By Don Rhodes
At last, Symphony Orchestra Augusta settles into its first permanent home in the Miller Theater built nearly 80 years ago.
It would be a stretch to say that Augusta area entertainment fans—entering the extensively remodeled Miller Theater for the first time—will be equally as awed as travelers for the first time seeing the Grand Canyon or the view from the top floor of the Empire State building.
But it’s a sure bet that most visitors experiencing the 78-years-old legendary structure in the 700 block of Broad Street after it officially reopens to the public on January 6, 2018, will have some drop-your-mouth-open moments.
Even older local citizens who patronized the Miller as children in its glory days of the ‘50s and ‘60s will be surprised just how close their vague memories will come back into focus.
That especially will come true in seeing the meticulously restored, gleaming aluminum stair railings; massive framed mirrors; expansive plush carpet recreated to resemble the 1940 original; abstractly-painted, nude dancing figures flanking the stage and an Italian-marbled, extra-wide entranceway that literally goes on for half a block.
It should be noted that, from its beginning, the advertisements and news stories spelled it as “Miller Theatre” but its new owners are spelling it the more traditional way of “Miller Theater.”
The opening gala sold out within a few weeks, with the cheapest seats priced at $100.
What could be better than having as its guest star former local resident Sutton Foster, who acted and sang with The Augusta Players right across the street in the Imperial Theater?
She and her brother, Hunter Foster, perfected their theatrical talents in Augusta before headlining several hit shows on Broadway in New York City.
Sutton became a two-time Tony Award winner for her lead roles in the revival musicals Guys & Dolls and Anything Goes.
It was a shame that Frank James Miller Sr. only got to enjoy his nationally-heralded show place for four years before dying in the old University Hospital at 55 on August 11, 1944.
But nearly eight decades after its original grand opening on February 26, 1940, the three story building will be taking on new life as Symphony Orchestra Augusta’s first permanent home after a nomadic life of performances.
In fact, the original site where SOA began as the Augusta Civic Orchestra no longer exists.
That location was the 1,000-seats Music Hall section attached to the rear of Bell Auditorium which in the 1980s was demolished to make way for a loading dock.
It was in the Music Hall, however, the 15-musician civic orchestra led by conductor Harry Jacobs made its debut on May 23, 1954, featuring soloist Sophie Wolski.
Jacobs would remain as conductor for 37 years before turning his baton over to Donald Portnoy, whose debut as the new official conductor came on October 5, 1991.
Portnoy would carry the orchestra out of its most frequent home of the Grover C. Maxwell Performing Arts Theatre at Augusta University to regular series offerings in Bell Auditorium, including the popular Valentine Pops concerts.
Tokyo, Japan,-native Shizuo Z Kuwahara became music director in 2009 and served as conductor for seven seasons with his successor, German native Dirk Meyer, who took over last fall.
Meyer holds the dual position of being the music director of the Duluth Superior Symphony Orchestra in Minnesota.
NEW LIFE ON
Great things are in store for the orchestra as it settles into the 700 block of Broad Street that Augusta City Council officially proclaimed in late 1940 as “Miller Square” in a called Saturday session.
By November of 1919, Miller himself had become general manager of six theaters owned by the S.A. Lynch Enterprises of Atlanta, all in the same short distance. Those were The Strand near the southeast corner of Broad and Eighth streets; The Rialto (now Casella Eye Center) and The Wells (soon to become The Imperial) both across from The Strand; the original Modjeska Theater on the south side of the 800 block of Broad; the New Modjeska operating at the same time immediately across the street; and the Grand Opera House (aka The Grand) just a block south at Eighth and Greene streets.
Over the next 20 years, Miller was constantly in the pages of The Chronicle wearing many hats, including serving as president of the Civil Service Commission ruling on various affairs of the city’s fire and police departments.
He brilliantly saw how the powerful media of radio also affected the rest of the theatrical world.
In July of 1936, The Chronicle announced that the Federal Communications Commission had approved the transfer of Augusta’s first radio station, WRDW-AM, from Augusta Broadcasting to three new owners: Frank J. Miller and two Atlanta “theater men,” Arthur Lucas and William K. Jenkins.
Lucas already in December of 1921 had opened the Lucas Theatre on Abercorn Street in Savannah. It now is known as the Lucas Theatre for the Arts and operated by the Savannah College of Art & Design.
Jenkins served as founder and president of the Georgia Theatre Company, which today in the area operates Riverwatch, Masters and Evans Stadium cinemas.
Frank James Miller born in Augusta.
Augusta’s great downtown fire; New Modjeska theater opens owned by Frank J. Miller.
U.S. Army base Camp Gordon established.
The Wells (later becomes Imperial) opens.
Frank J. Miller becomes general manager of six theaters.
The Grand Opera House burns.
Junior College of Augusta established.
Augusta Museum of History and Augusta National Golf Club established.
WRDW radio begins broadcasting.
Miller Theatre opens.
Frank J. Miller is co-owner of WRDW radio.
Frank Miller dies at 55.
Bush Field begins operating as a civilian airport.
WJBF-TV begins broadcasting.
WRDW-TV begins broadcasting.
The Three Faces of Eve movie has its world premiere at the Miller.
Miller Theatre closes in downtown Augusta.
City of Augusta consolidates with Richmond County.
Renovated Miller Theater (now spelled with “er” at the end) reopens with gala, Jan. 6.
FRANK MILLER’S VISION
Probably no one is sure when Miller started envisioning his own theater to be like most Augustans had ever seen before.
For sure, much of his vision was inspired by the elaborate movie palaces, vaudeville theaters and swanky nightclubs he had experienced in New York City.
His dream started becoming reality when he hired Roy Abraham Benjamin of Jacksonville, Fla., one of the best architects in the nation. Benjamin eventually would design more than 200 theaters in the South in his lifetime.
Like everything else he did, Miller wouldn’t settle for second best in giving Augustans something special that would be around for generations.
And he wasn’t going to let a little old thing like the United States entering World War II alter that goal.
Never mind that only one factory in the nation was making the aluminum doors and stair rails that Miller specifically wanted.
Never mind that the glass “bricks” he wanted just had been created by the Pittsburgh Paint & Glass Company, and never mind that the custom-designed carpet for the Miller with no seams would be one of the largest in the world manufactured by the Bigelow-Sanford company.
All of his vision and nearly impossibilities came together on that Monday night of February 26, 1940, when an estimated 2,200 persons crowded into the half-million-dollar built and furnished Miller Theatre on opening night.
“Frank Miller Sr., the man responsible for the new enterprise, was forced to appear on the stage through audience demand and was given a thunderous greeting,” an un-bylined, front page story in The Augusta Chronicle the next morning recounted.
“He bowed to the premiere audience and responded with a modest, ‘Thank you.’”
The evening consisted of a lavish stage show called A Night at the Moulin Rouge featuring 75 performers who had come to Augusta in four Pullman train cars fresh from the International Casino in New York City.
It was followed by a newsreel film made 20 years earlier showing local citizens enjoying events in a happier time.
And that was followed by the comedy movie Chumps at Oxford co-starring the legendary team of Oliver Hardy, born in Harlem, Ga., and Stan Laurel, born in Ulverston, England.
Miller’s wife, a native Augustan and the former Julia Dillman, later would put the opening night into a few words after the last guest departed, simply saying, “It was a big job, but it was worth it.”
“Telegrams read during opening night ceremonies were said to express sentiments of superstars Clark Gable, Mickey Rooney and others.”
Were they their true bland, briefly worded thoughts or comments generated by movie publicists who sent similar remarks to other theater opening nights?
The answer lies in that Frank J. Miller was widely respected in the entertainment industry nationwide and personally knew superstars of the era.
In the early 20th century, the greatest names in show business found their way to Augusta, including Charlie Chaplin, George M. Cohan, Anna Pavolawa, John Philip Sousa, Will Rogers, Buffalo Bill Cody, Ethel Barrymore and Sarah Bernhardt.
And Miller, who was working with all of those theaters where they appeared, surely crossed their paths face to face.
MILLER’S EARLY BUSINESS LIFE
Miller was one of Augusta’s best known citizens and business leaders when the Augusta National was created in the early 1930s and surely knew all of its founders.
And throughout Ty Cobb’s playing years (1904-1928), when the world’s greatest baseball player was making Augusta his home, Miller was crossing his same paths.
Cobb owned his Ty Cobb Tire Company at Seventh and Broad streets and built the Shirley Apartments multi-story residential center at Greene and 10th streets.
Cobb also loved entertainers and show business, and in November of 1911 performed as a college football hero in a play called The College Widow in The Grand Opera House.
At that very same time, Miller in January of 1912 opened his Hoffbrau “classy” German restaurant just across from the Opera House at 321 Eighth/Jackson street.
Miller also worked with Cobb’s father-in -law, Roswell O. Lombard, in opening the “New Modjeska” theater on Broad Street on property that Lombard owned.
So it’s not surprising that, over the first two years of the Miller Theatre’s existence, theatrical and motion picture superstars were lured to Augusta by Miller himself.
Katherine Hepburn stopped by in January of 1941 and was given a tour of the theater by the owner’s son, Frank Miller Jr. She later had lunch at the Belmont Restaurant in the same block.
Tallulah Bankhead, an Alabama native, came to the Miller the next month with her touring show The Little Foxes.
Charles Coburn, a native of Macon, Ga., who would star in the title role of the 1946 movie Colonel Effingham’s Raid based on the novel of the same name by Augusta author Berry Fleming, appeared on the Miller stage in October of 1941 just to say hello to his local fans.
The main connection, according to The Chronicle, was he was in town anyway to visit his nephew, Augusta architect Lynn Drummond.
The same month world famous husband and wife stage actors Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne came to the Miller to perform their touring play There Shall Be No Night.
In cast on the Miller stage was an upcoming young actor named Montgomery Clift who would cement his fame as Elizabeth Taylor’s co-star in such films as Suddenly Last Summer, A Place in the Sun and Raintree County.
About a year later in September of 1942, Miller lured a trio of major stars to Augusta to help sell war bonds. He then was volunteering as the chairman of the Motion Picture Industry’s Million Dollar bond campaign in Augusta.
Certainly the most famous of the trio was actress Jane Wyman, who at the time of her visit was married to an actor you might have heard of named Ronald Reagan.
John Payne had a personal interest in being part of the star trio since his brother Lt. Ralph W. Payne was stationed at Camp Gordon.
Five years after his Augusta visit, John Payne would cement his film career totaling more than 50 movies by playing the lawyer who successfully defends Kris Kringle in the 1947-released movie Miracle on 34th Street.
Rounding out the trio in more ways than one was Jinx Faulkenberg, a Spanish born swimming and tennis champion, who was one of America’s early super models; appearing on more than 200 covers of some 60 major magazines.
They would attend a luncheon at the Hotel Richmond, same block as the Miller Theatre, for people who had purchased at least a $500 war saving bond.
The general public got to see the three stars up close at a rally in the 800 block of Broad Street.
The Miller was one of the first buildings anywhere to use the “glass bricks” just created by the Pittsburgh Paint & Glass Co.
Roy A. Benjamin, architect of the Miller, also designed the PAL Theatre in Vidalia, Ga., also just renovated, and the Sarasota (Fla.) Opera House now on the National Register of Historic Places; and the Saenger Theater and Community Center, built in 1929 and recently renovated, in
Miller Sr. was born and died in Augusta yet became well known to theatrical and motion picture industry leaders in New York City and Hollywood
opening was delayed because of America entering World War II, which made certain building materials scarce including the aluminum doors and stairs handrails
Dan Miller, known from
The Nashville Network cable TV broadcasts and sofa sidekick of Pat Sajek’s late night network TV show, was the grand nephew of Frank
The Lynyrd Skynyrd rock band from Jacksonville, Fla., performed two nights of shows in the Miller after movie showings
MILLER’S GENEROSITY TO AUGUSTA
Throughout the war years and the last four years of his life, Miller would stay active in lifting the spirits of the home folks worrying about their sons, daughters and other relatives overseas fighting and dying for the cause of liberty.
In October of 1941 he personally purchased 14 instruments for musicians of the Augusta Air Base orchestra led by conductor and Army private Harry C. Goldby. The presentation, of course, was made on the stage of the Miller Theatre and attended by a number of high ranking military officers.
“As a philanthropist, Mr. Miller was without a peer,” The Chronicle noted in an editorial when he died on August 11, 1944, at age 55 in the old University Hospital.
“The scope of his charities was so broad, encompassing so many individuals and so many worthy institutions, that no one but he himself knew its full extent.”
When Miller died the Miller Theatre easily could have died with him. But it didn’t.
In fact its greatest days were still ahead especially with the world premiere of the movie The Three Faces of Eve on September 18, 1957.
It was one of the proudest moments for Georgians in general and Augustans in particular.
It was based on a best-selling book by two Augusta psychiatrists, Dr. Hervey M. Cleckley and Dr. Corbett H. Thigpen about their patient from Edgefield, S.C., who suffered from multiple personalities.
Portraying the central character was actress Joanne Woodward (later Mrs. Paul Newman) born in Thomasville, Ga., and reared in Greenville, S.C. Her father, Wade Woodward Jr., was a native Augustan and graduate of Richmond Academy. Her parents met at their mutual relatives’ house on West Avenue in North Augusta.
Directing, producing and writing the screenplay was another Georgian, Nunnally Johnson of Columbus.
Woodward couldn’t attend the premiere due to filming The Young Lions with Marlon Brando.
But many others connected with the movie including Johnson and the movie’s narrator, Alistaire Cooke, were driven to the Miller premiere from a dinner at the Bon Air Hotel in brand new Edsel cars.
By the early 1980s, the Miller seemingly was on its last legs.
Among its last major productions were The Augusta Players musical Camelot (September 28-30, 1984) and The Augusta Opera’s Regina (January 18-19, 1985).
It finally was shuttered and allowed to deteriorate rapidly until in 2005 when a knight in shining armor came to its rescue in the form of Peter S. Knox IV.
He had the money and he had the desire to buy the historic property and turn it around; at least initialing financing a new roof.
His grandfather, Peter S. Knox Jr., two decades earlier had stepped up to the plate to save the deteriorated Sacred Heart Catholic Church ,which became the now much beloved Sacred Heart Cultural Center.
Peter S. Knox IV in 2008 made the commitment to give the Miller to Symphony Orchestra Augusta, but it wasn’t until 2011 that SOA accepted the gift and subsequently embarked on a massive renovation campaign.
Probably the most visual realization so far of that campaign came when the Miller’s restored, multi-colored, ultra-modern, half-circle marquee was lighted last September in time for the Arts in the Heart of Augusta festival.
“We tried to replicate as much as we could,” said General Manager Marty Elliott of the building’s original furnishings. “As many things as possible have been restored to their original glory, but we also have a lot of modern amenities that will make this house just perfect.”
And don’t you know that native Augustan Frank James Miller Sr. would be happy in knowing that the movie house he envisioned some 80 years ago would be perfect just like he wanted?
Article appears in the January 2018 issue of Augusta Magazine.