The B-52s headlining at the Riverbend Festival the other night and the news that the Georgia Theatre in Athens, Ga. burned down have flooded me with lots of great memories.
Back in 1977 George Fontaine, Hap Harris, Sheffy McArthur and I leased the then shuddered Georgia Theatre and converted it from a movie theatre to a concert hall. Our lease with the Georgia Theatre Company in Atlanta didn’t allow us to show movies so our strategy was to be strictly a concert facility. We were only open when we had a good act booked, usually only five or six nights a month.
George and I were both newly married. George and Celia actually moved to Houston before we opened. Donna and I were in Athens where she taught kindergarten and I had my first job with Sunbeam Appliance Company. Sheffy was working for Sony in Atlanta and Hap was the sales manager for the Athens Observer. The plan was to hire a manager so we could all keep our day jobs. All the renovation work was done by Hap, me and a host of friends who were pumped about the idea and volunteered their time at night to help us gut the place, build the stage, the dressing rooms, bar, walk-in keg cooler, etc. It was an exciting adventure for a bunch of guys in their early 20’s. In those days we had theatre seating throughout, 400 seats on the main floor and 200 in the balcony.
Ten days before our opening night, Jan. 11, 1978, the fire marshal informed us that the ceiling would have to be replaced, all carpet would need to be replaced with fire proof carpet (a lot of good that did), a handicapped bathroom would need to be installed on the main level and panic hardware and emergency exit lighting would have to be installed at all the exits. We had no money and no time but we did have a buddy in the construction business – Jack Vandiver. Jack literally put his other customers on hold as he pulled his crews into the theatre and pulled off the miracle of miracles. The fire marshal gave us our occupancy permit the day of the opening night show. We were officially in business and the Georgia Theatre began its nearly 32 year journey as a premier music venue in downtown Athens.
Lots of great acts played there thru the years and many got their start there. The band that got it all started that January night in 1978 was Sea Level, a band formed by Randall Bramblett and Chuck Leavell. Randall had been a friend for several years. In fact, Fontaine and I had actually done some booking for the Randall Bramblett Band thru a venture called Harmony Entertainment that we started while still students at UGA. Chuck had played with lots of folks, including the Allman Brothers and not long after the opening of the Georgia Theatre would go on to play keyboards for Eric Clapton, George Harrison and, for the last 25 years, the Rolling Stones.
We sold out two shows that first night. However, the guy we hired to run the place quit that night and suddenly we were faced with a major dilemma – who would run the Georgia Theatre? To me the answer was obvious, I would. The next week I quit my job with Sunbeam, turned in my company car, and jumped in.
As great as the first night was we had no clue what we were doing and within a couple of months we were broke. My uncle, Jim Kennedy, had already lent me money to do an outdoor concert that had gotten rained out and then, amazingly, had said “yes” when I went back to him on this deal so there was no way I was going to ask again. George’s stepfather, Rody Davenport, had been a reluctant supporter of the idea and Hap and Sheffy had no place else to turn either. Then someone suggested that we talk to the owner of the Great Southeast Music Hall in Atlanta. The guy’s name was Jack Tarver. The Music Hall was nationally known. Though it only had 800 seats, acts from all over the country played there. So, the next day I headed to Atlanta.
I had to wait outside Jack’s office for four hours that day before I got to go in to see him. Jack is about 10 years older than me and at first he seemed ready to blow me off. However, after I explained why I was there and described the Theatre to him he changed his tune. The Music Hall was in a strip mall and the image of this old downtown theatre with a balcony, waterfall curtain, oak paneled lobby and such superb acoustics really interested him. He told me he’d come to Athens the next day. Maybe he could help.
Well, the next day Jack showed up and I toured him thru the facility. When we got back to my office he asked if he could make a phone call. When the guy on the other end of the line answered, Jack said, “Hey John, this is Jack, I’m in Athens, Ga. today at a friend of mine’s club.” He went on to describe the Georgia Theatre to John and then said, “John, these guys have gotten into a bit of a financial bind and need some help. Would you be willing to come to Athens and do a show for these guys to help them get back on their feet? Great, what date works for you? OK, that’s super, thanks, we’ll be back in touch.” With that Jack hung up the phone, turned to me and said that John Prine had agreed to come do a couple of shows to help us out. He came, we sold out both shows and we were back in business.
Several memorable shows come to mind from my days running the Georgia Theatre.
Once we were doing a band called the Night Hawks. We generally booked them about once a quarter on a Thursday night. We’d pay them $400 for one show, sell about 400 tickets at $4 each and have a very good night. On the Wednesday afternoon before this particular Thursday concert I was just getting ready to leave the office when the phone rang. The caller asked me if the Night Hawks were playing the next night. When I told him they were he asked if he could come jam with them. I asked him who he was and he said, “Greg Allman.” Well, Greg Allman was a pretty famous guy in those days, not only because of his band, The Allman Brothers, but he was also married to Cher. So I asked him how much he wanted. He said he didn’t want any money and he’d bring his own equipment and crew, he’d just heard the Night Hawks were hot and he wanted to play with them. I told him I’d see him the next day. After I hung up I grabbed a blank piece of paper and wrote:
Greg Allman and The Night Hawks
The Georgia Theatre
Two Shows, tickets $8
Then I ran across the street to Copies Unlimited and made 2,000 copies. The next morning, early, I grabbed a few guys from the Phi Delt house, headed to the parking lots on campus and put those fliers on every windshield until we ran out. We sold out both shows.
In the late 70’s the B-52s were just forming. They would come to the Theatre and say, “Smartt, you need to hire us to play here, we’re going to be super stars!” I’d look at them with their crazy clothes and makeup and that red and purple hair and tell them no way.
Finally, one day they came by and told me they had an offer I couldn’t refuse. They would pay us $150 to play the theatre, provide all their own sound and lights, all the crew to set up and tear down and even handle the promotional expenses. They’d take the door and we’d take the bar. We did it, it was a great show, a huge crowd, a win for the B-52s and us and the next week they went to New York and signed their first record deal featuring a tune they had played at the theatre, “Rock Lobster.” I don’t know what the Riverbend Festival paid the B-52s to play this year but my guess is we got a better deal.
Another time, I got a call from a promoter who said he had this hot new band coming to the U.S. for the first time. They were going to be playing in Atlanta on the weekend and he wanted them to play our place the Thursday before. I’d never heard of them and initially the guy wanted way more than we could afford. Eventually we settled on a deal where we would pay them $400 and they would bring their own sound equipment and set it up and tear it down themselves. The afternoon of the show these three guys, all about my age, showed up in a Volkswagen bus packed with sound equipment and instruments. They were all nice guys and I ended up spending the afternoon helping them unload and set up. When they did their sound check a few hours before the show, I was pleasantly surprised. One song in particular sounded pretty good. It was called “Roxanne.” The three guys were Sting and the Police.
Most of the groups we did were either on the way up or on the way down. However, one day I got a call from B.B. King’s manager. B.B. would be returning from a tour in Russia in a couple of months. When he returned he had a weekend date at the Civic Center in Atlanta. B.B.’s manager was hoping to get him to play us the night before the Civic Center gig. The catch was that he wanted $5,000 for two shows and the price was firm. We would also have to provide an expensive sound system and light show as well as a long list of riders to the contract. After all that, even at $8 a ticket (a lot in those days) we’d have to sell out both shows to make any money.
To top it off, they wanted a $2,500 deposit up front. We didn’t have $2,500 but I hoped my friend in the construction business, Jack Vandiver, did. I called him and explained the situation. He and his wife, Sally, mulled it over for about 30 seconds and said they were in.
We sent the deposit to B.B.s manager and went about buying our radio spots and newspaper ads promoting the show. Though we had ticket outlets all around Athens, college kids didn’t generally buy tickets in advance until two or three weeks before the show. Well, about three weeks before B.B. was scheduled to play the Theatre the University announced that they were going to have Jimmy Buffett at the coliseum the same night for free. I immediately called B.B.s manager and explained the situation, we just couldn’t go on with the show. He understood so I asked him to please mail me the $2,500 deposit. He quickly explained to me that the $2,500 was B.B.’s money and he wouldn’t be mailing it anywhere. I told him I’d have to get back to him.
I called my buddies, Jack and Sally, and explained the new situation. Jack said, “If we’re going to lose $2,500 I’m going to see B.B. King. Tell him to come on.”
The night of the show we had only sold 90 of the 1,200 tickets we needed to sell to come out. Then, amazingly, we sold out the first show at the door to an older crowd. We had never even considered them as a possible audience we were so student focused. They came dressed like they were going to church. They were a great audience, B. B. was great and we were half way home, but the prospects were dim for the second show.
Then, just as the last show was getting started, a kid that normally worked for us but had taken the night off to go see Buffett came in. I asked him what he was doing there and he said, “You aren’t going to believe what just happened. Buffett came out for his encore and said, ’folks, I’d love to stay and play but I just heard B.B. King’s in town, I’m headed to the Georgia Theatre.’” Ten minutes later Buffett’s bus showed up in front of the Theatre. Hap and I let them all in, grabbed Buffett and took him to our seats in the balcony. The students flooded the place and we sold out the second show. The best part, though, was spending that night with Jimmy Buffett, he was a wild and crazy guy.
There are so many stories but I’ll share just one more. One time we rented the theatre out to a church for a Sunday afternoon revival. It seemed easy enough to me so I didn’t bother to hire anyone to help, I’d just do it myself and save some money. The revival was scheduled to start at 2 p.m. but the band, Pee Wee & the Psalmsters, wanted to have a sound check an hour before. Well, at the sound check I realized that Pee Wee & the Psalmsters were a pretty hot act and I began to think this revival might be a little feistier than I had originally assumed.
When the doors opened people just poured in. The Theatre was absolutely packed, everybody was standing and they were all pressed up against the stage. The Psalmsters were cookin’. I was in the back, all alone, looking in thru the lobby door. Suddenly there was a huge commotion down front and the crowd went crazy as they began passing something back over their heads toward the lobby from up by the stage.
As it got closer I realized it was a body, the body of a woman. They got her to the back then carried her into the lobby, laid her down and ran back into the theatre. I stooped over and touched her, she was stiff and cold as ice. I called an ambulance and within a couple of minutes they had the body on a stretcher and headed for the hospital. The EMTs had just left when the church members came into the lobby with another body. They looked around and said, “Where’s Irene?” I said, “Irene’s dead, they’ve taken her to the hospital.” They looked at me like I was crazy and said that Irene wasn’t dead, she was slain in the spirit. About that time here comes Irene with the EMTs trying to hang on to her and she slapping their hands and shouting, “let go of me.” All afternoon these folks, mainly ladies, would get slain in the spirit, carried out to the lobby over the heads of the crowd, lay there on the floor for a few minutes stiff as boards then pop back up and head back for more of Pee Wee & the Psalmsters. Now that was one killer act.
I only ran the Theatre for 18 months. In the spring of 1979 Donna and I were expecting our first child and my Uncle Jim suggested that I come home and get a real job in our family business, which I did for nearly 29 years until I sold out a little over a year ago. All those years, though, have not diminished the memories. My days at the Georgia Theatre were, as my Uncle Jim would say, a slice of life. I’ll never forget it and I, along with George, Hap, Sheffy and countless others who have enjoyed themselves there over the last three decades are a bit sad today.
Sam Smartt, Jr.