the former building
The Chester Little Theatre’s former facility on Wylie Street has its roots in the Roaring Twenties when The Dreamland Theater was constructed as a movie house.
Mr. Joe Walters operated The Dreamland for some years until he retired in 1935, at which time Fred Powell Sr. purchased the property and changed the theater’s name to The City Theater. Some 14 years later, in 1949, Mr. Powell renovated the building and changed the name to Powell Theater, the sign for which still hangs on the building’s façade.
As the owner of a more prosperous movie house, The Chester Theater, just around the corner on Main Street, Mr. Powell decided to sell Powell Theater in the 1960s to the Cherokee Theatres, Inc. chain in Charlotte, N.C. The building remained vacant for some years, used only temporarily in 1970 by W.P. (Dub) Johnson and some outside business partners in a sewing operation that manufactured men’s dress shirts and ties. That was before Johnson moved his operation to begin Oxford Industries on Great Falls Road.
The Board of Directors of the Chester Little Theatre, the community’s first “live theater,” became interested in securing the property in 1972 and purchased the building from Cherokee Theatres a year later. The sale price was $7,500.
The Chester Little Theatre had made several improvements over the years, but the lack of financial resources during most of its early years meant that many needed repairs had to be put on hold. As charter member Terry Cameron, quoted in a local newspaper account, said, “When we get a $2.00 donation, it takes us two hours to figure out what to do with the money because we have so many things it could be used for.” (May 30, 1977). She made the statement in announcing a special fundraiser (a concert featuring Robert and Edward Dawson at Chester State Park) to benefit the theatre’s building fund.
However, it wasn’t until the 1982-83 season that more facility improvements were made. Highgate Productions, which filmed the CBS mini-series “Chiefs in Chester, covered the façade of the theatre building with plywood and decorated it to fit the time frame for its movie. The theatre was shown in scenes of the movie that were shown on national television. Also, several members of the Chester Little Theatre participated in the filming of that mini-series. That was in the summer of 1982.
Under the leadership of chairman Win Long, the Building Improvement Committee painted the theatre’s interior, re-carpeted the inner lobby and upstairs, as well as the aisles in the auditorium, cleaned the theatre from top to bottom, and acquired new curtains for the lobby. Also, it was that year that the theatre acquired a newer heating and air conditioning unit as a gift from Dick Blair.
The following year, 1984, Lewis Ryan, whose personal contributions to the theatre’s improvement have been countless, undertook the major task of rebuilding the stage. This resulted in greater stage elevation and a much more professional stage on which to produce plays.
The greatest improvements, however, did not begin to happen until 1986 when board members were able to begin prioritizing building needs and seeking the funds to accomplish them. The Theatre publicly launched a $58,000 renovation campaign in February 1987 and a committee, composed of Chuck Holladay, Van Lingle and Fred Carrico, visited local industries seeking donations. Lingle and Holladay also appeared before city and county councils asking for donations, and were successful in getting a share of the state tourism tax rebate from County Council each year for several years.
As a result of those fund-raising efforts, along with the support of theater members and personal efforts of leaders like Lewis Ryan and Dick Blair, a number of major improvements began to be made. Those included a new roof, re-writing, plumbing, façade improvements (with the addition of a metal awning), inner and outer lobby improvements, a new proscenium, addition of a backstage bathroom for actors, new lighting area, equipment and catwalk, and a brand new heating and air conditioning system, among others.
Still, the most ambitious single project undertaken by the theater was a seating project. The theater board, led by Dick Blair as Building Improvements Committee and seat campaign chair, approved in 1989 the purchase of 221 new seats for the theater auditorium and authorized a public subscription campaign that successfully funded the $22,100 project. Before the seats arrived, the theater board approved the installation of carpet to cover the cement auditorium floor at a cost of $1,600. The Board also authorized ceiling repairs and painting at a cost of $1,100. All were spearheaded by Mr. Blair.
In the meantime, members of the theater painted the auditorium walls just days before the new seats arrived. The seats were installed by manufacturing representatives on Monday and Tuesday, May 14-15, 1990, just days before the May 17 opening of spring production of Larry Shue’s “The foreigners.”
The theater became more handicapped-accessible by adding a bathroom in the downstairs lobby. There also have been many other improvement projects made, including a new roof for the box office portion of the building, box office painting, and more minor appearance improvements inside and outside. In 2001, the theater board commissioned artist Fred McCall to paint a mural the side length of the building depicting some scenes from plays as a gift to the community in commemoration of the theater’s 30thanniversary.
In recent years, the theater has become a community meeting place with carious groups using the facility for religious plays written by community residents, beauty pageants, fund-raisers, and many more. It is now a greater asset to the community.
Under the guidance of Business Manager Dick Blair, the theater is investigating at this time the acquisition of the vacant Cinema Movie house in People’s Plaza downtown as a possible new home for Chester Little Theatre. This, however, is just a dream, giving CLT something more to shoot for in the years ahead.