Venue News, Part 2
We continue with news and analysis of Charleston's ongoing venue problem, which can be summed up like this: We don't have enough for the number of theater, dance, and musical groups we have in town, and the ones we have are disappearing faster than we can replace them.
We already knew the Cigar Factory, the former home of PURE Theatre, was being condo-ized. But last week, we also learned the American Theater will be renovated to specialize in wedding-related events. Redux Contemporary Art Center and the Charleston Ballet Theatre are likely to move once PrimeSouth Group, a real estate firm, starts redeveloping their current homes on the half-block between King and St. Philip streets in 2011.
It also looks like there's not much substance behind talk about building an arts center in Mt. Pleasant's proposed $14 million Waterfront Memorial Park. Kruger Smith, mayor pro-tem, told The Post and Courier an arts center would be ideal for the park. But in a phone message left for me, Smith said the issue wasn't about an arts center, but whether to build a dog park, as originally proposed.
"What I intended to mean by that was the land is too valuable to put a dog park on it," Smith said. "We should consider something that fits the million-dollar-an-acre cost of that land. That's why I brought up a performing arts center. I don't care what we put down there. My point is that a dog park is overkill for that particular site."
It wasn't all doom and gloom for venues in the area. The Village Playhouse is poised to launch a capital campaign to build a brand-new space not far from its current home on Coleman Boulevard in Mt. Pleasant. Organizers hope to double the size — roughly 7,200 square feet and 250 seats constructed in under two years.
And the Spoleto Festival has asked the city to rent the Old Trolley Barn on Meeting Street, spurring speculation that the festival — always in need of venues — might take over the barn the way it did the old Memminger Auditorium, which also sat vacant for years.
Charleston Music Hall Hits A Turning Point
For homeless performing arts groups, it's been frustrating to see the 928-seat Charleston Music Hall stand empty. But it turns out there's a reason for that. Built in 1994 by Calvin Gilmore Productions, the Hall was intended to attract the same crush of tourists who love the company's song-and-dance revues in Myrtle Beach. It didn't work out that way, said Holly Sellers, general manager of the Music Hall. The crowds didn't materialize, so the company left town. The Bennett Hofford Company then took over, but there was a problem: The lease for the property was still owned by Calvin Gilmore Productions.
That's why the Hall sat dark most of the time. It was a legal hassle to get anything done. By late 2006, the issues had been worked out, Sellers said. By late spring, she was brought on full-time to market, promote, and manage the venue. It may be a turning point. Sellers estimates there are four times the number of engagements at the Hall compared to the same period last year. The Charleston Symphony Orchestra now performs there for a special series. She's in talks with the Charleston Ballet Theatre and other groups to use the space. "We do zero advertising, yet we've made leaps and bounds in the past 10 months," Sellers said.
Buxton's East Bay Theatre Closes Doors
The former site of ghost storytelling, the Magnolia Singers, and many Piccolo Spoleto concerts, Buxton's East Bay Theatre, a tiny nook seating about 70 at the most, closed in December. Owner Julian T. Buxton III told me the reason was financial. He couldn't meet the cost of a lease held by the Southeastern Management Group. The theater was built in 2005 using 40 seats from the old Garden Theatre on King Street (currently occupied by Urban Outfitters). The seats have now been sold to a "guy living on Edisto," Buxton told me, "for his own private theater." Chad Yonce, of Southeastern Management Group, told me the space is being turned into — what else? — condos. "I'm sad to see it go," Buxton said.
Ashley Hall School's Proposed Arts Center — Slowly But Surely
The nearly century-old all-girl private school has a new master plan that includes a 40,000-square-foot three-story arts center near Jenkins Hall suitable for music, theater, art, and dance. But constructing it is going to take some time, according to Jill Swisher Muti, head of the school. It's true that the elite institution, the alma mater of Madeleine L'Engle and Barbara Bush, was recently awarded a $20 million tax-exempt bond from the S.C. Jobs-Economic Development Authority in December, but the money will go toward immediate needs, Muti said, like the library. "I came here four years ago when the last master plan was being completed," Muti said. "That took 30 years. If we had the money, we'd build the arts center tomorrow. Right now, we have to prioritize objectives. The arts center right now is a long-range dream." —John Stoehr