Georgia College to use downtown landmark for theater productions

MILLEDGEVILLE — Comedian Oliver Hardy once worked as the projectionist there.

And the infamous Marion Stembridge murders, which served as the inspiration for the book and movie “Paris Trout,” took place there.

Now, the Campus Theatre in Milledgeville is getting new life after being rehabilitated by Georgia College & State University, which will move its theater department into the restored art deco-style building in late April.

The Campus Theatre has a rich history, said Mark Bowen, Georgia College’s project manager. Inside, there will be a new bookstore, Jittery Joe’s coffee house and black box theater in the 21,000-square-foot building that’s been expanded from its original 17,000 square feet.

The building opened in 1935 on Hancock Street as the only theater in downtown Milledgeville. The theater served the community as a stage for theatrical productions and vaudeville-style shows and as a movie theater.

For many years, the theater was segregated. The ticket booth in front of the building would serve white customers on one side and black customers on the other. Black customers had to take what was called “the black staircase” that would seat them in the balcony. They also had their own concessions stand and bathroom upstairs.

The building closed as a theater in 1983, though it was still used as private offices for years after that.

Georgia College bought the building in late 2008 from owner Randall Hattaway and applied for a Georgia Higher Educational Facilities Authority grant from the state to fund its renovations. The school became one of the colleges in Georgia to receive money from the grant, receiving nearly $7 million to complete the work, Bowen said.

One of the first changes builders made was to the ground floor, putting in extra space to accommodate a new bookstore.

The bookstore will serve two functions — as a regular bookstore for the community in the front of the building and as a campus bookstore in the lower level, said university spokeswoman Judy Bailey. It’s an important addition, she said, because there’s no other bookstore in Milledgeville.

But the key aspect of the redesign is the black box theater — called such, because the shape and color of the room is essentially a giant black box, allowing the theater department to configure seating in any style it chooses.

“The space is beautiful,” said Karen Berman, chairwoman of the Georgia College theater department. “We’re so excited. It will give us flexible, usable space that we can set up tennis-style, with the audience on both sides of the stage, or as a theater-in-the-round. It will allow us to do intimate, up-close, personal plays. The actors will have to be even better than they are now. Their training will have to be more precise. It’s going to be a real personal experience for the audience. It’s a warm and lovely space.”

Upstairs, the building will house the faculty offices for the department, as well as lab space for classes in acting, production design, makeup and wardrobe.

The labs are configured using existing brick from the original theater, adding on to what had originally been the roof, Bowen said.

“The original flooring is also in the offices,” he said of the hardwood floors there.

The theater won’t be used for movies, except to show foreign films or for a film festival, Bowen said.

Berman said the restored building will not only benefit Georgia College but also the entire Milledgeville community. Though the building is scheduled to open in late April, the first production won’t take place until the following fall, she said.

“The department of theater has its own home now, which means everything to us,” she said. “We have our own space for teaching, designing and performing. It’s all under one roof for the faculty and staff. ... It’s right in the heart of the community of Milledgeville. We’re excited to open our doors to the entire community to celebrate it with us. This will revitalize downtown Milledgeville and be a home for the campus and the community.”

To contact writer Phillip Ramati, call 744-4334.