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A Year in Review: The Appalachian Theatre’s Inaugural Season Draws Audiences From As Far Away As Finland

At the July 22 board meeting of the Appalachian Theatre, trustees received a “state of the theatre” address from outgoing chair John Cooper and executive director Laura Kratt.

It was an occasion to pause and reflect over the momentous events of the prior fiscal year, which began with an intensive swirl of activity to complete the eight-year, ten million dollar renovation and construction effort that restored the venerable landmark on King Street to its former glory, and ended in a complete shutdown due to the pandemic.

The grand re-opening took place on October 14, 2019, with a standing-room-only concert, the first in a month-long series of events designed to welcome community stakeholders whose combined efforts saved the High County’s Art Deco architectural jewel. Almost 3,500 people joined in the festivities, the first of which was an opening performance with John McEuen of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band and the String Wizards with their “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” concert. The concert paid homage to many of the legendary performers that once graced the Appalachian stage in its early years ranging from Bill Monroe to Flatt & Scruggs to Doc Watson. Local talent, Liam Purcell of Cane Mill Road, joined in to make the evening a multi-generation affair. It was the perfect night to announce the dedication of the Doc Watson Stage for Americana Music at the App Theatre.

Subsequent events featured a wide range of local organizations that played a supportive role in the revival of this historic theatre. Digital Watauga, The Jones House, and the Watauga Public and Appalachian Regional Library each partnered with the theatre to host gallery exhibits, talks, and films that celebrated the history of the Appalachian Theatre and our region. The Boone Area Chamber of Commerce hosted a Business After Hours to welcome 200+ members of the Boone and Blowing Rock business communities.

The Watauga Community Foundation hosted its annual awards dinner in the new community room and the App State Humanities Council screened a film that sparked a lively discussion about the role of Native Americans in WWII.

On November 14, the exact 81st anniversary of the theatre’s initial opening in 1938, Boone residents took center stage to share their personal stories during the premiere of Phil Arnold’s documentary “Hollywood in the High Country: A History of the Appalachian Theatre.”

The vision for the new Appalachian Theatre has always embraced program diversity and community engagement as a top priority, and the opening events bore out that commitment. Audiences of all ages and interests delighted in an artistic sampling which included concerts, comedy, films, and lectures ranging from the big band jazz of the US Army Jazz Ambassadors, family films like Hocus Pocus, and Carolina comedian, Jeanne Robertson. The grand opening month culminated in a sold-out show by Sam Bush who was so impressed with the Appalachian and Boone audiences, he exclaimed, “I love these old theatres” from the stage.

The First Five Months

Kratt said that during its first five months of operation, the theatre hosted 8,217 visitors and 26 events in support of its mission to also provide economic stimulus to Boone and the High Country region. “We had anticipated an additional 20+ days of community events but these groups, understandably, had to cancel due to the unavoidable weather delays that made the final construction completion date unpredictable.”

More than half of these 26 hosted events benefited local nonprofits and businesses that included the Watauga Community Foundation, the Heart Church, Boone Area Chamber of Commerce, Allen Wealth Management, Piedmont Federal Bank, and Appalachian State University. Special December holiday shows by the Carolina Snowbelles and Mountain Home Music helped organizers double their normal attendance, and Watauga High School’s Pioneer Playmakers grabbed awards at the Southeastern Theatre Conference in Louisville, KY thanks to the funds they raised at their February fundraiser at the theatre.

The data shows Appalachian Theatre performances received strong support from local audiences but the presenting of national touring artists quickly leveraged the theatre’s ability to fulfill its promise to be a new regional visitor destination bringing in new funds to support the local economy and businesses. Kratt said, “Of these visitors, many were from NC, SC, VA, TN but often we saw patrons from as far away as Mississippi, Florida, Ohio, Oregon, Texas and Michigan for the national acts. It was the Canadian singing group, the Wailin’ Jennys, that attracted our most far-flung visitor by enticing ticket buyers in Finland to make the long trek to Boone, North Carolina.”

Of all these performances, the Americana duo Drew and Ellie Holcomb proved to be the regional powerhouse pulling 70% of the theatre’s seating capacity to individuals from outside Watauga County. Kratt notes that cultural tourists spend twice as much when they visit which really gives local businesses and our local economy a boost. “The increased spending of these cultural visitors expanded the regional economic impact of this one show to an estimated fifty thousand dollars,” said Kratt.

According to Kratt, in the first five months of operation, the 8,000+ people attending shows at the Appalachian Theatre generated almost $400,000 in new economic activity in Boone and supported the creation of four full time and 20 part-time jobs in the local workforce.

The Last Four Months

In March, the Appalachian Theatre was well on track to break-even in its very first year of operation, until the COVID-19 global pandemic shuttered public assembly spaces across the globe. Their last event was the sold-out Wailin’ Jennys concert on March 7, 2020. While the theatre has been closed to the general public, its staff has been working nonstop behind the scenes to complete construction punch-lists and shake down various technical systems. As with any new start-up, the App Theatre had a long laundry list of new systems to implement. Kratt said, “We’re taking advantage of the shutdown to tackle that list so we can once again invite our community to gather together, safely.”

“We are in the event business,” Kratt remarked. “And while it is heartbreaking to be once again closed, we know it is the right thing to do to keep our neighbors safe. In the meantime, we continue to pursue avenues for engaging and serving our community.”

For example, a recent virtual fundraiser held on the Appalachian Theatre stage helped raise $13,000 in support of local small businesses and the Re-Energize Watauga loan program. The King Street windows of the theatre proudly featured Watauga High School’s performing arts seniors and the marquee congratulated the Class of 2020. Staff and Trustees raised funds to feeds families at Hospitality House for a night.

“We know that our community is strong and resilient,” Kratt said, “and our doors will open wide once it is deemed that we can all gather safely. Our staff is working to reschedule events wherever possible. As the entire entertainment industry has been severely impacted, we ask for your patience and support as we work to compile an update for each event.”

Gifts Enable a Community Cultural Resource

Outgoing board chair Cooper has led fundraising efforts for the Appalachian, a perpetual activity since a group of enthusiastic and optimistic supporters first met in December of 2011 to imagine what the theatre could be and could do for the community. “Many folks stepped forward in a leap of faith in the early days of fundraising,” said Cooper, “and several foundations helped build momentum. As the funds continued to come in and we came closer to our goals, construction costs were growing at the same time. By 2018 we had reached a level of gifts and pledges in hand that allowed us to begin the final stages of construction.”

Since that time, new donors have continued to come forward and many past donors have increased their pledges and donations to provide the assurance that we would be able to open the doors in 2019.

Cooper recounted how dancers took to the stage last December thanks to the kind generosity of Elaine and Jonathan Topodas; where there once was a plywood floor, the Appalachian Theatre now has a long-lasting, rugged, oak floor that can welcome an even more diverse array of artists – from Appalachian cloggers to jazz tappers to the Carolina Snowbelles precision dancers.

A foundation grant by the A. J. Fletcher Foundation provided a new 7’ 6” Yamaha concert grand piano. This state-of-the-art acoustic piano comes equipped with digital recording capability and 20 additional keyboard “voices” for maximum versatility.

The Appalachian Regional Commission awarded the Appalachian Theatre a $100,000 grant to purchase LED energy-efficient lighting and signage which will reduce building overhead making the facility affordable in our price-sensitive region. LED signage will permanently expand the venue’s visibility and marketing capacity to drive the regional economy while also making the venue self-sustaining.

“While we are strong,” Cooper told trustees, “we are also vulnerable. Fortunately, many folks, including several trustees, have stepped up to help make up some of the ground we have lost. While we have funds to continue to operate, we will need to replace the lost pledges so that we can reopen when it is safe to do so, and continue to move forward being debt-free.”

Cooper concluded his “state of the theatre” remarks by saying, “The grand re-opening in October 2019 provided a wonderful gift to local residents in our community, to visitors in the High Country, and area businesses. It meant that folks in our region had more opportunities for live performing arts and a surge in business activity in the downtown. In the five months the theatre was open, it has had a strong and favorable impact on the community. The re-opening of the theatre after the pandemic will once again provide a substantial return on investment that benefits the entire region.”

“It’s only an intermission,” said Cooper. “We’ll be back… bigger, better, and bolder than ever before with your continued support.”