Commissioned by the New Theatre Corporation and its directors, Julius L. Witz, Fielding L. Olivier, and Albert Shultz, The New Theatre was built in 1912. Designed by T.J. Collins and Sons, it was created as a venue for vaudeville shows and silent movies. T.J. Collins, Staunton's premier architect of the era, came out of retirement to assist his sons on the design for the building. It was their last collaboration.
The theatre's classic exterior design was in the Italian Renaissance Revival style inspired by Renaissance era palazzos in Florence. The richly ornamented interior featured ornate, gilded sculptural plasterwork, and two balconies with box seats on either side of the stage. It was one of the most state-of-the art theatres in Virginia at that time. The New Theatre opened on June 16, 1913, providing a combination of live entertainment and film.
Warner Brothers began leasing the New Theatre during the mid-1920's, and it became one of the first theatres in Virginia to be wired for sound. This was done in order to show Warner's revolutionary new talking picture, The Jazz Singer in 1927. Warner Brothers purchased the theatre and The New Theatre Corporation was dissolved on December 20, 1934.
A disastrous fire on January 23, 1936, destroyed the ornate interior and the third floor of the building. To rebuild the theater, Warner Brothers turned to renowned New York architect, John Eberson often referred to as the "Dean of American Theatre Architects." Eberson was best known for his atmospheric theaters of the 1920's, designs that evoked exotic styles and sported lavish interiors that would visually transport the visitor into a fantasy world. By the time of the rebuilding of Staunton's theater, however, the Depression brought about the end of lavish movie palaces.
A New Design: the Wedding of Two Eras
Fortunately for the New Theatre, John Eberson was noted for being able to blend the ornate beauty of the classic movie palace with the marvelous colors and sleekness of the Art Moderne style. He ingeniously preserved the old craftsmanship of the exterior while adding a new art form to the façade of the building. Arched windows were filled with stunning stylized floral motifs created with decorative tiles, a new box office added and flanking doors converted to display boxes.
In keeping with the flat roof design that he favored, Eberson chose not to rebuild the third floor, which had been the most seriously damaged by the fire. He mounted a prow-like marquee above the front doors, and combined this projection with a vertical blade sign (now missing), which rose from the horizontal parapet and curled back on to the roof. He also made use of his trademark "speed stripes" with rounded corners in the building's interior.
With the new look came a new name. Warner Brothers sponsored a contest for choosing a name for the newly renovated theatre. Fourteen-year-old Mildred Klotz won the $50 prize for suggesting the winning name Dixie. The rebuilt theater reopened in December 1936 and has been showing films ever since. In 1981, the interior was reconfigured into a four-screen movie house, taking care that it could be restored to a single theater in the future.
Into the Present
In 2000, the Dixie Theater was bought by a private citizen and incorporated as the New Dixie Theatre, Inc., a 501(c)(3) entity to fund the restoration and renovation of the building. In January 2003 the building was sold to a Limited Partnership, the New Theatre LP, in order to be eligible for historic tax credits. The non-profit's name was changed to the Staunton Performing Arts Center, which is governed by a Board of Directors. The Dixie will continue to operate as a four-plex movie theater until it closes to begin renovations.
In 2008 the adjacent building was purchased to enhance the theatre complex with larger lobbies on both floors, dressing rooms, Green Rooms, rehearsal room, and multi-purpose room, and rental spaces.
Over $2,000,000 has been raised by the Staunton Performing Arts Center, including $722,500 in state funds that the organization has matched. In addition to the operating costs, these funds have been used to pay off the mortgage on the Dixie, replace its roof, remove its asbestos, and purchase the adjacent building, so essential for the performing arts support spaces that do not exist in the footprint of a movie theatre.
In 2012 the Board hired the national architecture firm of Westlake Reed Leskosky, theatre specialists, to design a renovation/restoration plan for the Staunton Performing Arts Center. See the section marked "Design" for their schematics. Currently a capital campaign is being launched to raise the funds for the center. Approxomately half of the funds will be paid for with tax credits.
2013 marks the 100th Anniversary of the opening of the New Theater, the most grand, state-of-the-art performing arts center at the time. The goal of the Staunton Performing Arts Center is to again create a state-of-the art center for live performances of all kinds that are currently not able to be performed here, because of lack of an appropriate theatre.
*Photos used with permission from the Theater Historical Society of America - www.historictheaters.org