By Tim McCoy
With the red carpet rolled out and the thick velvet curtains unfurled, Grandin Theatre is set to host an 85th Anniversary gala on Saturday, November 4th. Guests to this limited-seating event will come together to celebrate the storied past of the venue that has been the showcase for movies, live theater, art exhibits, and even internationally famous musicians.
Unbeknownst to many in our region, for a little more than a year (from 1984-85) the Grandin was host to an eclectic slate of musical acts that included R&B greats like Ray Charles and B.B. King, to more modern pop acts like Guadalcanal Diary and the Dead Kennedys. In that year, the owners of the Grandin partnered with the 27 year old Phillip Poff to realize his vision of bringing national touring acts to Roanoke audiences. That brief period of the Grandin Theatre as a music spot is just one the several incarnations of this timeless venue that will be featured in a documentary screened at Saturday’s celebration.
The Grandin Theatre opened its doors to the public in 1932, offering the first place in Roanoke to see “talking pictures”. For the next 40+ years, the theater operated as a traditional movie house, showing “first run” Hollywood films. By 1976, due to financial problems, the theater closed, but almost immediately became the home of the Mill Mountain Playhouse (now Mill Mountain Theater). During the next 17 years, the Playhouse put on grand productions of Broadway classics like “The Sound of Music”, “Guys and Dolls”, and “Annie Get Your Gu”. When the new home for the Mill Mountain Theater was completed, the production company moved to downtown, and the stage was set for that beautiful year of music in 1984.
Like a musical interlude between acts, the period of the Grandin as a music venue faded out, and the new owners returned the building to its roots as a movie theater in 1986, when Jim Lindsey purchased it. Julie Hunsaker managed the venue from 86-99, and brought in art house movies, and opened an art gallery. Ian Fortier, the current Executive Director of the theater, credits Hunsaker with starting the Grandin down the path to where it is today, “What we are now is a continuation of the philosophy and ethic that Julie brought to the Grandin during her time here.”
The theater closed again in 2001, but has now been open since 2002, and is going strong as a “first run” movie theater. Fortier, who came onboard in 2014, has helped diversify what the Grandin does, adding a long list of outreach and community focused activities, that will ensure the theater will be around well into the future. Now the home to six film series events annually, and several education programs, last year Fortier’s team launched the Grandin Theatre Film Lab, which helped high school students make their own films. Four films were produced and screened, and two of them have gone on to win national awards.
The theater continues to innovate and grow, with the addition of the first ever, Roanoke African American Film Festival in February 2018, which will feature four films (one per week) about the African American experience in our region.
Unfortunately, live music will likely not return to the theater as costly modifications would be required to convert it into a suitable music venue. However, what the theater has become will surely keep the doors open, and sponsors eager to assist this historic venue.
Saturday’s gala will be a celebration of where the theater has come from and the path it will follow into the future. The event is going to be a playful affair, and guests are encouraged to dress in formal wear from any of the eight decades of the theater’s history. The two-part documentary (each part is 22 minutes long) screened for the first time that night, will chronicle the rich history of the theater. A couple hundred tickets have already been sold, but there is still room for more folks to join in!
Complete details of the event can be found on the theater website.