Franklin Theater Offers Movies, Entertainment, and History

By Laura Hill on September 26, 2011 at 1:43 am EST
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PHOTO CREDIT: Jeffrey S. Otto

When the Franklin Theatre closed its doors in 2007 many people felt the heart of the city’s Main Street had stopped beating. Four years later, thanks to community support and hard work by the county’s leading preservation organization, the Depression-era theater is once again enjoying vibrant good health.

Since 1937, the Franklin Theatre had been entertaining audiences with movies, from Gone with the Wind to The Rocky Horror Picture Show. With beer and snacks for grownups and free kiddie matinees on Saturdays, the Main Street landmark offered something for everyone, including a place to make lifetime memories. Sadly, the theater declined in the face of rising rents and the popularity of mega-cinemas, and despite repeated attempts to keep it viable, after 70 years it went dark—many feared, forever. Enter the Heritage Foundation of Franklin and Williamson County. 

“When we realized that the theater was about to become an office or a church, we knew we had to step up and buy the building to save it,” says Foundation Director Mary Pearce. “The League of Historic American Theatres came to look, and said if you are going to save this, you need to get it into private hands.”

Theater Needed Major Renovation

Two adjacent buildings that made up the theater were in poor shape, requiring a specialized restoration effort that, with the purchase of the building, would eventually cost $8.7 million. Foundation board member Emily Magid became the first of major donors, who included Beth and Preston Ingram, Cal Turner, and Charlie and Shannon Martin. Together, they contributed $6.5 million. Gifts from the community totaled $1.7 million.

The down-to-the-studs rehab included adding a second story to the smaller building, and extending it 20 feet in back. A lighted, period-design marquee was installed. The balcony was restored, stylish new restrooms, dressing rooms, a green room, elevator, ticket booth and concession stands offering beer, wine, soft drinks and snacks were added. LEED “green” practices were followed, from a new white roof to waterless urinals. State-of-the-art sound and electrical – including four miles of electrical wire and 40 miles of audio-visual conduit, says operations manager Joseph Logsdon – and top-notch Barco digital projection equipment were added.

Design Inspired by the Past

The theater’s original look inspired the cosmetic surgery.

“This was built during the depths of the Depression, and was a simple Art Deco building, so we made that our guiding theme,” Pearce says of the striking but subdued design. “This was a small-town theater, not a big movie palace.”

Today, the theater echoes the original in a strikingly modern way, from the marquee’s tin ceiling and the lobby’s dramatic arches to the curving stainless steel stair rails, striking Art Deco theater seats and antique lighting fixtures.

Movies, Music, More on the Bill

The new Franklin Theatre offers an ambitious mix of current-run and old films, live music (Amy Grant, Vince Gill, Keb Mo and Ray Price were among those on the bill), and theater. And once again it is a place where memories are made.

“We want people to come and have a relationship with the Franklin Theatre, not just a business transaction like you might have with other theaters,” says Aubrey Preston, interim director. “This has always been a special place – Franklin’s big living room – and we want to continue that tradition.”

Read about more Franklin, TN's growth in the past 25 years.

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