Cyril Stewart finds labor of love in Franklin Theatre

Cyril Stewart is a guy who appreciates old theaters.

“My wife and I had our first date at the Belle Meade Theater,” he says, referring to the gone-but-still-lamented movie palace on Harding Road in Nashville. “She was 15, I was 16.”

Later, when he was studying architecture at the University of Tennessee, he was involved in the restoration of a downtown Knoxville historic theater, the Bijou, a restoration which saved the beautiful old building for use as a theater.

Now Stewart, director of Facility Planning for VUMC, is involved in bringing another Depression-era movie house back to life, this time the Franklin Theatre on Main Street in Franklin, Tenn.

The theater opened in 1937 and was for decades a fixture at the heart of the small town, its lighted marquee illuminating the sidewalks and inviting inside teenagers on dates and adults looking for a break from reruns of “Dragnet.”

It closed in 2007, and, as is the way of many great old theaters, was in danger of being demolished or remodeled beyond recognition. But the Heritage Foundation of Franklin and Williamson County, a nonprofit preservation group, raised $8 million from the local community to completely remodel the theater, which has its grand re-opening on June 3.

As part of Vanderbilt’s community involvement in Williamson County— Vanderbilt has 18 locations in Williamson, including almost 250 physicians and care providers and more than 3,000 employees in the county—Stewart has been active on the board of the Heritage Foundation, and will assume the presidency of its board in June. He was asked to be a key part of Vanderbilt’s involvement in Williamson County by C. Wright Pinson, M.D., Deputy Vice Chancellor for Health Affairs and CEO of the Vanderbilt Health System.

“Cyril Stewart’s valuable contribution as an architect on behalf of the Heritage Foundation and the Franklin Theatre is a great example of how Vanderbilt seeks to be part of the fabric in the communities we serve,” Pinson said. “Wherever Vanderbilt is, we want to be a good neighbor and contribute, and Cyril has shown us a good example of how it should be done.”

In addition to his work with the Heritage Foundation Stewart is also the project leader for the development of Vanderbilt’s new Williamson County expansion.

“Isn’t this beautiful?”

Stewart has clearly found a project he can be passionate about in the Franklin Theatre (yes, the recreated marquee uses the British spelling that was on the original marquee).

“[The remodeled look] gets its inspiration from the past, but isn’t a copy of the past,” he says.

On a recent afternoon Stewart led a group of visitors through the stage door entrance at the back, and about ten steps takes him onto the stage (the theater will not only accommodate movies, but also live performances).

A worker is running a sander nearby, and the smell of paint and newness is thick in the air. A big smile spreads across Stewart’s face.

“Isn’t this beautiful?” he asks no one in particular.

The answer is, yes. If you like old theaters, this is beautiful.

New seats, new curtains, new floors (wood for the stage, carpet for the hallways, terrazzo for the lobby), new concession stands, and a digital projection system that is state of the art.

Playing off the art deco look of the marquee, the interior of the theater has a classic air, even if every surface is new.

Stewart explains the philosophy: “You don’t try to make it a copy of what it used to be; you take the best of what it used to be and create a theatre for today.  The best examples of historic preservation don’t recreate the past; they create spaces which are better than they ever have been while preserving a sense of history”

Part of the best of what used to be is, of course, people. A beautiful theater that sits empty isn’t much use to anybody.

If the early response from the community is any indication, filling the seats with people won’t be a problem.

The grand re-opening shows of “Gone with the Wind” (made in 1939, just two years after the theater opened) sold out all 290 seats almost as soon as the tickets went on sale online.

Concerts from Vince Gill and Amy Grant and blues artist Keb’ Mo’ are scheduled for June, as are showings of “Casablanca” with Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman. Some new movies, including this year’s Academy Award winner for Best Picture, “The King’s Speech,” are also in the mix. A schedule of events can be seen and tickets purchased at http://www.franklintheatre.com/

The lunchtime foot traffic passing in front of the theater doors contains a fair number of people who walk over and press their faces against the glass to check out how the work is coming.

“One time we found an older couple just sitting in the back of the theater,” Stewart says. “A worker had left the door open and they just walked in. They said they had their first date here and just enjoyed being back in the theater.”

And, maybe thinking of his own first date at the Belle Meade Theater, Cyril Stewart smiles. Theaters and love just seem to go together.

–by Wayne Wood

–photograph by Susan Urmy



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