Although they’re in the beginning stages of their efforts, the board members of the Brick District Playhouse have a plan for renovating the old Fulton Theatre, which has a rich history in the community but has sat empty for more than a decade.
The Callaway Arts Council, CAC, donated the theatre and its remaining resources to the group in January of 2015, and since then there have been several stages of construction underway on the historic theatre.
“We started with $6,000 dollars with no plan at all, but using volunteer labor we started cleaning out the building, tearing down dry wall and the drop ceilings,” said Tom Riley, president of the Brick District Playhouse board of directors. “When we applied for the state tax credits we had to define the project so we divided it up into exterior renovations, the front section of the building and the auditorium.”
The construction in the front lobby of the theater made way for the Playhouse Bistro, formerly Cafe Creme, to move into the space in October 2015. A new business in the neighborhood is always invigorating and draws more traffic, but the bistro will also provide concession services when the auditorium is up and running.
“We wanted to show the community that we were making some progress, that there was something going on inside so we needed a tenant in the front of the building that was visible,” said Phil Glenn, who grew up in the old Fulton Theater built by his grandfather at the turn of the century.
Today Glenn serves as secretary/treasurer on the Brick District Playhouse’s board of directors and is personally connected to the theatre as his parents owned and operated it for 18 years.
The Glenn Realty Company, a partnership between Walter Glenn and R.N. Crews, built the theatre on Court Street in Fulton in 1927. Later the theatre was leased to Barney Dubinsky, a partner in the firm of Dubinsky Brothers Entertainment of Jefferson City, which eventually became AMC Theatres, the second largest theater chain in the country.
In the 50s, live acts performed at the old Fulton theater but it was later turned into a movie house. After Glenn’s grandfather died, in July of 1947, his parents, W. Monroe and Daphne, inherited the theater and took over the management.
As a youngster, he took tickets while standing on wooden crates filled with Coca-Cola glass bottles. He later worked at the concession stand and then learned how to be the projectionist.
During his family’s ownership, the Fulton theatre was redecorated and investments were made into a new screen, sound equipment and seating. His parents also purchased the Fulton Drive-In Theater. In 1966, they sold the theater and drive-in to Wehrenberg Theaters, Inc., of St. Louis, which operated it until the end of 1979 when they sold it to B&B Movie Company.
In 2005, B&B Movie Company decided to build a new 8-screen theater in Fulton and donated the old Fulton theater to the city, with one contingent that there would be no first-run movies shown there. Almost immediately the city and county saw the potential of the theatre.
“The CAC took on several money making projects, including a haunted house during Halloween and put on a couple of plays there but we decided to take it further,” Glenn said.
Organized as a Missouri DREAM initiative in 2008, The Brick District was formed in 2011 as a nonprofit organization to encourage economic growth while helping to preserve the history and culture of the downtown. One of their first projects was renovating the building that’s now the nonprofit Art House Gallery on Court Street and then they brought a farmer’s market to the downtown area. Later the popular Morels and Microbrew event was organized.
“Those projects and events were successful and we always knew we were going to tackle the theatre,” Riley said.
Initially the primary objective was to seal the envelope of the entire building. The old marquee was torn off and the building was tuck pointed and some of the old windows were bricked in. The roof received a coating that could protect it for between 5 to 10 years.
Architects Alliance in Jefferson City originally came up with conceptual drawings for the auditorium, but there have since been changes and adjustments made. The board members did receive a grant to install a heating and cooling system and plan to use the leftover funds for a new sprinkler system.
“With a flat floor and some type of lighting we can be open for business, but without a sprinkler system we are limited to how many people we can accommodate. We hope to be able to hold small events in the auditorium by Christmas,” Riley said.
“A year from now we hope the auditorium will be operational with platform seating for our capacity. We’re moving on an aggressive time table and I believe we will get it done,” Riley said.
Eventually, they would like the Brick District Playhouse to be a place for plays, dinner theater and other events, and eventually a new sound system and theatrical lighting will need to be installed.
“Right now we want to make it functional, flexible and usable for as many people as possible,” Glenn said. “People have asked us why we decided to renovate rather than restore it but I just wanted to save the building. I have a place in my heart for this place and it means so much to me.”
As intertwined as the theatre is to his own personal history, many people in the community have stopped by as work is being done to share their stories, too. Some, like an old school teacher of Riley’s gave a donation.
“Rather than trying to build up money in the bank account or have people make pledges, we are putting every penny we get into the building,” he said. “This big vacant building could have been an albatross, but we believe that it will be a culture anchor and a jewel in the city’s Brick District.”
Visit their website to view the theatre’s upcoming performances or to purchase tickets.