Friday, October 08, 2004

Movie Time

The Miller Theater is located at 7th and Broad St., right in downtown Augusta. Designed in 1938 and built for a reported $500,000, it seated 1600 people when it opened in 1940. It's been said that construction required a million bricks but only one (large) piece of carpeting. According to Cinema Treasures, the theater's architect was Roy A. Benjamin, who also built some theaters in Florida. The design is Arte Moderne (note the glass block and curved neon marquee) and the Miller represents the last theater of this type left standing in Georgia. Unfortunately, the Miller has been empty since 1984. An old flyer inside indicates that the Nutcracker was the last event held at the Miller, in the winter of '84.

Before I go farther, let me say that we didn't "break" into the Miller. It's not that we mind getting arrested (har, har), it's just that the theater is a cool building and is also for sale. Hopefully, some entrepreneur will come along, buy the place, and rehabilitate it. We didn't want to jeopardize the building by looking for an entrance that might eventually allow other people to get in. One day we were out looking at some buildings nearby when we noticed something going on in the theater. Someone came out and asked us what we were up to. When we told him we were taking pictures of old buildings, he told us he was the realtor for the theater. Would we like to go inside? Of course, we would.

It's very dark inside and even with a flash and the realtor's help it was hard to get good pictures. There are large murals on either side of the screen, but we couldn't see them. Above us was the balcony seating. It's definitely a big theater, which you can't tell from its facade. In fact, once you enter, it curves to the right, so the screen is actually behind the building next door. Note the aluminum hand rails in the photo below. A lot of fingers have been dragged over those.

Just across from the Miller is another historic theater, the Imperial. According to Cinema Treasures, the Imperial opened in 1917 and was a big vaudeville playhouse. It was remodeled in the Art Deco style by Roy A. Benjamin in 1936 and eventually closed in 1981. In 1985 it reopened and has been hosting plays and concerts since. Also, it's been under renovation for that entire period. Money (not to mention an audience) is hard to come by for these old theaters and folks at the Imperial reportedly aren't too anxious to see the Miller reopen and compete for the same dollars it does. On the other hand, the Miller is so big that it probably couldn't survive as simply a movie theater and would need to have rock concerts, spoken word events, etc. to stay afloat. This is similar to what the Georgia Theater does in Athens. The Imperial has just started showing movies again and have a bang-up repertory schedule on-tap. I saw the jazz singer Jimmy Scott play an amazing show to a sold out crowd at the Imperial early this year, and it really is a great building in its own right.

In the 20's and 30's Art Deco and Arte Moderne became very popular architectural styles. Both forms are spare and focus on geometry and curved ornamentation. Frankly, I have a hard time telling the difference. So, how do you tell them apart? Well, the City of Chicago sez: Art Moderne has a vertical orientation, featuring setbacks, geometric ornamentation, and colorful terra cotta. Art Deco has a horizontal orientation with rounded edges, corner windows, and glass block. So, since this drinking fountain has a vertical orientation, that must make it Arte Moderne, I guess.

You can't see it from this photo, but the entire floor of this entryway is ornate terrazzo. In 1957 the world premiere of "The Three Faces of Eve" was held at the Miller. Joanne Woodward's family was apparently from North Augusta, SC, across the river. Also, the psychiatrists who wrote the original book were from Augusta. Pictures of the premiere and the Miller in all its glory can be found in various film books. It really is a beautiful theater, but 20 years of neglect is taking its toll. The realtor figured it had about 5 more years of vacancy before it would be a total loss. Wanna buy? Contact Prime Commercial Properties in Augusta, GA.


Anonymous said...

Thank you for the pictures they were the best ones i have seen!

Anonymous said...

A couple of months ago we walked through a dank, nasty Miller after pushing past loose plywood at the front. Now (October 2005) the wet carpeting has been torn out. Expanded metal screens across the front allow new owner Peter Knox to ventilate the place. We stood in front looking pitiful and were let in by Peter himself with a tour of the entire place from top to bottom by supporter Mike Deas.

The Miller was built for live shows in addition to films, and we saw dressing rooms (in a basement under the stage) with positions for 50 people each with its own mirror and light. The "HUB Board" to control the stage lighting is ten feet high and twenty across, with rows of hefty handles, which of course nowadays would all be run from a computer and a three foot wide mixing panel. The "Lost Apartment", complete with two fireplaces, is above the entrance hall and was cut off when the building facade was replaced by Frank Miller in 1939. Rose color mirrors, satin aluminum railing, imported Italian marble and walnut panelling are all about as they were excepting some aging. A February 25, 1940 newspaper ad for the Grand Opening touted a Cast of 75 (95% Girls!) in "A Night at the Moulin Rouge, Frency... Farcical... Fast and Furious!" followed by Fred Astaire and Eleanor Powell in "Broadway Melody of 1940". My wife recalled going to the "Pepsi-Kelly Kiddies Klub' with eight bottle caps in her hand for the price of admission. We saw the projectionists' last schedule, spindled above one of the portholes, calling for five showings of "Revenge of the Ninja".

The large murals to either side of the screen are in great condition but a bit racy by today's standards - the gals' naked breasts are a bit fuller than absolutely necessary. I still look forward to seeing them at the grand re-opening in... 2007?

Anonymous said...

My wife and I lived in Augusta for the majority of our lives. Every time we walked by the Miller one of us would comment that "someone needs to buy it and fix it up." It was our dream that, one day, perhaps it would be us. Six years ago we moved to Wilmington, North Carolina so that I could continue working in the film industry. This year, on May the 20th, my wife died of an aneurysm while teaching 5th grade. I came across this website while checking to see if there was any new news on the Miller. I can't tell you how excited I am that someone is restoring this gem of "Americana." Just know that "we" are behind you all the way.

Karen L. Courter (1964-2005)
Christopher C. Courter

Anonymous said...

Good luck with saving this theatre! I was involved with a handful of people in mounting the campaign to save our Regent Theatre here in Melbourne Australia. But look up the Cinema and Theatre Historical Society of Australia and go to a link for the Capitol Theatre Melbourne, probably our greatest art deco theatre. I closed this and reopened it later in modified form.

Anonymous said...

Hats off to Peter Knox. I live in Augusta and have very fond memories of the Miller Theather and hope that someday it will be like the Fox in Atlanta. Everytime I see the Miller I remember my two brothers ushering patrons to their seats, buying drinks at the fountain and climbing the hugh stairs to the balcony.

Peter we look forward to the grand opening make it soon.

Margie in Augusta

Anonymous said...

Those pictures broke my heart. I want to hlep sooo badly. I could seriously cry right now.

jmhouse said...

Yes, an old movie theater in ruins is painful to see. However, don't despair! Last I heard there was a full-scale effort to restore the place and get it up and running again. For updates and ways to help out check here:

or here:

Thanks for stopping by!


Anonymous said...

This theater is quite an amazing site, I recently was given permission to photograph it.

The buildings roof has been replaced to stop any furter water damage. Hopefully the restoration effort will be able to begin soon.


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Anonymous said...

Recently this building was purchased by a local augusta entrepenuer. However after realizing that the cost to fix was way larger then he could afford (although he did fix the leaking roof) gave the theater to the augusta symphony orchestra (now known as symphany orchestra augusta). The splost tax was passed by the people of augusta to give something like 6million towards the reno of the building. However the symphony was going to have to come up with at least an additional 6 mil, and maybe more. Another local public theater got involved at one point saying they should get a portion of the splost tax meant for the miller theater. This was all last year. Its still up in the air at this point.

jmhouse said...

Thanks very much for the update! I've been wondering what's been going on with the theater since it doesn't seem like the renovation has been proceeding very quickly. I assume with the economic climate it's not a good time for the Miller. Well, I'll keep my fingers crossed. It's such a nice, old place.