Several hundred people walked through the red doors to peek inside the dilapidated building and look at their youth. Built in the 1930s, the theater had fallen into disrepair when the Lineville Downtown Redevelopment Authority purchased the property in 2002 with an intention to restore it.
The authority had a daunting task at hand. Hurricane Opal had knocked the biggest tree in the city through the theater’s north wall about seven years earlier. Exposure had eroded the interior brick, which came from a factory not 200 yards down the road.
“They stood there and cried,” said Barbara Pollard, the group’s secretary-treasurer. “Because they weren’t seeing the disaster, they were seeing young friends, boyfriends.”
The authority is in the thick of the first stage of restoration, said Matt Hooton, president.
U.S. Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Saks, helped the city secure a $196,000 federal Housing and Utilities Development grant. About half the money has been used so far, Hooton said. Most recently the theater was fitted with a new steel skeleton to keep it from falling in on itself. It cost about $40,000 and marked the halfway point in the first restoration phase. Two more phases are planned, which the development authority hopes to pay for with more grant money, Hooton said.
“We’re trying to secure another grant before the spigots are turned off at the federal level,” he said. “We don’t even have half the money (to finish the restoration).”
Hooton and Pollard shied away from putting an anticipated completion date on the project because the authority doesn’t have all the money needed and getting grant money can be a long tedious process. It took two years from when the grant was awarded to when the development authority received the money.
They’ve heard from a number of people concerned that nothing was getting done. But to restore an historic building — the theater is registered with the Alabama Historical Society — the outside can’t be disturbed, Hooton said. As a result, it makes sense that it looks like little has been done.
“Getting started is the hardest part. The inertia of dealing with a small town and federal bureaucracy … there’s no way to describe how frustrating it was to get this money sucked out of the federal government,” Hooton said.
But now the project is rolling and the big-picture plan is tentatively set. Additions for bathrooms, dressing rooms and a backstage area will be built along the side and back of the theater. It’ll show movies again — certainly charging more than 35 cents this time around — and will host plays and other live performances, Pollard said.
More than 200 people will fit inside when finished. The segregated balcony area won’t be rebuilt because there’s no way to safely put one in, Hooton said, and the city wants to leave that part of its history in the past.
Bringing most of that past to the present could be a boon to Lineville and Clay County, however, Pollard said. It would give the hundreds of people who pass through the city a reason to come back and look around downtown, visit the theater and shop in the stores.
“We have to turn into a tourist town; that’s the only way we’re going to make it,” Pollard said. “(The theater) has so much for the future.”
Looking around the theater’s gutted inside, Bobby Pettus, the city maintenance man, described how the stage was set up, how the old projectors worked, pointed out the coal pit used to heat the old place and how narrow the aisles were. The walls still have foam-like pads — except where the tree fell through 15 years ago — to improve the acoustics of old Gene Autry and Roy Rogers movies.
Teenagers used to pack the place for those 35-cent shows playing Thursday through Saturday, Pettus recalled.
“That was the only thing to do. That was it,” he said. “If the walls could talk, it’d be funny in here.”
Star staff writer Jason Bacaj: 256-235-3546