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City eager to open theater doors, a new era for downtown

POSTED: November 25, 2013 9:39 p.m.
Photo by Pat Donahue/

Much of the interior and exterior work has been finished for the edifice.

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Sometime in early March, the doors of Springfield’s Mars Theatre are expected to swing open, welcoming patrons and guests for the first time since the building closed more than 50 years ago.


Neither Tommy Deadwyler nor Brett Bennett can wait.


Bennett, the Springfield city manager, said opening the Mars’ doors once and for all will serve as a statement to those who have been waiting and working on the effort for the last several years. Members of the Springfield Revitalization Corporation first explored purchasing the Mars in 2006, and the city acquired the building four years ago.


“I think it’s important largely because we have been working on this project so long,” he said. “People have given money through the years, and time and labor. I think it’s important for them and the public to see it finished. The naysayers out there who said it wouldn’t happen, I hope they’re some of the first ones in the door.”


Said Deadwyler: “I hope the people will support it. Everybody is really excited about it. I know it’s been a long-going and long-running project. But now, it’s a sure thing.”


Carmie McDonald, the program manager at the Fox Theatre Institute, told Springfield City Council members she was impressed with how much work has been done on the Mars. The Fox Theatre Institute picked the Mars as one of three small-town theatres to support as part of its Theatre Revival Tour last spring.


“The progress is amazing,” she said. “It’s a testament to the vision and to all the people who have supported it. I have never seen progress like this, at the rate you’re approaching it. There is so much potential to bring vitality to downtown.”


Deadwyler, the city’s recently-hired director of cultural affairs, and Bennett believe the long-dormant theater also will usher in a renaissance along Springfield’s downtown, drawing in crowds for events, shows and other functions.


“The point of doing the project was to revitalize downtown Springfield,” Bennett explained.


“It’s much bigger than just the theater in town,” Deadwyler said. “It’s really, for us, the beginning of what we hope is a whole transformation of downtown Springfield. It’s happened in community after community around the country, that if you bring the arts back into a small town, where it’s the merchants and the people on the streets, it gives them a reason to come back into town.”


‘A little bit of everything’
The theater will have a wide variety of offerings and uses, Deadwyler and Bennett said.


“It’s been touted as a multi-use facility,” Bennett said. “It will be a little bit of everything.”


Deadwyler, who has an extensive background in lining up music acts through his long association with Georgia Presenters, also sees the building hosting a wide range of arts events and other functions with a broad appeal.


The movies the Mars will show will be second-run releases and there will be documentaries. Deadwyler also has hopes for showing classic movies, and they are floating the idea of showing live sporting events on the big screen.


“The system we’re putting in is top quality,” he said.


He sees having kids movies on Saturdays, along with holiday-themed programming with live shows and films.


For Halloween next year, they are contemplating closing Laurel Street with a trunk or treat and then showing a scary movie.


“Something for everybody, really,” Deadwyler said. “I want mom and dad to be able to come out and see the show. Maybe they’ll be able to do that and not have to drive so far.”


Deadwyler admits the Mars currently has limitations. It has no backstage or wing space, making staging large theatrical or musical productions unlikely.


“We’re limited to a certain degree because of our stage size,” he said. “To have a play with a cast of 20 to 30 people is probably not going to work. We don’t have dressing rooms. We have future plans for these things.”


But Deadwyler would like to have smaller theatrical shows. “There are a lot of shows available that are one or two actors and very simple sets, that are very streamlined performances,” he said.


He said chorale performances are a possibility and he believes the Mars can fill a niche that he doesn’t see being served in the Coastal Empire.


“I have a strong music background,” he said, “so I want to do a lot of music and bring some shows in. Even in Savannah, there is not a ‘music hall,’ so our plan is to do that for the coastal region. We’re hoping to have a multi-use space as much as possible. We’ll try a lot of different things, and see what works.”


Making it a draw for Springfield
It’s not just keeping people in Springfield, or bringing people to Springfield, at night and on the weekends for Deadwyler. It’s bringing a community, with 70 percent of its workforce employed outside the county lines, back home for its entertainment, rather than going to Savannah.


“I’m looking at this project as Effingham’s theater,” Deadwyler said. “My thought is, if we can provide them good, quality entertainment and opportunities for culture here in their own county without having to go back to Savannah on the weekend, that’s a bonus.”


While there are people in Springfield during the day, activity subsides in the evening. Bennett and Deadwyler hope people at the Mars will lead to more investment — and it will lead to entrepreneurs and more restaurants to serve the nighttime crowd.


“I have always said you can have a successful economy if you have food and entertainment,” Bennett said. “We’re trying to get that piece to drive that traffic.”


Deadwyler’s role as director of cultural affairs will evolve once the Mars is open and its dance card is full. Then, he’ll turn to the other half of his position, developing downtown. Deadwyler envisions the Mars as a center of artistic gravity, pulling in artists who then might open galleries and even offer lessons to keep the arts wheel rolling.


“Once the theater is up and running, I’ll be focusing more time on downtown development and the revitalization of downtown Springfield,” he said, “and an effort to recruit new artists who may be interested in opening new studio space or opening a new gallery. Springfield, right now, is open to those opportunities.”


Bringing in an expert — full-time
The Mars also could accommodate meetings and groups, and there was a time when the city council faced a dilemma on what it saw as the building’s primary use. To Bennett, how it would be used could determine the amount of economic development to spring from it.


“We reached a point to where, in my opinion, we needed to reach a decision,” he said. “Do you want a rental facility for people to use from time to time, or do we want to have a professionally-run event space? A rental facility to be used by various groups from time to time will not accomplish that. It was going to have to be something whose primary focus is to keep traffic coming in and out of that building every day of the week.”


And that’s where Deadwyler’s expertise in bringing in events comes into play, according to Bennett.


“Tommy is a great person to move you forward, not only with the facility but also with the programming,” McDonald said.


Bennett noted that Deadwyler’s relationship with Fox already has helped, evidenced by McDonald’s input on seats, fabric and paint. But Deadwyler’s knowledge of the system of getting artists and presentations into a venue was crucial, according to Bennett.


“The tie to the Fox Theatre was invaluable,” Bennett said. “Movies are pretty simple. We’re excited about the turnout we’re going to have. But there’s a lot of negotiating a contract to come perform a concert and then there’s marketing and sales. Having someone who knows that system is critical.”


While movies may be a mainstay of the Mars, Bennett acknowledged that the theatre will have to offer more choices and staging live music acts four times a week likely is beyond the city’s reach at this point.


“Movies will probably be one of the most regular things,” he said. “It will be a little bit of everything. To have somebody on board who can do those things and knows what it takes as far as sound and lighting and ticket sales and promoting and advertising and negotiations is absolutely critical to making that centerpiece in revitalizing downtown.”


The draw to Springfield
Deadwyler came to Springfield during the Theatre Revival Tour, and Bennett related to him his vision for where Springfield was headed with the Mars. Deadwyler was sold, even if “I never thought in a million years I’d end up back here,” he said.


Deadwyler went to high school in Albany but moved to the Georgia mountains later, and he spent 25 years working there.


“It was just the idea of having an impact on a community through the arts and watching it evolve,” Deadwyler said of what drew him to southeast Georgia. “I’m really excited. I was looking for the opportunity to make an impact on a community again. The project is what made me say, ‘OK, let’s do it.’”


The city’s commitment to making the Mars work and making it a fulcrum to move economic growth in the city was also pivotal. Deadwyler commended the city’s resolve behind the Mars.


“They had the opportunity of doing nothing and watching it completely die,” he said, “or they had the opportunity to invest in downtown and this was a great project to be a catalyst for future development. I think it will. If I was an entrepreneur and looking to open a restaurant, I want to capture some of that business. I think the city is open and willing to work with new businesses willing to come in.”


With the seats and fabric now chosen — thanks to McDonald’s assistance — there are a few major items left on the Mars’ to-do list. Next on the shopping list are sound, lighting and movie equipment. Deadwyler wants the Mars to stress “quality, not quantity,” he said.


“It will become a premier listening room,” Deadwyler added. “We will have a great projection system with surround sound.”


The Mars can offer a spectrum of a palette as an arts venue, and Deadwyler is buoyant over its possibilities and its anticipated impact.


“I think the potential is wide open,” he said. “It’s a blank canvas, and all the infrastructure is already here. When you find a town that wants you to come and welcomes you with open arms, you don’t get that every day. You don’t always get the opportunity to get in on something and watch it grow.


“I think there is a lot of opportunity and the timing is now. It will feed off itself. That’s what I’m hoping for.”

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