ATHENS, Texas (AP) - Kay Hood virtually grew up in the old Texan Theater in downtown Athens. Her mother, Ann Pierce, was the theater’s manager from the mid-1950s until it closed in 1984.
The Tyler Morning Telegraph reports as a child, Hood spent almost every Saturday watching the matinee where Old West heroes on the big screen always saved the day. She later worked at the theater known for its big red neon sign that shined brightly.
“It was a second home for me,” Hood said. “It was a place for the kids to hang out. It was a safe place. She (mother) was protective of each one of those children. She would not leave until every child was picked up by their parents.”
Hood said it was a bittersweet day for her and her mother when the theater closed in 1984. By then it was difficult for single-screen movie houses to compete with multiscreen complexes and other forms of entertainment.
After the theater closed, it fell into disrepair. Year by year its condition grew worse. The roof fell in. The windows were boarded. Homeless people sometimes took shelter in what was left of the remains.
Now, decades after its closure, the theater is coming back to life. The city of Athens recently opened it as multipurpose, special events venue.
The Texan originally debuted on April 22, 1948, at 209 E. Tyler St. just off the downtown square, with a showing of “Black Narcissus,” a movie starring Deborah Kerr and Jean Simmons.
A story in the Athens Daily Review in 1950 praised the theater as being “one of the finest and most modern in East Texas.” It noted that “recently installed in The Texan was the latest equipment for sound reproduction and picture projection.”
Photos from decades gone-by show the theater packed with children and crowds gathered outside waiting to see a show.
Eventually, the remains of the box office and the marquee were about the only remnants of the theater hinting of its past.
The owners, longtime residents Fred and Marsha Head of Athens, eventually donated it to the city under the stipulation that it be renovated and dedicated to their son Fred “Bud” Head Jr., who died in 1986 at age 21 from Hodgkin’s disease, a cancer that develops from cells in the lymphatic system.
In June of 2015, the Athens City Council authorized the city manager’s office to come up with a plan for the building. An engineer’s report showed that its decades-old brick walls were structurally sound, the Tyler Morning Telegraph reported at the time.
Thanasis Kombos, the assistant city manager, and Adrianna Hinds, the community services coordinator, were among city staff members in charge of exploring new uses for the building.
Kombos said paying homage to the theater’s past as an entertainment venue and creating momentum for downtown revitalization were primary considerations.
“Even given its condition (at the time), we saw the potential to use it to bring redevelopment to downtown,” Kombos said.
Hinds said preserving the historic facade of the theater was “a must.”
With input from a design committee made up of community members, the city staff came up with a plan that called for preserving the exterior, gutting the building and using the 7,200-square-foot open space as a multipurpose venue.
The city hired Architexas, an architectural firm with offices in Austin and Dallas that specializes in historic restoration, to oversee the transformation.
A ceremony launching work on the renovation took place on March 31 of last year. The front marquee and exterior have since been restored. The brick back wall has been replaced by a two story wall of glass that can be partially raised, like a giant garage door. Parking is available behind the building.
Hinds said that interest in the renovation increased after the Texan’s red neon sign was restored a few weeks ago.
The city in May held an open house at the Texan and also used it to host Art on the Bricks, a fundraiser to “celebrate the revitalized Texan as a live music and events venue while encouraging the growth of fine arts awareness in Athens.”
Those who come to events at the venue will see a plaque commemorating the life of Bud Head at the entrance.
Athens is promoting the Texan as a “landmark venue” that connects the city’s past and future.
“Not only will the current generation and generations to come have a chance to bring The Texan back to its glory through the live music experience, but we believe that the Texan will be the catalyst for the revitalization of downtown Athens as a whole,” the city states on the venue’s website, thetexanathens.com .
Hinds said that a Summer Concert Series will open on July 3 with a concert by Darryl Worley. Other concerts will follow.
The city also is already renting the space for private events, Hinds said.
Many in the community who posted comments on the venue’s Facebook page were happy that the theater’s legacy will continue.
“So glad it’s not being torn down,” wrote Tammy Price Pruitt. “So many wonderful childhood memories here!!”
Athens resident Darlene Magee Gunter added: “This might be something that only us longtime residents will understand how much enjoyment it would bring. … This is what the people want - especially those of us who practically lived there for social interaction when we were growing up. I am glad to see this happening. … Thank you for doing this! I can hardly wait!”
Information from: Tyler Morning Telegraph, http://www.tylerpaper.com
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