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Venerable old theater still stands tall

AHOSKIE – September 13, 1928…a headline in the Hertford County Herald proclaimed, “The New Richard Theater Opens Saturday With Four Shows, Two In The Afternoon, Two At Night.”

Eighty years later, it’s taboo in the newspaper business to have such a wordy headline, but with the exception of a four-year span, nothing over that same time frame has prevented the old Richard Theater from still providing entertainment to this very day.

The venerable old brick building in Ahoskie’s downtown business district now goes by the name of the Gallery Theater. There, just like those that performed in the theater just after the turn of the 20th century, the Gallery continues to offer quality entertainment with live stage productions.

“We’ve seen our ups and downs over the years, but one thing has remained a constant, that of our goal to provide our local communities with an outlet for the arts,” Gallery Theater Executive Director Ralph Hewitt said.

“I’ve seen a decline in volunteerism over the years, but it’s the same in all venues, civic clubs, etc., but we still get things accomplished here at the Gallery,” Hewitt continued. “It’s not about me, it’s about us. We have a great team here at the Gallery. It takes that teamwork to get things done as it is an incredibly complex effort to stage a live production.”

Audiences at the Gallery have enjoyed a wide variety of theatrical productions over the years, ranging from comedy to musicals and everything in between. Additionally, the Gallery hosts an annual Youth Workshop for aspiring young actors and actresses.

The Gallery’s 2008-09 season begins in October. Plans are already in the works for the theater’s annual Christmas play (late November through early December) and two productions celebrating Black History Month in February – “The Winton Triangle” and “Crowns.” The Broadway hit “God Spell” is scheduled for May and a special project entitled “Arts in Education” is also in the works.

“We have a local contingent who wants to see a great emphasis placed on educating our young people about the arts and theater,” Hewitt said. “(Hertford County Schools Superintendent) Dr. Michael Basham is one of our biggest supporters.”

Hewitt said the program was a “win-win” situation for all involved.

“The North Carolina Arts Council will reimburse the school system for any costs incurred in the Arts in Education project,” Hewitt said. “I believe the school children will be delighted to see a live stage performance.”

That stage delighted audiences well over 80 years ago.

Erected in 1906 as a focal point of Main Street commercial life, the building now known as The Gallery Theatre began as a storefront nickelodeon in a “railroad town.” As Ahoskie grew, so did the building. The area known as the lobby was built in 1918 and was used as a town meeting place and for railroad circuit performers who supplied near weekly live shows such as dog acts, juggling acts and comedians.

“There was a place upstairs for the performers to rest or shower before or after their acts,” Hewitt said. “For those in town for longer periods, the Garrett Hotel was right across the street.”

Eric Garrett and his father, J. R. Garrett, planned and built the New Richard Theatre, complete with a $30,000 pipe organ that included bellows large enough to require a double brick foundation for support.

The new portion of the theatre created the L-shaped extension to the building. A balcony was added along with six false boxes along the auditorium walls, which eventually held speakers when the “talkie” movies came along. The older portion of the building itself boasted a theatre house Phoenician in concept and lobbies with a Spanish motif. The still-used elegant ticket cage is reminiscent of the heavy Edwardian designs used by Thomas Lambe.

In 1966, under the guidance of the Women’s Division of the Ahoskie Chamber of Commerce, a group of interested citizens began an extensive clean-up and repair campaign to The Richard Theatre and The Gallery Theatre was born. It remains one of the only true living theatre spaces in northeastern North Carolina born from the vaudeville era.

The Chamber’s Women’s Division negotiated and signed a lease for the building and sold $25 “stocks.” After extensive clean-up and structural improvements, volunteers began producing plays, sponsoring art exhibits (many times from local artists) and hosting other cultural events. Dedicated officers and board members kept activities moving through both good and bad times.

Stock sales, private and corporate donations, the support of the Town of Ahoskie and a variety of grants made it possible for the theatre to outright purchase the building on January 1, 1982 and restoration began. More financial help came in 1983 from the National Endowment for the Arts. Between 1987-88, the lobbies were renovated, air conditioning and heating systems installed, a permanent sign erected, the stage rewired and an electric lighting board purchased.

The significant improvements that have occurred over the years were made possible through a number of financial sources, including the annual “Friends of The Gallery” fund drive; grants received from the NC Arts Council; donations made by area residents; and grants received from Z. Smith Reynolds, Hanes, and Bryan Family Foundations (these monies paid for the annex at the back of the theatre, which is built on a lot donated in 1992 by Ruth M. Bouldin and Jessie M. Curry in memory of their grandparents, Dr. and Mrs. Jesse H. Mitchell, and their parents, Mr. and Mrs. Carl H. Mitchell).

Although the building has changed much over the year, The Gallery’s purpose to promote and advance cultural interest in living theatre, art, music, and crafts has remained unchanged.

What has made The Gallery what it is today are just simple hometown folks who keep alive this theatrical jewel of the Roanoke-Chowan area.