This December, the Downtown Lynchburg renaissance continues with the grand reopening of the Academy Center of the Arts. Our city, which was once one of the wealthiest cities in America per capita, has experienced a lot during its 232-year history. From Thomas Jefferson taking up residence here to tobacco farms and shoe factories prospering during the industrial revolution, to our prominence as a railroad city, then only to experience urban decline once railroads waned as a means of transportation. But, the city has overcome it all in a new era, and with it, historical landmarks that once shined during the city’s industrial peak are now being restored for a new generation and culture to enjoy. The Academy Center of the Arts is a part of this significant story that is being written today in Lynchburg, and its reopening brings a momentous, inclusive step for all residents.
The Birth of the Academy
When the Academy was being conceptualized during the turn of the twentieth century, the economy in Lynchburg was stronger than most southern cities who were still reeling from the CivilWar. In fact, Lynchburg sustained only minor damages, leaving its community to thrive during and the years after the war. The Academy was funded by a few local businessmen of the time. The theater hall opened in 1905—and just at the right time! Though the original vision for the Academy (then called the Academy of Music) was to provide local entertainment for the community, no one could have predicted how successful the theater would become, thanks to Vaudeville.
Coincidently, the theater was positioned perfectly between the train route from New York City to New Orleans. This meant that big acts like Will Rogers and Josephine Baker would do an extra show in Lynchburg to pick up some additional cash for their journey—and would only charge the community a fraction of what they would charge in bigger cities.
Tragedy Strikes, But The Community Remains Strong
With big name Vaudeville stars taking the stage at the Academy, numerous Central Virginians would regularly come to Downtown Lynchburg, which helped the city to prosper exponentially. However in April of 1911, the popular theater hall and the city would take a major blow. During a routine cleaning, one of the Academy’s housekeepers started to smell smoke coming from the third floor. Quickly from that point, a fire blazed the entire theater, leaving the auditorium hall completely charred beyond what was considered repairable.
Though this may have spelled ruin for a small city’s economy and culture, a local businessman stepped up shortly after the fire and funded the rebuild of this beloved community landmark.
Soon enough, The Academy reopened in December 1912, but this time with all new pristine detailing that would rival any large city music hall.
From Vaudeville to Moving Pictures and New Competition
When the 1920’s arrived, a new entertainment era began to emerge. The roaring 20’s would bring about film, or “moving pictures”. This cultural shift led to the demise of the Vaudeville phenomenon that once swept across the country. So, the Academy readjusted and began to show second runs of films. But, in this new decade they were not alone—now there was competition. From the 1920’s-1940’s, Downtown Lynchburg remained a bustling business and entertainment hub, but now nine other theaters, just like the Academy, took up residence along the Main Street strip. Despite the numerous competitors, the Academy remained through it all. But, the 1950’s would bring a new challenge to the theater—one that many old theater halls would succumb to.
The Isis Theater (left) and the Paramount Theater (right) both closed down and later demolished
Television Crushes Local Theaters
The 1950’s brought suburban life and television, and while most Americans were enjoying having a home with land and entertainment from the comfort of their living rooms, theater houses, and the cultural influences, all across America began to close down. The Academy would suffer the same fate as the rest of the nine local theaters in Downtown Lynchburg, and in 1958 they closed their doors.
It wasn’t just the Academy that went out of business, most downtown businesses suffered a similar fate. From the 1950’s on, the railroad was derailed as America’s choice of transportation, and replaced with cars. This progressive change ruined many cities like Lynchburg that had built their entire epicenter around the railroads.
As the decades went on in Lynchburg, the crumbling buildings that once were thriving were torn down. But though the Academy was closed, the local community once again rallied behind it and saved it from demolition by registering it as a historical landmark.
The Rebirth and Renewed Vision for Equality
The Academy’s grand theater has sat vacant for more than 50 years, but locals are now anticipating the rebirth of this Central Virginia gem. But, this reopening holds more significance than the restoring of the meticulously detailed 1912 auditorium.
When the original Academy opened its lavish front doors each day, it wasn’t to all. Jim Crow laws throughout the south prevented African Americans from enjoying the theater films or performances with white audiences. Instead, they were forced to enter through the side door and watch from the balcony—unseen and forgotten. Despite this unjustified law that segregated the local community, there was one person whose kindness and compassion shined through the prejudices of the times.
At the separate, segregated entrance, African American attendees would be greeted by the smiling face of Lottie Payne Stratton. Lottie, a local African American woman who worked at the Academy every day for 25 years, made sure everyone she interacted with felt loved and valued. She was also known for letting children sneak into the Academy free of charge so that they could enjoy hours of entertainment. To some, Lottie was just a ticket taker, but to a community that needed kindness, love and compassion, she was a local beacon of hope.
Though Lottie is no longer with us today, her dream, and the dreams of other local African Americans at that point in history will become a reality. When the Academy reopens this December, it will be the first time the theater will be fully integrated. To kick off this new era of inclusivity, the Academy’s opening night will be dedicated to the local African American community and will feature musical artist Devon Gilfillian, Former NASA astronaut Leland Melvin and legendary singer Mavis Staples. Be a part of local history by joining the Academy Center of the Arts for this significant event.
To learn more about the history of the Academy Center of the Arts, you can watch the local documentary “Encore: The History of the Academy of Music Theater”.