Calhoun Theater

The old Calhoun Theater on Noble St. in downtown Anniston Photo by Stephen Gross / The Anniston Star

The Calhoun Theater has been empty for so long, only experts on Anniston history remember that there was once a movie house on this part of Noble Street.

City workers took down the red-and-white marquee – the last on Noble Street – nine years ago. Vines creep up the side of the building.

A group of downtown business owners and activists want to spruce up Anniston’s downtown, and this is where they want to start.

“The first eyesore you see downtown is the Calhoun Theater,” said Ed Deyo, a local artist. “If we want to fix it up, we have to get a plan of action because talk is cheap.”

City officials are considering holding a community cleanup day, sometime in October, to refurbish the old theater building, which has sat vacant for decades but is near the heart of downtown. With the city expecting a boost from downtown construction in the near future, downtown advocates hope cleaning up the theater site will be the start of a wider effort to spruce up Noble Street.

“We want to show that the city is invested in downtown,” said Reilly Johnson, director of Main Street Anniston, the city’s downtown development arm. “It’s hard to make demands of business owners when there’s a city-owned property downtown that could be cleaned up.”

When the Calhoun Theater opened in 1942, keeping businesses up-to-date along Noble Street likely wasn’t a problem. War swelled the ranks of troops at Fort McClellan. The city had about 4,000 more residents than it does now, according to U.S. Census numbers. There were four theaters downtown at the time – the Calhoun, the Cameo, the Noble and the Ritz – according to accounts in The Anniston Star.

By the time the Calhoun closed in January 1983, consumers had moved on. Viewers preferred multi-screen theaters such as Plaza Cinemas, in a shopping center on McClellan Boulevard on the town’s north edge, or Cheaha Cinemas in Oxford. (But fun fact: When “Star Wars” opened in Anniston in 1977, the Calhoun debuted it.)

Local bank president Tom Coleman, a financier of the theater, told The Star in 1982 that “home television, Home Box Office movies and all the video games” took customers away from movie screens. Seventeen people showed up to watch Richard Pryor’s “The Toy,” on the Calhoun’s last night in operation. Folks at home with HBO that night were watching Paul Newman in  “Fort Apache, the Bronx,” according to the Star’s TV listings. 

Despite a local effort to refurbish the theater in the 1990s, the Calhoun has sat empty for most of the 37 years since its closure. It now belongs to the city. City workers took down the marquee, which hung over the Noble Street sidewalk, in 2010, due to concerns it would eventually fall.

The city may still have the marquee in storage, Johnson said.

Advocates for restoration of the building say that ideally they’d like to see the marquee returned, the theater’s damaged roof removed and the building itself converted to a walled but open-air stage for public events. They point to the Old Martin Theater in Roanoke, which the local Rotary Club converted to an open-air amphitheater in 2015.

Rotary Club member David Denton said the group didn’t get the idea from another project elsewhere. They were just looking for an affordable use for an old building. He said the Rotarians hold eight to 10 events per year in the building, where the audience sits on a grassy slope in front of a stage where the movie screen used to be.

Denton said couples occasionally rent the building for wedding receptions, though it’s more common for the Rotarians to offer free concerts or movies. (Their most recent showings include the live-action “Dumbo” and “Mary Poppins Returns.”)

The project cost “just a bit under $300,000,” Denton said. He said the former owners donated the building to the club. Plumbing had to be restored so the venue could have restrooms. Some of the labor was voluntary.

“We had to go in there and tear out trees and the floor and get down to the dirt,” he said.

So far, a Calhoun open-air amphitheater is still an idea downtown advocates are batting around. In the near term, they’re hoping to get volunteers together simply for a day of work simply to make the building look presentable again.

Reilly said a cleanup day would likely involve repainting the building’s exterior and removing vines along one wall of the building.

“The fire marshal told us we can’t go inside,” he said. “It’s not safe.”

Anniston jeweler Bill Couch, one of the organizers of the proposed cleanup day, said he’d like to see movie posters in the windows on the building’s Noble Street side.

While organizers say they haven’t yet come up with an exact date for the cleanup, they know what they’re working around.

“We’ve been looking at the football schedules,” Johnson said.

Capitol & statewide reporter Tim Lockette: 256-294-4193. On Twitter @TLockette_Star.