the board if something like a “party barn” were envisioned.

Byron Etheridge, 60, a Perry native, said he believes alcohol sales should be permitted at the theater “in order to have enough revenues to keep the doors open.”

He also recalled childhood memories of the Muse Theatre.

“I thought it was so much bigger than it really is,” he said. “I remember sitting in the back with all my girlfriends.”

To contact writer Becky Purser, call 256-9559.

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