Arthur Lucas and architect C.K. Howell opened the Lucas Theatre in December 1921. The theater’s design was a culmination of more than two years of collaboration between Lucas and Howell, and combined Lucas’ favorite architectural details from the Greek revival, Adams-inspired, Art Deco and Neoclassical periods. Lucas owned more than 40 theaters in the South – six of them in Savannah – but the Lucas was the only one to bear his name. From the outset, he intended the Lucas to be a “preminent amusement palace.” He was also very community-oriented. He wrote numerous essays about art and theatre’s place in people’s lives. He wrote letters of welcome to new residents and newborn children in Savannah.
The theater’s grand opening event was a screening of “Camille” on the largest screen at that time in Savannah. The Lucas quickly became a favorite venue for movies and touring vaudeville acts. There was a short-lived, in-house theater stock company. Staying on the cutting edge of technology, the theater was the first building in Savannah to install air conditioning in 1923, making the balcony a welcome retreat during the sultry summers. The front row in the mezzanine became known as “lawyer’s row” after local businessmen began spending their lunch hours sleeping (and often snoring) in the cool, comfortable balcony.
During WWII, a number of Lucas’ company employees were deployed with the armed services. To help everyone keep in touch, Arthur would recount each soldier’s stories in a letter sent to them all. The Lucas Theatre was also a location to purchase war bonds. Arthur Lucas would never welcome home his employees. He died in 1943.
The Decline of the Theatre Era
With the advent of television and the population shift to the suburbs, the theater era began to wane across America. Downtown businesses began to feel the sting of suburbia, and the Lucas Theatre was no exception. Instead of going to a show two or three times a week, former faithful patrons opted for the comfort of watching entertainment from the living room. As demand decreased, Hollywood’s studio system also stopped producing the myriad films of former years. The Lucas Theatre closed in 1976 after a deserted screening of “The Exorcist.” Different owners attempted unsuccessfully to convert the venue into a comedy club and restaurant, and the building was eventually slated for demolition.
In 1986 the owners obtained a demolition permit and made arrangements to turn the once-thriving Lucas Theatre into a parking garage. The news motivated a group of Savannah citizens who founded The Lucas Theatre for the Arts. The group pooled their resources, purchased the building and began what would be a $14 million restoration.
With a starting budget of $3 million and a looming workload ahead, the nonprofit Lucas Theatre for the Arts planned to restore the building in just a few years’ time. Several feet of water stood in the seating area, boxes were torn off the wall, all the seats were removed, the roof was leaking and the building had been stripped of its fixtures, all making the original estimated budget overly optimistic. There were numerous fits and starts during the restoration process but close attention was paid to historic detail. Molds were made from surviving plaster decoration so that they could be recreating. Paint samples were used to create a color scheme. When possible, photos were used as references to recreate as much of the opulence as possible.
Supported by donations from Savannahians and celebrities such as Kevin Spacey, Clint Eastwood and the cast and crew of the film “Forrest Gump,” the complete restoration spanned nearly 14 years.
The Lucas Theatre reopened in December 2000 with a screening of “Gone with the Wind,” and in the following months hosted Broadway shows and famous musicians. Although show attendance was high, the operation of the building proved too expensive to sustain on its own. The Savannah College of Art and Design recognized the theater as an important cultural asset in the community, and formed a relationship with The Lucas Theatre for the Arts. The theater’s future is now assured by the college’s support, which allows for a wide range of community uses in addition to top-notch local and international entertainment such as opera, orchestras, country stars, traveling repertory companies and film series.