Reinventing the Granada Theater at Bluefield | State and region

It’s quiet inside the Granada Theater in Bluefield.

If walls could talk, however, they would have exciting stories to tell.

In the 1930s and 1940s – when Bluefield was often nicknamed “Little New York” – it was not uncommon to see famous faces on movie screens or hear legendary voices on the radio.

For a while, it might have seemed like all roads — well, railroads, actually — led to the town in southern West Virginia.

“We were driving from New York to Florida, to Texas, to Memphis, to all the major places,” said longtime Bluefield resident Julie Hurley.

So when names like Bing Crosby, Greer Garson, Tommy Dorsey, Marian Anderson and Frank Sinatra took the train to one of these cities, they often stopped at Bluefield for a performance at Granada.

But just as rail gave way to air, the Granada gave way to time, and the doors to the grand theatre, where Hurley and many others spent much of their childhood, closed in 1977. .

The Hurley children never attended movie nights or shows inside the downtown theater. His grandchildren will, however.

It’s quiet inside the Granada Theater in Bluefield – for now.

In a few hours, silence will give way to activity. The buttery scent of fresh popcorn will waft from the lobby, the house lights will dim, and visitors will settle in for an evening of entertainment.

• • •

Much has changed since the Granada opened on January 2, 1928, with a screening of “Rose of the Golden West”, featuring legendary actress Mary Astor.

Although it has always shown movies, the theater was built primarily for traveling vaudeville shows and other larger productions.

Hurley, who works for the Bluefield Arts and Revitalization Corporation, said very little history — written or photographic — exists of those early years.

And although the stage was built for live productions, as vaudeville and big bands waned in popularity, the Granada became primarily a movie theater in the 1950s.

Eventually, with a dwindling audience, the theater closed in 1977 and turned into a pop-up nightclub.

Over the next 30 years, the opulent building, designed in the Spanish Moorish style, began to suffer, Hurley said.

“It was terribly neglected and in a horrible state of disrepair,” she said of the space, which was privately owned.

Hurley, who was then vice president of the Bluefield Preservation Society, said she and others in the community began dreaming – and then planning – of a way to help.

“We formed a committee – it was truly a visionary committee – in 2010, to acquire and save the Granada,” she said.

It was a slow effort for several years, but in 2014 the Development Authority of the Greater Bluefield Area took the first giant step.

“They bought the building for us and gave us time to raise the money to buy it from them,” Hurley said.

The committee applied for grants and organized fundraisers to help with the $3.2 million purchase and restoration project.

“We were selling canned blueberries and our motto was ‘Preserve Bluefield one jar at a time. “”

Interest in the preserves was there as several thousand were sold. But Hurley said the jars weren’t going to get them there.

The group therefore began to raise awareness through festivals and other activities.

He also began to address concerns that went beyond funds.

“One of the main hurdles we had was that downtown was dead, and downtown was unsafe and there was no parking,” she said.

The preservation society therefore decided to incubate a restaurant by opening the Blue Spoon Café in 2015.

The restaurant, just down from the Commerce Street Theatre, has taken off and is now run by a young entrepreneur.

“So we took the funds that we got from that and invested them in the Granada,” Hurley said.

The big push that helped achieve the fundraising goal and, Hurley said, “secure the envelope”, took on a village.

“We had a ton of community support, local businesses and foundations,” she said, adding that Cole Chevrolet donated a car to the raffle. “Just people digging in and donating $10,000 and up to $200,000.”

Renovation and construction of the historic theater began in 2019.

At the most basic level of work, crews replaced plumbing and electrical and installed a new HVAC system.

A black and white photo was used to recreate the original rug. The seats – although larger and fewer in number than before – were installed in the same style. Particular attention was devoted to restoring the wall plaster, which had been largely destroyed when the roof thatch was left open by individuals who emptied the building of copper wiring.

“So time, for we don’t know how many years, destroyed all the plaster reliefs except one, which was completely intact,” Hurley said.

The surviving gold leaf relief allowed a Brooklyn-based craftsman to recreate nearly identical replacement resin molds.

“It’s amazing that he could do that,” Hurley said.

• • •

On August 28, 2021, 44 years after closing its doors, the Granada Theater reopened with a celebration and a full slate of films.

The main attractions were evening screenings of ‘The Maltese Falcon’ and ‘Red Dust’, but house manager and programming director Nicole Thompson smiles when talking about the morning show of ‘Looney Tunes “.

“When the ‘Looney Tunes’ shield appeared and the music played, everyone clapped,” she said. “It was just wonderful. They really understand that this was the first thing that had been shown here in a long, long time.

Thompson, who has spent his career in arts and entertainment, joined the Granada team in person in July, after working remotely from Wilmington, North Carolina, for a month.

She’s seen pictures and heard stories, but said it’s hard to imagine the theater in its previous deteriorating state.

“I feel very lucky to have come here when all this renovation was already done,” she said. “Now my job is kind of to keep that attention to detail that they put in when they were doing it.

“It’s pretty amazing.”

While the heavy lifting is done, Thompson has her hands full as she focuses on building audiences, planning and event scheduling.

The Granada, which is not a first-run cinema, currently shows films from Thursday to Sunday.

“We can show anything into 2020 and something like 2021,” Thompson said.

And while audiences will have to look elsewhere for brand new releases, Thompson said they were drawn to the Granada for a more affordable evening of entertainment.

“A couple can walk in and watch a movie and get popcorn and drinks for a lot less,” she said. “So it’s a very affordable night out.”

In addition to the 500 theater seats, a terrace level offers space for an additional 200 seats.

The space, she said, is ideal for private parties and other gatherings, as another part of the renovation includes a catering kitchen.

“People can book events for this space or use the cinema screen or the stage,” she said, adding that the area is also ideal for children’s birthday parties.

“We suggest coming Saturday morning for cake and gifts before coming down and joining the audience for a movie,” she said.

In addition to watching traditional films, Thompson said she would like to offer film festivals and cinema-themed events.

Ideas, she said, include a Roaring ’20-themed “Great Gatsby” party, a Kentucky Derby party and screening of “Secretariat” or “Seabiscuit,” and a car show, followed by “some of those cool car movies”.

“I want to do a lot of things to make it inclusive and thematic,” she said, adding that partnering with the city and other organizations could help.

Another idea, she says, is on hold until the 1927 Wurlitzer Opus 1890 is repaired.

The organ, original when Granada opened in 1928, was sold years ago, but purchased in the early 2000s by the Keith-Albee Performing Arts Center in Huntington.

“They (Keith-Albee) said, ‘If we ever find ours (organ), you can get yours,’ Hurley said. “Then, less than two years after their renovation, they found theirs and sent it back. ours.

“It’s just an amazing story how it worked out.”

The white Wurlitzer console sits in front of the stage, and the “innards” of the organ, including pipes, drums, a xylophone and more, fill two upper level rooms on opposite sides of the theater.

“We literally have all the bells and whistles,” Thompson said, picking up a set of bells.

Employees of a North Carolina-based non-profit organization specializing in theater organ restoration travel to Grenada once a month to work on the organ.

“When that’s settled, we might show a silent film before a feature film or maybe have Silent Film Day on the second Sunday, where we show three or four in a row,” Thompson said.

“I’m pretty excited about it.”

Thompson is also excited about the return of live entertainment through bands, individual musicians, comedy shows, plays, dance and more.

In addition to traditional concession stand items, Movie Scoops Gelato Shop, open Monday through Friday from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. and during movie times, offers fresh cookies and Italian gelato in cups or homemade waffle cones. .

The theater also recently started offering beer and wine—a full variety of liquor is available for events—to those attending a show or movie.

• • •

Both Hurley and Thompson said they were excited about Grenada’s future.

“We’ve accomplished a lot and we’re still growing,” Thompson said. “We work hard to find our niche, to find out what people want and to deliver that experience.”

Although she is still involved with the Granada, Hurley said her “game is over”.

“It feels really good,” she said. “We went out and we did it. Is it perfect? No. Is it paying? Yes. No loans on a project of this size, it’s amazing and awesome.

Thompson said she loves hearing the stories of those who grew up with Granada.

Hurley has a few herself.

But now, she says, it’s time for others to make memories.

“It’s an incredible restoration story,” she said. “A story of rebirth. We can never go back to how it was at Bluefield. I had the best life growing up, but it’ll never be that again. We can’t be what we were, but we can be good.

“I just want our young children to feel this area like I do.”

• • •

The Granada Theater is located at 537 Commerce St. in Bluefield.

Visit Grenada online at www.bluefieldgranada.com.

— Email: [email protected]

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