May 20 – It’s quiet at Bluefield’s Granada Theater.
However, if the walls could talk, they would have exciting stories to tell.
In the 1930s and ’40s – back when Bluefield was often referred to as “Little New York” – it was not uncommon to see faces that became famous on the movie screens or hear voices that became legends on the radio.
For a time, it seemed like all roads—well, railroad tracks actually—led to the southern West Virginia town.
“We were on the route from New York City to Florida, Texas, Memphis, all the important places,” said Julie Hurley, who has lived in Bluefield all her life.
When names like Bing Crosby, Greer Garson, Tommy Dorsey, Marian Anderson and Frank Sinatra popped up in one of these cities, they often stopped in Bluefield to perform at the Granada.
But as rail gave way to air, so did Granada, and the doors of the grand theater where Hurley and many others spent much of their childhood closed in 1977.
Hurley’s children never experienced movie nights or live shows at downtown theaters. But your grandchildren will.
It’s quiet at Bluefield’s Granada Theater – for now.
In a few hours, silence will give way to activity. The buttery smell of fresh popcorn will waft from the lobby, house lights will be dimmed and visitors will be set for an evening of entertainment.
—-Much has changed since the Granada opened on January 2nd, 1928 with a screening of “Rose of the Golden West” starring legendary actress Mary Astor.
Although it has always shown films, the theater was built primarily for touring vaudeville shows and other larger productions.
Hurley, who works at Bluefield Arts and Revitalization Corporation, said that very little history – either written or photographic – exists from those early years.
And although the stage was built for live productions when both vaudeville and big bands declined in popularity, by the 1950s the Granada became primarily a cinema.
Eventually, in 1977, with audiences declining, the theater closed and was converted into a short-lived nightclub.
Over the next 30 years, the opulent Spanish Moorish-style building began to suffer, Hurley said.
“It was terribly neglected and in a terrible state of disrepair,” she said of the privately owned space.
Hurley, who was then vice president of the Bluefield Preservation Society, said she and other community members began to dream of — and then plan for — an opportunity to help.
“We formed a committee in 2010 – it was really a visionary committee – to acquire and save the Granada,” she said.
It’s been a years-long slow endeavor, but in 2014 the Greater Bluefield Area Development Authority took the first big step.
“They bought the building for us and gave us time to raise the money to buy it from them,” Hurley said.
The committee solicited grants and held fundraisers to support the $3.2 million purchase and restoration project.
“We sold canned blueberries and our motto was ‘Canning Bluefield one jar at a time’.”
Interest in the canned food was there as several thousand were sold. But Hurley said the jars wouldn’t get her there.
So the group started raising awareness through festivals and other activities.
It also began addressing concerns beyond funding.
“One of the biggest hurdles we had was downtown was dead and downtown was unsafe and there was no parking,” she said.
Therefore, the conservation society decided to incubate a restaurant and opened the Blue Spoon Café in 2015.
The restaurant, just off the theater on Commerce Street, has thrived and is now run by a young entrepreneur.
“So we took the monies that we made from that and invested those monies in Granada,” Hurley said.
The big push that helped meet the fundraising goal and, as Hurley put it, “secure the envelope” took up an entire village.
“We had a lot of support from the community, local businesses and foundations,” she said, adding that Cole Chevrolet had donated a car to the raffle. “Just people who step in and give $10,000 and up to $200,000.”
In 2019, the renovation and construction of the historic theater began.
At the most basic level of work, crews replaced the plumbing and electricity and installed a new HVAC system.
A black and white photograph was used to recreate the original carpet. Seats – although larger and fewer than before – were installed in the same style. Particular attention was paid to restoring the wall plaster, which had been largely destroyed when the thatched roof was left open by individuals gutting the building of copper plumbing.
“So the weather, we don’t know how many years, destroyed all but one of the plaster reliefs, which was completely intact,” Hurley said.
The surviving gold leaf relief enabled a Brooklyn-based craftsman to recreate nearly identical substitute molds in resin.
“It’s amazing that he was able to do that,” Hurley said.
—-On August 28, 2021, 44 years after it closed its doors, the Granada Theater reopened with a celebration and a whole host of films.
The main attractions were the evening performances of The Maltese Falcon and Red Dust, but house manager and program director Nicole Thompson smiles when she talks about the morning performance of Looney Tunes.
“When the ‘Looney Tunes’ sign came up and the music played, everyone clapped,” she said. “It was just wonderful. You really understand that it was the first thing that’s been shown here in a long, long time.”
Thompson, who has spent her career in arts and entertainment, personally joined the Granada team in July after working remotely from Wilmington, NC for a month.
She’s seen photos and heard stories, but said it’s difficult to imagine the theater in its former state of disrepair.
“I feel very fortunate to have come here when all these renovations were already done,” she said. “Now it’s my job to preserve the attention to detail they put into the work.
“It’s pretty incredible.”
Though the heavy lifting is done, Thompson has her hands full while she focuses on growing audiences and planning and scheduling events.
The Granada, which is not a first-run theatre, currently shows films Thursday through Sunday.
“We can show anything through 2020 and about 2021,” Thompson said.
And though audiences may have to look elsewhere for brand new releases, Thompson said they’re drawn to the Granada for a more affordable night of fun.
“A couple can come in and watch a movie and get popcorn and drinks for a lot less,” she said. “So it’s a very affordable evening.”
In addition to the 500 theater seats, a terrace level offers space for a further 200.
The space, she said, is ideal for private parties and other gatherings, as another part of the renovation includes a catering kitchen.
“People can book events for this very space or use the cinema screen or the stage,” she said, adding that the area is also great for children’s birthday parties.
“We suggest stopping by for cake and gifts on Saturday morning before we come down and join the audience for a movie,” she said.
In addition to traditional film viewing, Thompson aims to host film festivals and film-themed events.
Ideas, she said, include a “Great Gatsby” party with a Roaring 20 theme, a Kentucky Derby party and a screening of “Secretariat” or “Seabiscuit,” and a car show followed by “some of these cool car movies “.
“I want to do a lot of things to make it inclusive and themed,” she said, adding that partnering with the city and other organizations could help.
Another idea, she said, was on hold until the 1927 Wurlitzer Opus 1890 was repaired.
The organ, an original when the Granada opened in 1928, was sold years ago but was purchased by the Keith-Albee Performing Arts Center in Huntington in the early 2000s.
“They (Keith-Albee) said, ‘If we ever find our (organ), you can have yours back,'” Hurley said. “Then, within two years of their renovation, they found theirs and sent ours back.
“It’s just an amazing story how it worked out.”
The white Wurlitzer console sits in front of the stage, and the “guts” of the organ, including pipes, drums, a xylophone and more, fill two upstairs rooms on opposite sides of the theater.
“We literally have all the bells and whistles,” Thompson said, picking up a set of jingle bells.
Employees of a North Carolina-based nonprofit organization that specializes in restoring theater organs travel to Grenada once a month to work on the organ.
“Once it’s settled, maybe we’ll show a silent film before a feature film, or maybe have the second Sunday silent film day where we’ll show three or four in a row,” Thompson said.
“I’m pretty excited about it.”
Thompson is also excited about the return of live entertainment from bands, individual musicians, comedy shows, plays, dance and more.
In addition to the traditional concession stands, the Movie Scoops Gelato Shop, open Monday through Friday from 11:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. and during film screening hours, offers fresh cookies and Italian gelato in tubs or homemade waffles.
The theater recently added beer and wine – a wide range of spirits are available for events – for those attending a show or a movie.
—-Both Hurley and Thompson said they were excited about Granada’s future.
“We’ve accomplished a lot and we’re still growing,” said Thompson. “We work hard to find our niche, figure out what people want, and deliver that experience.”
Although she’s still busy with the Granada, Hurley said her “part is complete.”
“It feels really good,” she said. “We came out and we made it. is it perfect no Is it paid? Yes. Having no credit for a project of this size is amazing and awesome.”
Thompson said she enjoyed hearing stories from those who grew up with Granada.
Hurley has a few of his own.
But now, she said, it’s time for others to make memories.
“This is an amazing restoration story,” she said. “A revival story. We can never go back to what Bluefield was like. I had the best life growing up but it will never be the same again. We can’t be what we were, but we can be good.
“I just want our little kids to feel about this area the way I do.”
—-The Granada Theater is located at 537 Commerce St. in Bluefield.
Visit Granada online at www.bluefieldgranada.com.
— Email: [email protected]