Ann Blalock said that whenever a trash bin sits in front of the theater in downtown Harlem, progress is being made.
The Harlem Economic Development and Industry Foundation purchased the former Columbia Theatre building in downtown Harlem in January 2005, and has been cleaning and renovating ever since.
"We've been doing things that volunteers can do," said Blalock, the Harlem foundation's president. "We do have a lot of willing helpers, but if you have any pent-up frustration you'd like to take out on some walls, we've got them to take down."
Blalock said volunteers recently dismantled a wall that divided the theater's foyer and replaced it with two steel beams in the first-floor ceiling and a column that might later be removed.
The Harlem Foundation purchased the building with the intention of renovating and restoring it into one used for teaching visual arts and drama classes and a performing arts theater.
The Harlem Foundation was awarded $40,000 from the state budget but is awaiting the money before renovations can continue. Blalock said that money, combined with in-kind donations, will be used to repair the building's outdated wiring, among other things.
"We can't do it without money, and we haven't gotten the money yet," Blalock said, admitting she's a little frustrated at the slow-moving renovations.
In the meantime, volunteers are working to remove unnecessary walls and ceilings.
Harlem officials want to return the Columbia Theatre building to its cultural heyday of the 1950s and 1960s, when it showed new movies. The theater, owned and run by Bill and Nan Griffin, closed in the mid-1960s when the popularity of television and competition from new theaters in the Augusta area proved too much for business.
"Everybody who tells me a story about the theater says they saw Gone With the Wind there," Blalock said. The first movie shown in the theater was Take Me Out to the Ball Game.
Since the theater closed, the building has housed several businesses, including a Georgia Natural Gas office, an antiques store and a consignment shop. The former cultural center stood vacant for many years before the Harlem Foundation purchased it.
The building has not gone unused, despite the need for renovation. During the annual Oliver Hardy Festival, the bottom floor was used as a diner and art gallery. It also has been the site of a dinner theater, a haunted house, and storage for printers for the Hands Up Outreach Ministry and the ministry's bread distribution.
Blalock estimates nearly $85,000 is needed to transform the former apartment and film rooms on the second and third floors into an area for teaching. That will be completed before the building is turned back into a performing arts theater with stage and seating.
Donations are being accepted to assist with the renovation, and the naming rights to the facility are available for anyone with a special interest in the project and the ability to make a large donation.
Anyone interested in helping the renovation effort can mail donations to The Harlem Foundation, P.O. Box 39, Harlem, GA 30814.
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