All my life I've passed by its closed doors and I don't think I ever really stepped inside. My grandfather, Sam Sullivan, ran the theatre back in the 1940s and I've heard so many great stories about the days when the theatre was in its prime. While I was home last week, I was finally able to go in and explore every nook and cranny of the old Bells Theatre. I can honestly say what I saw exceeded all expectations.
As soon as the front door opened and I entered the dark foyer, the distinct, damp smell of mold smacked me in the face. If I didn't have on a dust mask, I wouldn't have lasted more than a couple of minutes. The theatre has obviously been dormant for many years but when I set my eyes on the original art deco brass chandeliers and red velvet curtains, I was immediately taken back to a time when it was a thriving theatre. I visualized the room filled with the aroma of popcorn, women wearing tea length dresses and hats, and the buzz of patrons chatting and laughing on the way to their seats.
After waking up from daydreaming, I headed upstairs to the balcony, ducking under the fallen ceiling in the stairwell (I still smacked my head) and cautiously stepping over piles of hay (hay was used as insulation in the ceiling). The balcony was the highlight of the tour. It has a bird's eye view of the seats below and the stage where the screen used to be, and when I saw the side of the balcony seats I'm pretty sure my jaw literally dropped. Even under a thick layer of rust, the detail is impeccable. Irwin Seating Company obviously makes quality theatre seating!
The most beautiful thing about the entire experience was knowing I was tracing the same steps my grandfather once took, and knowing that with the passion and determination of The Historic Bells Theatre Preservation and The Arts Council, the theatre will once again come alive. Cosmetically, it may not look like anything other than a big mess to some, but it is structurally sound, and I, along with many others, see the incredible potential this space possesses. Once the Bells Theatre is restored, the space will be a convertible venue for movie screenings, plays, events, wedding receptions (YES!!), dance classes, job training, etc. The possibilities are endless. So far, over $17,000 has been raised to help aid restoration, but it's going to take a lot more than that to get the theatre back to where it needs to be. All donations pledged will strictly be used towards the cost of restoration. The Arts Council of Crockett County is applying for various grants with the state of Tennessee, one of which matches 100% of the money raised up to $500,000. Every dollar donated helps! Please consider donating to help revive this historic theatre so it can be a place where memories can continue to be made, not forgotten.
The Art Council of Crockett TN is a certified 501(c) (3) public nonprofit organization. Donations are tax deductible.
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I wish I knew more about the early history of the theatre and I've been obsessively Googling various keyword combinations in hopes of come across something, but I haven't had much luck. If anyone out there has pre-1980s photos, newspaper clippings or info, please share! I do know that the theatre first opened in 1936, it has been called "Ray Theatre" and "Winter Garden Theatre," and Alabama once recorded a music video at the theatre. If you have any other information, please share!
Again, if you'd like to donate The Art Council of Crockett TN is a certified 501(c) (3) public nonprofit organization. Donations are tax deductible.