At the July 22 board meeting of the Appalachian Theatre, trustees received a “state of the theater” address from outgoing Chair John Cooper and Executive Director Laura Kratt. It was an occasion to pause and reflect on the events of the prior fiscal year, which began with an intensive swirl of activity to complete the eight-year, $10 million renovation and construction effort that restored the landmark on King Street and ended in a shutdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The grand re-opening took place on Oct. 14, 2019, with a sold-out concert, the first in a month-long series of events designed to welcome community stakeholders whose combined efforts saved the High County’s Art Deco architectural jewel.
John McEuen and the String Wizards were the first on the Doc Watson Stage for Americana Music, joined by local Liam Purcell of Liam Purcell & Cane Mill Road. Subsequent events featured a wide range of local organizations that played a supportive role in the revival of this historic theater. Digital Watauga, the Jones House, the Watauga County Public and Appalachian Regional Library each partnered with the theater to host gallery exhibits, talks and films that celebrated the history of the Appalachian Theatre and our region.
The Boone Chamber of Commerce hosted Business After Hours at the theater to welcome 200-plus members of the Boone and Blowing Rock business communities. The Watauga Community Foundation hosted its annual awards dinner in the community room, and the App State Humanities Council screened a film that sparked a lively discussion about the role of Native Americans in WWII.
On Nov. 14, the 81st anniversary of the theater’s initial opening in 1938, Boone residents took center stage to share their personal stories during the premiere of Phil Arnold’s documentary “Hollywood in the High Country: A History of the Appalachian Theatre.”
“The vision for the new Appalachian Theatre has always embraced program diversity and community engagement as a top priority, and the opening events bore out that commitment,” the theater said. Audiences of all ages and interests were delighted in an artistic sampling which included concerts, comedy, films and lectures.
The grand opening month culminated in a sold-out show by Sam Bush.
From October 2019 to MarchKratt said that during its first five months of operation, the theater hosted 8,217 visitors and 26 events in support of its mission to also provide economic stimulus to Boone and the High Country region.
“We had anticipated an additional 20-plus days of community events but these groups, understandably, had to cancel due to the unavoidable weather delays that made the final construction completion date unpredictable.”
More than half of these 26 hosted events benefited local nonprofits and businesses that included the Watauga Community Foundation, the Heart Church, Boone Area Chamber of Commerce, Allen Wealth Management, Piedmont Federal Bank and Appalachian State University. Special December holiday shows by the Carolina Snowbelles and Mountain Home Music helped organizers double their normal attendance, and Watauga High School’s Pioneer Playmakers grabbed awards at the Southeastern Theatre Conference in Louisville, Ky., thanks to the funds they raised at their February fundraiser at the theater.
The data shows Appalachian Theatre performances received strong support from local audiences, but the presenting of national touring artists quickly leveraged the theater’s ability to fulfill its promise to be a regional visitor destination, bringing in new funds to support the local economy and businesses, the theater said.
Kratt said, “Of these visitors, many were from North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia and Tennessee, but often patrons were from as far away as Mississippi, Florida, Ohio, Oregon, Texas and Michigan for the national acts. It was the Canadian singing group, the Wailin’ Jennys, that attracted our most far-flung visitor by enticing ticket buyers in Finland to make the long trek to Boone.”
Of all these performances, the Americana duo Drew and Ellie Holcomb proved to be the regional powerhouse, selling 70 percent of the theater’s seating capacity to individuals from outside of Watauga County. Kratt noted that cultural tourists spend twice as much when they visit, which gives local businesses and the local economy a boost.
“The increased spending of these cultural visitors expanded the local economic impact of this one show to an estimated $50,000,” said Kratt.
According to Kratt, in the first five months of operation, the 8,000-plus people attending shows at the Appalachian Theatre generated almost $400,000 for the local economy. The theater also supported the creation of four full-time and 20 part-time jobs.
From March until July
In March, the Appalachian Theatre was well on track to break even in its very first year of operation, until the COVID-19 pandemic shuttered public assembly spaces.
The theater’s last event was the sold-out Wailin’ Jennys concert on March 7. While the theater has been closed to the general public, its staff has been working nonstop behind the scenes to complete construction punch-lists and shake down various technical systems. As with any new start-up, the Appalachian Theatre had a long list of new systems to implement.
“We’re taking advantage of the shutdown to tackle that list so we can once again invite our community to gather together, safely,” Kratt said.
“We know that our community is strong and resilient,” she added, “and our doors will open wide once it is deemed that we can all gather safely. Our staff is working to reschedule events wherever possible. As the entire entertainment industry has been severely impacted, we ask for your patience and support as we work to compile an update for each event.”
Gifts enable a community cultural resource
Outgoing board Chair Cooper has led fundraising efforts for the Appalachian, a perpetual activity since a group of supporters first met in December 2011 to imagine what the theater could be and could do for the community.
“Many folks stepped forward in a leap of faith in the early days of fundraising,” said Cooper, “and several foundations helped build momentum. As the funds continued to come in and we came closer to our goals, construction costs were growing at the same time. By 2018 we had reached a level of gifts and pledges in hand that allowed us to begin the final stages of construction.”
Since that time, new donors have continued to come forward and many past donors have increased their pledges and donations to provide the assurance that the theater would be able to open the doors in 2019.
Cooper recounted how dancers took to the stage last December thanks to the kind generosity of Elaine and Jonathan Topodas. Where there once was a plywood floor, the Appalachian Theatre now has long-lasting, rugged, oak floor that can welcome an even more diverse array of artists – from Appalachian cloggers to jazz tappers to the Carolina Snowbelles.
A foundation grant by the A. J. Fletcher Foundation provided a new 7-foot-6-inch Yamaha concert grand piano. This state-of-the-art acoustic piano comes equipped with digital recording capability and 20 additional keyboard “voices” for maximum versatility.
The Appalachian Regional Commission awarded the Appalachian Theatre a $100,000 grant to purchase LED energy efficient lighting and signage, which will reduce building overhead.
“While we are strong,” Cooper said on July 22, “we are also vulnerable. Fortunately, many folks, including several trustees, have stepped up to help make up some of the ground we have lost. While we have funds to continue to operate, we will need to replace the lost pledges so that we can reopen when it is safe to do so, and continue to move forward being debt free.”
Cooper concluded the “state of the theater” remarks by saying, “The grand re-opening in October 2019 provided a wonderful gift to local residents in our community, to visitors in the High Country and area businesses. It meant that folks in our region had more opportunities for live performing arts and a surge in business activity in the downtown. In the five months the theater was open, it has had a strong and favorable impact on the community. The re-opening of the theater after the pandemic will once again provide a substantial return on investment that benefits the entire region.”