Community reflects on Kimball Theatre's closure

sbirkenmeyer@vagazette.com

Alongside the news of layoffs and outsourcing, the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation announced Thursday that the Kimball Theatre will close July 6. From sweeping orchestral concerts to historical interpretations and screenings of the latest in independent cinema, the theater offered content for almost everyone.

The foundation's president and CEO Mitchell Reiss said the decision comes as the theater has lost money every year since 1999, including a loss of $782,000 in 2016. The organization intends to direct that money toward its core educational mission.

"I love the Kimball Theatre," Reiss said. "(My wife) Elizabeth and I go there at least once a month. But the losses are overwhelming, and every dollar that we spend to subsidize the Kimball is a dollar that we could spend on teachers, or students, at the museum, or historic renovation."

Most reactions to the Kimball's closing combined shock and sorrow as people reminisced on the impact of the theater and wondered how the future of culture in Williamsburg might be affected.

"We're sorry to hear the news," said Clyde Berryman, who owns the nearby Williamsburg Art Gallery alongside his wife, Gulay. "We went to a number of the performances there. It leaves Williamsburg with no real performance venue."

Berryman said he's hopeful for a solution, although what that might be remains unclear.

"We had a particularly close relationship with the Kimball," he said.

The gallery often hosted events in conjunction with the theater. Opera in Williamsburg held preview meet-and-greets leading up to Kimball performances; the Williamsburg Symphony Orchestra held post-concert receptions at the gallery. Those events encouraged people to check out the gallery.

Now, those two organizations are in the process of finding a new venue for future performances. Berryman said nothing in Williamsburg compares to the Ferguson Center in Newport News or the Hampton Coliseum, and while the Kimball may not feature the same epic scale of those venues, it has its own assets.

"Part of it's the history, the location," he said. "It's a landmark."

A fixture for decades

Originally dubbed the Williamsburg Theatre, the venue opened on Jan. 12, 1933, when the College of William and Mary performers put on the venue's first play. The college's orchestra also performed and, true to the era, the theater screened content such as a newsreel and a Mickey Mouse cartoon.

Walt Disney enjoyed films there during his numerous visits to Colonial Williamsburg. The Rockefeller family attended so often that seats in the back row were reserved for them.

More recently, the theater upgraded to high-resolution digital projectors and contemporary sound systems in January. But its mission of providing diverse programming for the community remained constant.

"It wasn't a perfect place for all things, but it was for some things," said John Shulson, who writes about classical music for the Virginia Gazette. He said the theater's acoustics are not ideal for acts like the WSO's grand orchestral performances, but it was still a worthy fixture within the community. "That offers people something to do at night, when there's not a lot to do in Williamsburg. It's going to leave a void, and I'm not sure how that's going to be filled."

With the news and the uncertainty in its wake, there is also hope for a solution. Reiss said he hopes someone will lease the building and continue running it as a theater.

"I'm sure somebody's going to step up," said Steve Rose, founder and president of CultureFix, which has used the theater for tribute shows celebrating music of decades past. "I don't think it'll be gone forever."

He said the Kimball's closing is a "perfect example" of what the city could accomplish with its proposed tourism development fund, which includes creating an admission tax for venues that charge for entry. Along with raising meal and room taxes, the city would raise an additional $4.5 million annually, according to city staff.

For the time being, those who made use of the Kimball must search for other options.

"It is really having a ripple effect throughout the community," said Terry Buntrock, founder and CEO of the Triangle Arts and Culture League. She also works as a staff member for the city's Arts Commission, which works with various artistic organizations throughout the area.

"Now they don't have a venue," she said.

William and Mary's Phi Beta Kappa Hall offers a larger space, but the college's events take priority over those of external organizations, which complicates the booking process. Other potential sites include the Williamsburg Community Chapel, and Buntrock is in the process of looking for others. But while a place like the Hennage Auditorium inside the Art Museums of Colonial Williamsburg could absorb some performances, it's a small venue that couldn't fit something like a full symphony orchestra.

"It's sad and shocking and I hope it's a temporary situation," Buntrock said. "The loss to the community of the Kimball is going to really be felt."

Birkenmeyer can be reached by phone at 757-790-3029.

Want to go?

"Tommy's Honour," a 2016 historical drama, screens at various times Saturday through Wednesday.

"Jefferson and Adams" takes the stage 7:30 p.m. Saturday and Sunday.

"1776," the 1972 musical film, screens at various times Sunday through Tuesday.

Wednesday's Fourth of July programming includes "Benjamin Franklin's Glass Harmonica" at 11 a.m. and 1 p.m. and "A Grand Medley of Entertainments" at 7:30 p.m. "The Hero," a 2017 comedy-drama, also screens at 3:30 p.m.

Tickets are available at the Kimball Theatre box office, at bit.ly/2jrs95x and on Fandango.

Those seeking refunds for events scheduled after the closure can call 1-800-HISTORY or visit Colonial Williamsburg ticketing locations.

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