The Elks Theatre was built in downtown Pulaski in 1911. The theatre hosted vaudeville shows, traveling companies and early silent films. In 1922, the Elks Theatre closed and the building was converted into the Dix-Richardson Dry Goods Store. After serving the community as a dry goods store for fifteen years, the building returned to an entertainment venue in 1937 when it was leased to Neighborhood Theater, Inc. of Richmond, Virginia. The building was renovated and opened on November 11, 1937 as the Pulaski Theatre, a motion picture house.
The very first film shown at the “new” Pulaski Theatre in 1937 was The Awful Truth, starring Cary Grant and Irene Dunn. For the next 54 years the facility was operated primarily as a movie theatre. With the advent of video rentals and other cable television media, the theatre’s attendance declined during the early 1990s and closed in 1991.
Once Pulaski Theatre closed to the public, the property began to deteriorate and fell into disrepair. On February 11, 1992 the Miller family gave the building to the county. During that time, the historical courthouse was in the process of being re-built, having burned to the ground in 1989. It was during this rebuilding process and the expansion of all court facilities that the County Board of Supervisors raised the issue of tearing down the theatre to make way for a parking lot.
So in early 1992, long time resident Betty Sadler organized a small group to discuss possible options for the theatre. That original group was Betty and John Sadler, Mike Fleenor, Pam Chitwood, Bob Henderson, and Tom Douthat. The group was in a precarious position as they did not own the theatre. So Sadler and Fleenor lobbied the Board of Supervisors to decline the suggestion that the theatre be destroyed. After much effort, the Supervisors agreed and gave the theatre group one year to devise a plan.
In 1993, Fleenor founded the corporation Friends of the Pulaski Theatre, Ltd. and obtained its corporate charter from the Virginia State Corporation Commission. In addition, he filed an application with the Internal Revenue Service to establish the Friends of the Pulaski Theatre as a 501c charitable organization. The IRS granted the request and in 1993, Friends of the Pulaski Theatre was in a position to solicit donations.
The new organization elected John and Betty Sadler, Fleenor, Chitwood, Henderson and Douthat as the original board of directors. John Sadler was elected as the organization’s first President.
A debate ensued within the board as to whether or not the theatre could or should try to obtain ownership of the theatre from the county. Certain members of the board wanted the county to own the building but the Friends of the Theatre to operate it. Other members believed that the only way to ultimately renovate, restore and operate the theatre was to obtain ownership from the County.
In 1993, Fleenor and Sadler negotiated an agreement with the County for them to donate the theatre building to Friends of the Pulaski Theatre. The County would hold a $150,000 lien on the building, but if the theatre group was able to renovate the theatre and make it operational, the County would consider forgiving the lien.
For the next two years the theatre board engaged in an effort to gauge interest in the community for the renovation and operation of a theatre. Interest was mixed and suggestions were varied. Some believed that only movies should be shown, others wanted plays and more formal theatre, still others wanted musical performances. At that time the board made the wise decision to renovate the theatre to be a multi-purpose forum to show movies, musical performances, plays, etc.
In 1996, local attorney Randy Eley was elected President and the board was expanded beyond the original six members. It was during his six years as President that the board adopted an elaborate plan to purchase additional properties with the theatre building as the anchor, in an effort to develop a large arts complex. It was also during this period that Eley led the organization on a considerable fundraising effort that lasted several years and involved significant private investment. In addition, Eley was instrumental in obtaining a number of substantial grants from a variety of governmental sources.
The funding obtained during this period constituted the majority of the funds that were eventually used to renovate and restore the theatre years later. Other significant accomplishments during this period were the stabilization and installation of a new roof and the removal of all of the old theatre seats that had deteriorated significantly.
In 2003, local businessman David Wine was elected President and served with distinction. He continued efforts of fundraising and was quite successful in obtaining additional local private support. It was also during this time that the theatre began soliciting bids for the demolition and construction of the interior of the theatre.
In 2004, Mike Fleenor was elected President. After reviewing the financial records and the tentative plans to develop an arts complex involving several buildings and structures, Fleenor urged the board to consider re-drawing the plans to simply focus on the theatre building itself. The board ultimately agreed and thus an additional property, purchased years earlier, was sold.
It was during this period that the actual renovation began. One of the first steps was to remove the old tile from the ceiling, the remaining seats and framework, and the considerable debris that had accumulated over the years. After receiving a bid of $80,000 to make these initial renovations, Fleenor contacted the Sheriff’s Office and the Regional Jail to see if inmates could be used to make do this work. An agreement was made in which the Theatre would pay the wages of a guard to oversee the inmates, but otherwise the labor would be performed at no cost. In the end, the theatre paid approximately $7,500, or over 90% less than the original bid. This use of inmate labor continued during various aspects of the renovation of the theatre and to this day, inmates are used periodically to clean and make minor repairs.
Over the next several years, the theatre was almost completely “gutted” and the following projects were completed:
- A new ceiling was installed
- The Stage was significantly enlarged and expanded
- 531 new theatre seats were installed
- New bathrooms were installed on the first floor and the existing bathrooms on the second floor were updated and renovated
- A new HVAC system was installed behind the theatre
- The old furnace below the stage was removed and that area was renovated to provide space for dressing rooms
- The balcony was inspected by engineers from Virginia Tech and found to be safe.
- All new wooden tongue and groove flooring was installed in the balcony
- The floor on the first floor was re-coated
- The lobby was expanded and a concession stand was constructed
- The box office was re-designed and a ticket window was installed
- New carpeting and light fixtures were installed in the theatre and lobby
- On the exterior of the building, the entire façade was re-plastered, the windows were replaced, new doors were installed and a brand new $40,000 marquee with neon lighting was fabricated and installed.
Local contractors were used for virtually all of the renovations. Bill Warden oversaw the initial work and the majority of the construction and renovation was performed by Timmie Hughes.
During these years, President Fleenor was assisted by his Vice President Bob McKinney, Treasurer Jack Nunley and Secretary Jill Sandidge.
The Theatre finally opened its doors in 2009 to primarily musical performances. Through contacts on the board, McKinney found a theatre in Danville Virginia that had been recently renovated but, unfortunately had closed. Left unused in that theatre was unused, but brand digital equipment to show movies. After considerable negotiations, the Friends of the Pulaski Theatre bought a digital movie projector, complete sound system, numerous speakers, retractable movie screen and various other electronic equipment from the Danville theatre at a cost of pennies on the dollar.
In 2015, Bob McKinney was elected President and Fleenor agreed to act as his Vice President. The board is now made up of a strong group of volunteers and is poised for great shows and performances in the future.
Past Presidents of Friends of the Pulaski Theatre
John Sadler 1991-1995,
Randy Eley 1996- 2002
David Wine 2003-2004
Mike Fleenor 2004-2014
Bob McKinney 2014 – present