STORY AND PHOTOS BY ANNA PARKER

In the sometimes sleepy streets stereotypical of small towns, downtown movie theaters were more than just a building among scattered storefronts. They were an oasis ... a refuge ... welcoming hundreds, thousands over the years. And the Haven Theater in Brookhaven is no exception. Its offerings started as silent, black and white glimpses of an outside world foreign to many whom do not travel to often if ever from their small, sleepy towns. Then, color came along and brightly beckoned to an audience hungry for stories, characters and places. Over the years, it hosted first dates, prompted first kisses, gathered friends and showed film after film.

I

It may seem a bit too poetic to speak of a movie theater in such terms. As if it was a person. A person with outstretched arms, luring children, couples and families into its world of stories stained with the smell of popcorn for as little as a dime. But, when you ask Brookhavenites, anyone over the age of 30, and particularly over the age of 60 - they speak of the Haven Theater with a smile as they spill memories of a different kind of sanctuary. They give names ... names of movies they saw. Names of actors. Names of the people they shared seats with in the dark. Names of employees who worked there from ticket takers to managers and others in between. When the theater was

operational, it was alive. And, it was as much a person in their weekend ritual as the kids they rode to with it from the neighborhood. The movie theater business at the Haven started decades ago. While pieces of its history are still being pieced together, movie artifacts dating from before 1920 have been recently discovered during renovationefforts. Movies played in the 1930s and up until 1977. Then, in 1982, the building was purchased by Brookhaven Little Theatre for the purpose of securing a fixed home for its otherwise traveling productions. Charles and Laverne Downing operated the movie theater from 1945 until 1977. In

south mississippi scene • 85

art: brookhaven’s little theatre

the years to follow, before BLT bought the property, it was believed by some that Mr. Downing’s spirit still occupied the aisles, balcony and projection room of the theater. Even today, some volunteers believe he lingers. Since the early 1980s, Brookhaven Little Theatre volunteers have filled the stage with productions telling stories - a minimum of 3 per year. Four years ago, they added a children’s summer production to not only give an audience to the kids’ love for performing, but to inject them with a sense of

ownership so they may continue its programs and help maintain the building for years to come. After almost 20 years in the building, volunteers began to realize the difficult and tedious task of revitalization was necessary. Walls were peeling, plumbing was questionable, lighting never did function as it should and ... when it rained ... the roof had begun to leak. Attendance for plays remained less than 50 percent capacity in many cases and the dilapidated condition of the building’s front often told the

lie that it was not in use. To launch a new surge of interest, attract large crowds and hopefully bank thousands of dollars, Brookhaven Little Theatre presented GREASE in May 2006. The production broke all attendance records and presented another two, sold out encores and started the SAVE THE HAVEN fund with a $30,000 deposit. Sha Walker, who played a TBird in the production, was enchanted by the experience and agreed to get involved, mainly with the grant writing process so that the crumbling

theater could secure monies for restrengthening the building. Within a year, the roof was rebuilt and two years and five months after Walker took his final bow with GREASE, on Oct 25 this year, he stood in front of the theater and flipped the switch to relight the neon on a refurbished HAVEN sign, marquee and restored building front. A front that now has reopened its arms to lure Brookhavenites back into its seats ... in the dark, to see stories, characters and places. The new 2008-09 production season for Brookhaven Little Theatre begins with the classic American comedy “You Can’t Take it With You” in mid November. In February, BLT will present “London Suite” a play in four acts. Then, with the hopes of repeating the success of GREASE, BLT will present “Wizard of OZ.” Finally, in July 2009, children attending the annual Summer Drama Camp will present “Alice in

Wonderland.” Admission into the productions is not a dime anymore. The theater faces hefty annual expenses including its insurance, utilities, taxes and the royalties of the plays it produces. The cost of a season ticket is $35, which allows admission into all 4 productions. The BLT organization does not take any season tickets sold for granted, since that revenue pays for the operational expenses for the building and its productions. Now that the roof has been rebuilt (Phase 1), the building’s front has been restored from its bones to its outer skin (Phase 2), volunteers are moving forward to the inside (Phase 3) with extensive work in the lobby. A new concessions area will be built with capability for caterer use. The two business properties on both sides of the lobby will be incorporated into lobby space. almost tripling its cur-

rent size. New floors will be installed throughout to build continuity and bathrooms will be renovated. Paint, fixtures and other touches reflective of the now established art deco design of the building’s front will be added. Once those changes are complete, production upgrades and auditorium work can begin. New seats, improved wall coverings, the restoration of seating in the balcony and the installation of a curtain - once again - to open and end performances with the appropriate drama and majesty. When approaching the theater’s entrance now, there is the promise of continued renewal as work continues on the inside. It is a pristine, new cover on an old, aging book. Whether a film or play, the story has remained with many similarities through the decades at the Haven. And, it is a story of a place to go with others to see a story unfold.

south mississippi scene • 89

Sign up to vote on this title
UsefulNot useful