It’s a banner year for Augusta’s theaters. Last month, The Miller reopened after being closed for more than 30 years. This month the Imperial Theatre will celebrate 100 years and while it’s safe to say quite a bit has changed in the last century, one constant is the iconic Imperial Theatre remains Augusta’s home for the performing arts.
On February 18, 1918, The Wells Theatre, built by and named for Jake Wells and renamed the Imperial, opened in Augusta as a venue for popular vaudeville acts and photoplays. At the time it was truly the talk of the town. In fact, a reporter for The Augusta Chronicle attended the opening and reported “Presenting B.F. Keith’s Supreme Vaudeville Co. formerly of The Grand Opera House, another Jake Wells operated venue.”
Having managed theaters in North Carolina, South Carolina and Virginia; Mr. Wells knew he would need more than ticket sales to maintain his theatres. In an effort to generate additional revenue, he created spaces in the front of the theatre and rented them out. Most of the revenue went into maintenance and building overhead, all of which helped the theater survive in its’ early years.
The Imperial thrived for many years thanks to Vaudeville acts, but in the early 20th century the motion picture industry began, forcing renovations to the Imperial to transformed the theatre into a full-time movie house. The first color film, “The Trail of the Lonesome Pine” starring Henry Fonda and Fred McMurray, debuted in March 1936.
Throughout the years, many celebrities have graced the stage of the Imperial. One of the earliest documented celebrity sightings was that of Charlie Chaplin, he appeared at the theatre selling liberty war bonds. Leo Carrillo who later became the Cisco kid’s partner, Poncho; and the famous ballet dancer Anna Povlova made appearances at the theater as well.
But as downtown Augusta declined in the 1980’s, so did the theatre, which ultimately closed for a few years. In 1985, The Imperial reopened and was recognized for its architectural significance and became a performing arts venue for the Augusta Ballet and the Augusta Players.
Ticket prices when the theatre opened on February 18, 1918
$0.10 and $0.20
First Section: $0.35
Gallery (Colored Section): $0.15
“The theatre had some rough years,” says Charles Scavullo, current executive director of the Imperial. “But thanks to grants, donors and the community, the theatre survived and is once again thriving.”
In 2014, thanks in part of a $1 million SPLOST and theater fundraising effort, infrastructure improvements began and many of which are not considered “sexy” Scavullo says, but all for the betterment of the theater.
“Aesthetics of the building were definitely needed to show the community what was being done for improvements to the exterior of the building,” Scavullo says.
This summer, the theatre closed for a few months for some much needed electrical, as well as cosmetic improvements. Scavullo admits there is still work to be done, but is pleased with the noticeable changes. Improvements will continue in the coming year.
A century later, the Imperial continues to thrive as a vibrant venue for plays, musicals, ballets, concerts and much more. The theater is presently home to the Augusta Ballet, the Augusta Players, as well as the Morris Museum of Art’s Southern Soul + Song Series, Storyland Theatre, Dance Augusta, Columbia County Ballet, Ed Turner and the Number 9 Band, Westobou Festival events and the Poison Peach Film Festival.
The 100th Anniversary Upcoming Events
Ballets With A Twist performing Cocktail Hour The Show
A Hat Party: Celebrating
The Kentucky Derby
The Columbia County Ballet presents Cinderella
A Celebration of
Augusta’s Involvement in World War 1 recognizing
the 100th Anniversary
of the War’s end and
Article appears in the February/March 2018 issue of Augusta Magazine.