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On The Record with The Georgia Theatre's Wilmot Greene

Wilmot Greene Interview 2009 

Around 7 am on June 19, 2009, the venerable Athens, Georgia, music hall—The Georgia Theatre—burned down.

Theatre owner, Wilmot Greene finds himself in the difficult position of building back the classic music hall. The wrecked lot carries a long history. In 1889, the YMCA constructed a building on the property. In the 1920s, the building served as a Masonic Temple. The establishment operated as a movie theater in the 1940s and 50s.

In 1977, Sam Smartt, Hap Harris, George Fontaine and Sheffy McArthur opened the Theatre as a concert hall. The Rolling StonesChuck Leavell’s band Sea Level counts as the first group to play The Georgia Theatre. The Georgia Theatre closed for eight years in 1981 before Kyle Pilgrim and “Duck” Anderson re-opened the popular venue.

In 1991, Billy Bob Thornton made his directorial debut at the Georgia Theatre by directing Widespread Panic’s Live At The Georgia Theater: Athens, Georgia. Over the years, bands such as R.E.M., The Police, the B-52s, Panic, The Drive By Truckers, Bloodkin, Marc Ford, Derek Trucks, Pylon, Sugarland, Colonel Bruce Hampton, The Zac Brown Band and many others performed at The Georgia Theatre.

Since Greene did this interview back in August of this year, much good news and hard work has come together in this important rebuilding effort.  The first thing Greene did, working in conjunction with the Georgia Trust, was to set up a tax-exempt fund, The Georgia Theatre Rehabilitation Fund, to receive tax-deductible contributions to aid the rebuilding effort (click here).  

This past week also saw the release of the Theatre's detailed fund raising brochure (click here) as well as the Athens Historic Preservation Commission approving Greene's plans to rebuild the Georgia Theatre.  This weekend (10/31/09), the Zac Brown Band will host and perform at a benefit show for Georgia Theatre at Atlanta's Fox Theatre in which "proceeds of the show will go directly to The Georgia Theatre Rehabilitation Fund, handled by The Georgia Trust for Historic Preservation."

Wilmot Greene bought The Georgia Theatre in 2004. A north Georgia native, and UGA graduate, Greene dedicated his life and livelihood to keep the Theatre as one of the most soulful venues in the South. 

In this Swampland interview done soon after the fire, Greene talks about his life as a Georgia native and a working musician, his purchase of the Georgia Theatre and the subsequent fire including insurance, local obstacles, and a projected re-opening date.   

 Part Two soon...

 WG: Hey man! 

JC: What’s shaking? Well, let’s get to it…There’s not a lot of information on the Georgia Theatre 

WG: There’s really not. The only real thing you can find out there is letters I’ve written to the Facebook group and on my website. 

JC: Well, we’ll change that. You bought the Theatre in 2004, right? 

WG: Yeah, 2004. 

JC: You’re a Georgia boy… 

WG: Yeah, totally. Absolutely. I grew up in Gainesville. Both of my parents went to Georgia. I went to UGA and got a Bachelor’s of Science in Geography. My Masters is a Masters of Science in Geography. I was a mapmaker. I worked downtown in Athens. I played in bands. I worked the door at the Uptown for a while. In college I worked at Katherine’s Kitchen. I was the manager. I knew Katherine Bridges. Her grandson was a friend of mine so he got me a job. That’s how I ate because I brought home Katherine’s fried chicken (laughs). I had two older sisters and they both went to school here. I came to Athens when I was in high school. I’m 39. I moved here in 1988. I’ve basically been here ever since. 

JC: I’m sure you and I were brushing shoulders back then… 

WG: I guarantee you we were… 

JC: I moved there in late 87. I even lived with Danny and Eric of Bloodkin from 1991-1996…so we’ve ran into one another… 

WG: I’d definitely know you. 

JC: Did you play in bands around town? 

WG: Yeah, I was in Northern Lights… 

JC: That’s right. Johnny Sandlin produced your record. They played a lot of shows. 

WG: I was in a bunch of bands. You remember Sky’s Place? 

JC: Oh yeah. I remember Craig the owner too. He ran the Nowhere Bar. 

WG: That’s right. There was a band that played at Sky’s three nights a week for over a year. That was me.  

JC: So, what circumstances led up to you buying The Georgia Theatre? 

WG: I was living in Charlotte working for a company called ESRI-a software company. I was pretty happy at my job. I enjoyed it, but I was living with a girl and she was unhappy in Charlotte. She wanted to move back to Athens. She came back to go to grad school. We moved back together so I had to find a job. I wanted to move back to Athens, but I had to find a place to earn money. I thought I’d come back and maybe buy some franchise restaurants. I had a friend that owned some franchises here in Athens and it was good money. Then, it was during Athfest. I was walking in front of the Georgia Theatre in June of 2004. I saw Duck the owner and started talking to him. I remember him being stressed out. I was laughing and said, ‘Why don’t you let me take this place off your hands? I wanted the place before, but now I’m serious.’ He told me to come talk to him the next day. The next day he told me the price. On paper the Georgia Theatre was a lot more work and a lot less money than a couple of franchise restaurants. 

JC: But there’s a job perk…music. 

WG: Totally. I was totally into the idea. The conversation that I had with Duck the very next day was really interesting. He said, ‘I’ll sell it to you…you’re in for one hell of a ride. I’ll sell it to you because you can do it. You always had it together. I bet you could pull it off, but it’s going to be tough.’ His point was he wouldn’t just sell it to anybody. He knew I knew the scene. 

JC: So, do you have any idea what started the fire?

                                                                                           WG: There were a couple of theories, but the answer is no. The official fire investigator was pretty convinced it was a cigarette butt. Another said a fan. In my mind, I’ve ruled out both of those possibilities. I don’t think a cigarette butt could have done it. You remember how hot it was in June and it was moist inside the theatre. Everything was moist to the touch. It was 100+ everyday so it was really humid. I have a hard time thinking a cigarette could have lit anything up when it’s that moist. 

JC: The Theatre has been there since 1978… 

WG: Sea Level was the first show……. 

JC: So, there’s been turbulence… 

WG: Yeah, that was in the last Athens-Banner Herald headline that came out last Sunday. The headline was like ‘Theatre Fans Helping-Not Helping’, or something like that. So, basically what’s happened is like a bunch of benefits have been happening—a lot of them I didn’t even know about. And the vast majority of them were with people who had good intentions…ninety-nine percent of the time. But a couple of weird things have happened. Like people would call and get bands to play for less than they normally would or free and as it turns out there’s some ridiculous nut on the show and the show has to make two grand before anybody makes any money or can. Stuff like that has gone down. Fans have been under the impression that money is going to the Georgia Theatre—when actually it doesn’t.  It’s been tough. That part has been really weird. It culminated into these bad incidents. That’s when I knew I had to stop this and put the word out.  

There’s been a couple of weird nights. Like the night after Perpetual Groove played the Classic Center. We were involved. They were scheduled to play The Theatre the night it burned down. They were going to play for two nights—Friday and Saturday. It burned down Friday morning. Saturday night they played The Classic Center. We honored tickets for either show. The Classic Center is expensive to rent so we really didn’t raise any money. Then these local bands—Dead Confederate and The Whigs—two really big Athens bands they put on a show at the Melting Point the following week. We got six or seven grand from that show. Since then we’ve had a couple of shows that have made a grand or two. We also sold a bunch of t-shirts. It was the 20th anniversary—this year is the 20th anniversary of the Georgia Theatre’s continuous operation since Duck and Kyle opened it in 1989. October 1, 1989. This October I was going to have the 20th Anniversary shirt I was already working on. So, the marquee was changed to say, from saying @0 years, to we shall return. We put up those for sale on his website for $20 apiece and sold like 1300 of them.  That’s a big deal. Just today we signed an agreement with a non-profit so we have a place to actually put benefit money. So that just happened today. We’ll send money to them—they’ll take an administrative fee off of us but it’s transparent. They’ll write checks directly to contractors. There’s no questions asked. 

JC: Do you have a date in your head for re-opening The Georgia Theatre? 

WG: New Years Eve 2010. 

JC: I’m sure there’s plenty of local bands that want to help. 

WG: We’re working on that. We’ve talked to bands and their booking agents. We know where we’d like to do a show. I’ve talked to the city and I’ve talked to the police and they’re both down to help, or at least allow us to try to do a big outdoor show. We really want to do another superjam, those were fun and something like that could really help to raise money for us and be really good for Athens as a whole too. That’s a tough call. We’re going to do some auctions. They’ll be some stuff for people to buy. You know Fred Adams, he has this reel-to-reel tape—the very first reel to reel tape that Panic ever recorded. It was “Sleepy Monkey” and “Coconuts” on a quarter-inch tape--a studio master. He said we could auction that. We have Steve Penley, the artist—he’s doing a big several feet by several feet painting of the Georgia Theatre, so we’ll have that to auction off—that’s ten to fourteen grand. We plan on using his painting for our hallmark material. Anything we put out officially in the next year will have his image on it. R.E.M. said they were going to give us something cool to auction off. They haven’t quite figured out what it is. Zac Brown gave me a signed guitar to auction off. We’ll have smaller stuff like marquee letters that fell out of the wall. We’re definitely selling t-shirts. 

WG: We’ve formed this alliance with The University of Georgia’s Terry Business College. We’ve teamed up with them so what that means is we’d take a bunch of their interns and be a training facility for his students. In the meantime, he’ll help us fundraise so we can put their logo on our marketing materials. They’ll help us email stuff out to their lists. We’ve had thoughts of putting our marketing material on the Sky Boxes in Sanford Stadium. They’ll distribute to the rich folk. We’ll give an x amount of dollars and people can get their names on a brass plate in the Georgia theatre. Sponsorships, stuff like that. That’s the only direct—‘Please Give Us Money’—thing we’re doing. It will go straight thru the alumni. They’re not giving us money for nothing—they get their name inside the Georgia Theatre forever. I don’t want to just ask people to give us money. We’ll offer them something in return. But, we’re going to need dough for sure. 

JC: Give people a clear picture on what you’re up against as far as insurance. 

WG: Here’s the deal with the insurance. Here’s how it works. A lot of people don’t understand this—it’s a confusing thing for people. Here’s the short version. You get what’s called Replacement Cost Insurance. We could build the Georgia Theatre the way it was. The problem with that it is we could never open to the public if we built back what we had because everything was a 1938 code. So, now everything is handicap accessible. The staircases have to be wider. You’ve got to have an elevator. More bathrooms. You have to have guardrails—wider exits. So, it’s going to cost twice as much to build—literally twice as much, at least. That’s what people don’t understand—that’s all the insurance you can get. Technically I guess you could but it would not be cost effective. It was hard enough to run the business with the insurance bill as high as it was—we were paying sixty-grand a year for insurance just because the building was so old and outdated. 

Another thing people might not realize in the past…I just bought it and fixed almost everything in that place. I re-did the bathrooms. The stage. Power. All the painting inside and outside. I put in a bunch of ceiling fans. Fixed the roof a bunch of times. Air-conditioner. Cash registers. All new PA system. New lights. Brand new soundboard. The bathrooms alone were one hundred thousand dollars. I was going to get more insurance because it was worth more. I was literally in the process of buying more insurance when it burned down. In the five years I’ve owned it I’ve lost money every year because we spent so much just to get it right. We just didn’t have enough money left over to really pay down our debt so we pretty much owe what we owe when we bought it. Instead of paying down debt we’re paying capitol improvement. The timing is brutal. That’s why we need money. 

JC: How did you find out about the fire? 

WG: My phone rang at like 6:45 in the morning. I looked at it and it wasn’t a number on my caller ID. I hit mute. I laid back down and then it rang three seconds later. I didn’t look at it because I just assumed it was that same number. Then it rang like 30 seconds after that again and it was my partner Randy saying ‘The theatre’s on fire!’ I hung up the phone and ran out the door. I live on King Avenue and when I turned onto Prince Avenue I could see the smoke. I swear I drove 90 down Prince. I passed a cop. He must have known it was my building burning down. I was flying. Right when I got there—I got there just before seven. Right when I got there they were raising the truck to get the water on it. About the time I came running up the street is when the back of the roof collapsed. The back draft literally shot flames up 60 feet in the air. The magnolia tree in the back caught on fire—debris was falling everywhere. It was crazy...

END OF PART ONE

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Merchantry,
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