On with the show

The Robinson Grand Theater gets a second act

March/April 2016


Bob Caplan remembers going to the Robinson Grand Theater in Clarksburg as a child, paying 20 cents to see “Hopalong Cassidy” films at the elegant movie house where an usher wearing a maroon suit, felt cap and carrying a flashlight helped patrons find their seats.
“I have lots of memories going in, and of course, one of my favorite spots was the balcony,” Caplan said. “It was unique when we could go upstairs in the balcony and watch the movie. It was a wonderful experience as a child.”
In addition to short serials that would keep Caplan and his friends returning week after week through the theater’s glass doors underneath a pair of gold drama masks to discover the continuing plotline, he also remembers going to see a re-release of “Gone With the Wind” in the 1950s, the first time he saw a film featuring an intermission.
A large black and white portrait of opera soprano and Clarksburg native Phyllis Curtin greeted audience members from behind a curved panel of glass in the lobby that featured art deco touches.
“That was put up when community concerts were held there and she was one of the performers,” Caplan said.
The Robinson Grand Theater — first known as the Keith Grand Theater — and the council member’s family’s business, Caplan’s Jewelers, were both established around the same time on Pike Street in Clarksburg, in 1913 and 1914 respectively.
Caplan’s grandparents founded the shop next to the stately Waldo Hotel, where the Derek W. Hotsinpiller Federal Center is now located, and down the street from the Ritz Theater, where the Clarksburg-Harrison Public Library has stood since 1975, and a stone’s throw from Moore’s Opera House, which operated as a movie theater on Fourth Street from 1911 to the late 1950s and was demolished in the 1990s.
Caplan eventually took over the jewelry store, which closed in 1997. And when he ran for city council in 2013, one of his platform issues was helping to get the Robinson Grand reopened.
“I always felt the downtown needed a catalyst — something to happen — to encourage others to invest in town,” he said. “I believe the Robinson Grand is that avenue. I believe once that takes place, we’ll see a great revitalization of downtown.”
The Ritz Theater and the original Caplan’s Jewelers are gone for good, but the Robinson Grand Theater remains and by the end of 2017, it should be at the center of a grand reopening and once again will feature films, traveling productions and a community concert series that might bring the next big star to Clarksburg before he or she hits the big time.
Clarksburg officials have big renovation plans for the Robinson Grand, which closed in 1984 as a movie theater after showing its last film, “Lassiter,” which starred Tom Selleck, Lauren Hutton and Jane Seymour.
It reopened as an event center called the Rose Garden, and concerts including one featuring Ricky Skaggs played to small audiences, said David Houchin, special collections librarian at the Clarksburg-Harrison Public Library. Eventually, it closed again.
The city purchased the Robinson Grand in May 2014 for $430,000, and after architectural firms submitted bids, WYK Associates Inc. in Clarksburg won the contract to design and lead a multimillion dollar restoration.
Additional purchases totaling $354,000 of two adjacent businesses were approved by city council in early January to allow for a larger lobby and concession stand as well as the construction of dressing rooms on the first floor rather than in the basement, which will increase the original $12 million budget estimate of the project, said James Swiger, president of WYK Associates.
“There are other amenities we are adding to the project that we didn’t have originally,” Swiger said. “Now we can add a real loading dock. We already were adding a loading dock but we were going to have to block Hewes Avenue temporarily. Now we will be able to park a full-sized tractor-trailer and it can stay there for the full time of the show to load and unload.
“That’s one big benefit.”
And that will help attract bigger productions to the Robinson Grand, originally built as a Gothic Revival structure and then redesigned on the interior in art deco by one of Swiger’s WYK predecessors, Edward J. Wood., after a fire burned the theater in 1939, the same pivotal film year that saw the release of both “The Wizard of Oz” and “Gone With the Wind.”
If all goes as planned, the Robinson Grand should reopen on Christmas Eve 2017, and city officials and area arts groups already are making plans for the shows that will once again grace the stage — and screen — of the theater.
Either an individual acting as executive director or a management company will be hired, said Clarksburg city manager Martin Howe, and could be in place as early as January 2017.
“Then that responsibility would be to begin booking for the theater and marketing the theater and continuing with the operation and development plans of the theater,” Howe said.
But the community also will be involved. In fact, just the promise of the Robinson Grand’s grand reopening will bring music back to the area even before the renovations are completed. The Clarksburg-Harrison Cultural Foundation will re-establish the discontinued Clarksburg Community Concerts under a new name — Grand Performances, scheduled to begin in September 2016 at another venue. Nashville-based booking agency Live On Stage (liveonstage.biz/) has a roster that includes artists who play not only classical music but other genres.
“We realize we need to have some mass appeal, and we also want some dance,” said Dolores Yoke, a member of the foundation board.
Yoke also hopes to book the Metropolitan Opera’s Live On Screen In Cinema series that would bring filmed performances of such classics as “Turandot” and “Madama Butterfly” to the Robinson Grand.
The foundation already hosts the Ivory Evenings piano concert series at the historic Waldomore in Clarksburg in performances that showcase the Steinway grand piano selected by Curtin herself in 1978 for the foundation, which was created in the early 1970s to accept funds for the construction of the library and had $3,000 left over to begin an endowment. Once the Robinson Grand reopens, the foundation also will have the option to book bigger Ivory Evenings concerts for the theater, but smaller performances probably will take place at Waldomore.
“They are both acoustically fine venues,” Yoke said.
The Robinson Grand actually will have a place to permanently store the Steinway, which is currently housed at Waldomore on the other end of the block. Before the Robinson Grand was closed, the piano was rolled down the street on a wheeled cart from Waldomore to the theater, and Yoke imagines that will be the case again so that both locations will be able host piano performances.
The timing of the Robinson Grand’s renovation also dovetails nicely with the establishment of the Barbara B. Highland Performing Arts Fund in 2013, one year after the 2012 death of the wife of Cecil B. Highland Jr., the late former president of the Clarksburg Publishing Co.
Highland’s trust provides $139,000 a year for 40 years, through 2053, to be administered by the foundation. Yoke is the chairman of the fund, which cannot be used toward the renovations at the Robinson Grand but instead for programming there and at other venues.
“That was Barbara Highland’s strong request,” Yoke said. “She wanted this money used, not sitting around waiting for good things. We are waiting a bit because the Robinson Grand is not ready and we don’t have very good venues.”
Any part of a year’s $139,000 that is not spent can be carried over to the next year, Yoke added.
And just as the foundation was created to accept funds for the library, the organization will perform the same task for the capital campaign that is being conducted by Charleston-based Progressity Inc., Yoke said.
“The cultural foundation has a 509(a)2 designation to handle that funding for the library, and now that the city of Clarksburg is going to do another capital campaign, the foundation accepts the funds and gets them to the right places. The city cannot do that.”
Kathleen DuBois, owner of Progressity Inc., said she officially came on board Nov. 1 and so far does not have any figures to report. She hopes to have all necessary pledges by the time the doors open in late December 2017.
“We’re just in the initial stages of the campaign,” she said.
The city also will secure a $7-7.5 million loan from the United States Department of Agriculture, Swiger said.
In January, the design phase was still being completed, he added. Swiger anticipates a bid for a general contractor for the main building to go out in late May and work will commence on creating a theater that will have larger seats and comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990 while retaining the architectural integrity of the building. It is on the National Register of Historic Places as part of the Clarksburg Downtown Historic District.
To make sure the latter happens, Swiger has been working with Courtney Fint Zimmerman, an architectural historian with a consulting firm, Aurora Research Associates, based in Silver Lake, Ohio.
Growing up 50 miles east of Clarksburg in Preston County, Zimmerman recalled that her relatives told her stories about the Robinson Grand Theater.
“I think it’s a amazing,” Zimmerman said. “It’s a great asset for the city. A lot of these historic theaters have disappeared. Every town had a historic theater, even the small ones usually, but they are just so few and far between. So it’s really great that it’s still there.”
In fact, the Fairmont Theater on Adams Street in downtown Fairmont, built in 1946, was torn down in 2012 to make way for the new West Virginia State Office Complex. High Street in Morgantown features not one but two old cinemas, the Metropolitan Theatre, which remains open and hosts occasional performances, and the Warner Theater, which closed in 2010.
Being listed on the National Register actually does not automatically protect the Robinson Grand Theater, Zimmerman said, but the fact that federal funds have been secured for the renovation does.
“We have to work with the State Historic Preservation Office in Charleston and let them know about the project,” she added. “We have to submit our plans. The best outcome would be to have no adverse effect on the structure. That means we would not affect its integrity or its eligibility for the National Register.
“It’s a flexible process,” she added. “It’s not as rigid as people might think it would be.”
Swiger does anticipate retaining the art deco decor that was added in the 1939 renovation.
One change that Swiger knows will take place is that the number of seats will be reduced from the current 1,050 to 950. Originally, that number was going to be between 750 and 800, but the purchase of the additional businesses will provide space for more seats.
Still, not as many seats will fit in the theater because 21st-century theater patrons expect larger seats and safety codes require aisles to be wider than in the past.
“People are wider than they were in 1939 and seats are wider,” Swiger said.
The new theater also will incorporate spaces for wheelchairs as part of its ADA compliancy.
An orchestra lift will provide a pit where musicians can play or be raised up to provide additional seating for performances that do not include live music, Swiger said.
Other amenities that will be added to the theater include a new marquee and blade sign, two star dressing rooms with showers, men’s and women’s dressing rooms and a greenroom lounge for actors to utilize while offstage.
On the second floor, additions will include a circular bar, and an old ballroom will be transformed into a multipurpose room with a caterer’s kitchen, a VIP lounge and audio visual projects and sound system
“It can be used independently of the theater,” Swiger said. “Or it can be used in conjunction with the theater, like for a catered meal before a show. It’s a nice bonus with this theater. It’s an advantage to have this space.”
Originally built as a vaudeville theater when it was opened in 1913 by Reuben Robinson and later operated by his brother, Claude, the Robinson Grand was equipped to show motion pictures in 1915 and was just the 13th theater in the country to be outfitted for sound, in 1927, according to the history written in the 1981 National Register request.
Ventriloquist Edgar Bergen appeared there early in his career, according to a history completed by Zimmerman that also noted that Claude Robinson’s friendship with Albert Warner of the Warner Bros. Studios accounted for the early installation of “talking” pictures.
Phil Wyatt, the president of the Clarksburg-Harrison Cultural Foundation, recalled spending Saturdays there watching Gene Autry, Roy Rogers and the Three Stooges, and attending “The Sound of Music” with his junior high school class. Later, he watched the dance recitals and theater productions featuring his daughter, Kirsten Wyatt, an actress who since has appeared in nine Broadway productions and who has her own memories of the Robinson Grand Theater, including seeing the 1982 film “Annie,” based on the Broadway musical. More than 30 years later, she appeared in the 2013 Broadway revival of “Annie” as Lily St. Regis.
Like Bob Caplan, she also remembers sitting in the balcony to watch movies.
“That was a big deal.”
And like Caplan, she believes a renovated Robinson Grand Theater will be an important addition to Clarksburg.
“A town without an arts space to me is lacking a major element,” she said. “Arts provide so much heart and humanity to a community. I’m happy that it’s going to be coming back.”