The Georgia Theatre is haunted. Its cavernous hall echoes with the sounds of concerts past. Listen closely, and you can hear the trill and honk and croon of thousands of artists who have played here over the decades. The jazzy horn of the ’30’s, the shimmery, swooping notes of the ’70’s, the throaty growl of ’80’s rock, and the synthesized notes of ’90’s alternative. And under it all, the slow, evil crackle, hiss, and smart of fire.
The tale of the Georgia Theatre is that of a phoenix, one of ruin, rebirth, and redemption. When the century-old building and iconic music destination went up in flames in 2009, its future seemed futile. But with the generous aid of music bigshots and humble fans, the theater lived to see the light of a new day—and the spotlit glow of a new night.
Long before it was the Georgia Theatre, the original building began its story in 1889 as the YMCA of Athens. But the building, it seems, was always destined for a musical appointment. In 1913 a music store opened in the lowest story of the building, and the first notes finally rang through the windows.
Over the century, the building donned dozens of hats, serving as home base for the Masonic Temple Association of Athens and the Dorsey Furniture Company, among others. In 1935 the edifice took its first foray into entertainment when the Elite Theater opened on the site and expanded the original structure. It wasn’t until 1977, though, that the true Georgia Theatre was born.
Local Athenians Sam Smartt, Hap Harris, George Fontaine, and Sheffy McArthur turned the jumbled architecture into a true music hall. In the growing music city of the South, the little theater flourished, drawing the greatest acts of the age. Athens’ own B-52s played at the theater in 1978, and The Police stopped in for a show during their first US tour in 1979.
The ’80’s found the Theatre slipping back to its old indecisive ways as it infrequently hosted movies and smaller crowds, but the concerts returned before the end of the decade. The Georgia Theatre’s heyday through the ’90’s coincided with the rise and boom of Athens music. Acts of all ages and genres from Athens and beyond played on the stage, including Widespread Panic, Beck, Dave Matthews Band, and R.E.M.
The Georgia Theatre’s success seemed as promising and limitless as the Athens music scene itself, but in 2009 disaster struck. In a mystery that remains unsolved to this day, a fire ignited in one of the guest dressing rooms of the theater in the early hours of the morning. The fire blazed, gorging on the wooden interior and combustible red curtains, gobbling up wires and seats and roofing tiles and leaving a mere shell of a building in its wake.
The future wasn’t merely uncertain for the theater—it was virtually impossible. Insurance would cover only the debt owed on the building, and the owners couldn’t possibly secure loans large enough to restore the cavernous interior.
In a miraculous show of community and kindness, the thriving music scene of Athens and beyond came together to save the Georgia Theatre. Music groups, many of whom had earned their stripes playing under the eaves at the Georgia Theatre, hosted benefits and concerts to raise funds for the revitalization of the theater. The largest concert was presented by Zac Brown Band (a band born of the Athens scene) at the Fox Theatre in Atlanta. Zac Brown Band played alongside other acts and donated their profits to the Theatre.
Two years and $4.5 million later, the Georgia Theatre hosted a two-week-long grand reopening, hosting bands of every genre in honor of their diverse musical history. Though the theater retains many of its original features—the original marquee still stands sentinel, the iconic red curtains still flank the stage, the walls are made of the same exposed bricks, and even the bars are made from wood salvaged from the rubble—the theater is anything but aged, boasting a series of modern, world-class features. Incredible acoustics find balance in the state-of-the-art sound system, rickety wood stairs are now spiral metal staircases, and the roof serves as a cool retreat for sweaty concert goers with a patio and full bar.
The story of the Georgia Theatre is an inspiring one, but the real stars are, of course, the acts who pass across her stage, each one with their own tale of risk and redemption and a pile of ashes at their feet.