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Restoring the dream: Aberdeen residents roll up their sleeves to transform an old theater into a modern cultural center.

When the Elkin Theatre opened in 1937 in the town of Aberdeen, the local newspaper lauded it as "a dream of beauty." Built at a cost of $35,000, the Art Nouveau building was designed by architect Robert O. Boller of Kansas City, Missouri, who purportedly fashioned his structure after buildings at the Chicago World's Fair. The Aberdeen Examiner extolled, "The artistic marquee is most unique and beautiful. It is brilliantly lighted by means of two hundred and fifty lineal feet of neon tubing, which will make this the bright spot in Aberdeen after dark." The Examiner praised the Elkin's "handsome cashier cage" and marveled at the restrooms--"the last word in modern conveniences"--as well as the dressing rooms and electrically operated curtains that made it possible to present stage attractions. Everything about the theater's construction and equipment, according to the newspaper account, represented "the latest and best possible to secure," making it the "one of the finest and best equipped theatres in this section of the south."

That "dream of beauty" was the creation of four unmarried siblings of the Elkin family, early entrepreneurs in the city. In 1919, Arthur, Earl, Bristo, and sister Kathleen, children of a Confederate soldier and owners of the Victory Ice Cream Company, leased the second floor of the Opera House and operated the Temple Theatre as a motion picture business. The four Elkins themselves, sometimes aided by their married sister, Inez, sold tickets, manned the concession stand, and ran the projector. From that modest beginning, the Elkin Theatre was born 18 years later.

The theater stayed in the Elkin family until the mid-1960s, when it became first a Lyric theater and then a Malco theater and underwent significant interior changes. Original doors and light fixtures were removed to make way for more modern fixtures, the concession stand was replaced, and the tile floor was covered with carpet. But as the population of Aberdeen dwindled and television took its toll, the Elkin declined in popularity and eventually closed. In the mid-1980s, it was purchased by an area businessman, whose efforts to revive the theater were unsuccessful.

In 1985, just as the Elkin faced permanent closing and transformation into an arcade with video games and pinball machines, a group of some 100 Aberdeen residents banded together to purchase the building.

"Jo Miller came up with the idea," says George Crawford, a longtime Aberdeen resident. "Jo (now deceased) was a strong-willed woman who went after what she wanted. She found out about the plan to turn the Elkin into a video arcade and wrote letters inviting folks to a meeting in May 1985 to save the Elkin. About 40 people showed up. We decided if everyone contributed $10 per month for five years, we could pay the $2,000 the owner wanted in equity and pay off the $29,000 note on the theater." Thirty-nine citizens signed pledges that night, and within a month, 21 more committed to the cause. Determined to continue the Elkin not only as a movie theater but also as a cultural center for the city, these civic-minded citizens formed the non-profit Aberdeen Elkin Theatre, Inc. George Crawford became the first president of the Board of Directors. Then began the daunting task of renovation and upkeep.

The initial renovations undertaken by this hardy band of volunteers arose from their own money and sweat contributions. After purchasing new movie equipment worth about $5,000 in 1986, the group raised additional money by reopening the theater for weekend movies, but only from September until April, as the 850seat building had no air conditioning. Volunteers organized themselves into teams to sell tickets, operate the popcorn machine, load the film and run the projector, patrol the aisles, and clean the floors.

The physical renovations themselves were also largely the product of volunteer muscle. Operating on a wing and a prayer, the group borrowed $45,000 to get the theater back in working condition. The initial phase of this massive effort began with the lobby or arcade, as it was originally called, and included refurbishing the original ticket booth, rehanging the original exterior and interior doors and lighting fixtures, and rebuilding the concession stand. The theater still contained the original wall sconces, carpet, and velvet curtains. Photographs from the 1937 opening guided the careful restoration.

Funds have not been easy to obtain. Group members have made personal contributions, sought grants, and called on businesses, friends, family, and area organizations to scrape together the money necessary to restore the aging building. In the early days, the group sold fruit during the holiday season, netting approximately $1,500 per season. Grants from the Appalachian Regional Commission ($3,000) and the Mississippi Arts Commission ($72,000, contingent on the group raising $48,000 in matching funds), paid for major roof repairs, replacement of much of the electrical system, flooring, and ceiling, a new black stage curtain, erection of two fire escapes and eight fire doors, repair of the marquee and brickwork, and installation of new carpet. Volunteer labor also saw to the enlargement of the stage area and rehabilitation of dressing rooms to facilitate stage productions.

A capital fund drive has raised $46,000 of the $48,000 in matching funds required by the Arts Commission grant. The association also received a financial shot in the arm from actor and Mississippi resident Morgan Freeman, who appeared at a public luncheon in one of Aberdeen's historic homes and hosted a question-and-answer period as a fund-raiser for the theater. Local businesses have made substantial contributions in small and large ways as well, according to Judy Jones, the organization's current secretary. "Money for new theatrical lights was donated by a local community group," Jones said. "At performances, Comer Packing Company supplies ice for the concession stand, and Sonic provides all paper drink products (cups, straws, etc.) and bottled water. Brick Young, a local metal worker, created the lettering for the marquee."

With the installation of a new heating and air conditioning unit, the theater now regularly shows weekend movies, but it still operates as an all-volunteer project. Movie tickets are $4, and all concession products are $1 each. The theater is also available for rentals and has hosted beauty pageants, gospel sings, church group events, theatrical performances, and even a jazz band concert. Renters are charged a minimal amount, no profit included, for utilities and cleaning purposes only. At least one member of the organization renting the theater must be a member of Aberdeen Elkin Theatre, Inc., for which dues are still only $10 per month.

According to Jones, the next major renovation on the group's agenda is the recovering and repair of the seats, and the group is seeking a grant to hire one full-time employee. This individual is envisioned as an artistic director who will shepherd the creation of a community theater for children and adults and schedule visiting productions.

Numerous tasks remain in the effort to make the Elkin a first-class cultural center in this small Monroe County city of 7,000. But the association, now boasting about 120 members, appears undaunted. Considering the accomplishments already made and the enthusiasm that still motivates the group, there is no doubt they will succeed.
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Author:Wadsworth, Glenda
Publication:Mississippi Magazine
Date:Nov 1, 2003
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