Photos by Libby Rogers
Old Town Theatre, now known as J. Philip Gibbs, Jr. Centre for the Performing Arts, stands at 1023 12th street amid the historic buildings of town square in Huntsville. The theatre was originally built in the 1940s to be a movie theatre. Since its days as a movie house from 1947-1974, it has undergone multiple owners and purposes. The facility has been on a long journey of restoration since then and is one of the most interesting buildings in Huntsville, with great history and character. We had the pleasure of interviewing Lauren Edwards, current board member of Huntsville Community Theatre. Lauren is the daughter of Gene and Felicia Myrick, who have been featured in The Huntsville Item many times over the years for their efforts and successes to fundraise and rebuild the theatre. Gene was the former President of the Huntsville Community Theatre, and since his passing last year, Lauren has filled his shoes on the board and serves in her father’s memory. Gene lived in Huntsville and made an admirable contribution to this town and community during the 28 years that he and his wife Felicia lived in Huntsville.
On either side of the front doors are large, western murals hand-painted by well-known artist Richard Haas. The murals, painted in 1998, are one of 14 murals in Huntsville painted by Haas. The unique window art is based off two different films, the left one John Wayne in Paradise Canyon and the right Laura featuring Gene Tierney and Dana Andrews. Interestingly, Huntsville has the largest collection of Haas’ hand-painted murals in the U.S. (Editors note: See postcardslive.com to read the February 2016 article published on ‘Huntsville’s Haas Murals’.) Also in 1998, the front underwent some cosmetic work to give it the appearance of an old-fashioned theatre with the lights, signs, and murals. The outside of the facility took priority to be completed before the inside even had a roof, in order to intrigue people about the upcoming construction. A unique feature of the theatre is the seats inside, given to them from the high school years ago. Gene had a friend who specialized in woodwork, which became a great advantage when he aided in sanding and staining all the armrests. They saw these seats as a fundraising opportunity—for $50 you could purchase an armrest and have your name engraved on the seat. In addition to this, the seats have another unique feature. One of Gene’s pet peeves was going to the theatre and having his view blocked by the person in front of him. He wanted to see the stage, not the back of someone’s head, so he arranged for the seats to be off-centered so that no one seat is directly right behind the other. He wanted to ensure that anywhere you sit, you’re not directly behind someone, and you have a clear view of the stage.
Huntsville Community Theatre began in a small production area behind Mayflower Bakery in the spot that is now Huntsville Public library, with about 100 seats set up in five rows. In 1990, Gene Myrick attended a production put on by the theatre, and later a friend invited him to a board meeting for the Huntsville Community Theatre. There he became secretary and then later president of the HCT. In 1998, Gene began to pay $500 a month to rent a space in the strip center behind Mayflower Bakery, next to Coffee Time, for use by Huntsville Community Theatre. The space was one of humble beginnings, as the backstage was a small passageway and the space had no restroom. Before this, the group was sharing a space with the Rotary Club at West Hill Mall for a while. For the first four years, they held board meetings in their home and overcame many obstacles to keep up fundraising and maintaining the theatre. The current building was once owned by an SHSU student and known as Pokey’s Pub when it was without a roof, making it a roofless bar, offering a view of the night sky. After the pub days, it became a traffic signal manufacturing business that ended oddly and mysteriously. Some paint caught fire and burned the top, rendering it roofless and uncovered. After the fire, the building was used for garage sales, church meetings, and mostly a hangout spot for pigeons…lots of pigeons, Lauren stressed. A local man, Jim Standefer, owned the theatre at the time and requested $60,000 from Gene to purchase it. Jim put in a roof and the price went up to $100,000.
Soon after, an offer came along that transformed the future of the building and the community theatre. The Gibbs family offered to match $100,000 if Gene could form a group and raise $100,000 in 6 months. From this, he formed The Friends of the Old Town Theatre, and he began to raise money through various means. Gene and his wife worked tirelessly to fundraise and ensure that the Huntsville Community Theatre would receive the money and transform the theatre into something to be used for years to come. Through determination and hard work, they raised the $100,000 and were matched with the additional $100,000 by the Gibbs family. The Friends of the Old Town Theatre moved forward, a group who would continue to raise money and preserve the theatre. This group of determined people dedicating their personal time and efforts to the cause came up with some creative ways to raise money for funding. In 1998, “The Friends” sold gold stars for $100 to line the walls on the inside and wear the name of the person or organization that made the donation. Since the purchase of the theatre by “The Friends” in 1998 and the beginning of the restoration process, they have worked to raise funding, preserve the building, and keep it operational for its multiple uses today. The Friends of the Old Town Theatre completed restoration in 2002, and they continue to find funding with hopes of buying a new roof.
With any old, mysterious building come the spooky ghost stories. It is believed that the ghost of a former theatre employee still lives on the second floor of the theatre. Now a storage room, a man named Charlie once manned the production room of the movie theatre in the 1950s, residing in a small living quarters upstairs. Gene and a friend would make frequent visits to the theatre long after Charlie died and the theatre was being remodeled. On several occasions, Gene and his friend were the only two people inside the theatre on the first floor separately and would hear footsteps above them. Each thought it was the other. Gene called for his friend, and both were shocked upon realizing they had both been on the first floor the entire time. This happened again. They began to call him Charlie, the ghost of the man who once lived in the room upstairs.
Lauren has many fond memories of coming to the theatre with her parents as a child. She always enjoyed historical buildings and wishes she could have experienced the theatre in the 1940s when it served as a movie house. “It’s a rewarding feeling to sit in this same place and be a little part of history.” Since meeting with Postcards, Lauren has been elected President of the Old Town Theatre Board. This is a special moment, as her father served as a former President and she is proud to be following in his footsteps.
Since its renovation, the theatre has been used for various functions by churches, the university, schools, and the community theatre. Old Town Theatre is available to rent for your upcoming theatre events. To support the theatre or learn more, visit www.oldtowntheatre-huntsville.org.