So what's in Springfield?
Well, Effingham’s county seat hasn’t had a movie house since 1957, when the Mars Theatre’s doors were shuttered.
(To put things in perspective, ’57 was the year of The Bridge on the River Kwai, Jailhouse Rock and An Affair to Remember).
The times, it seems, have caught up with Springfield. Thanks to a grassroots campaign that expanded to include a nearly $1 million check from city government, the Mars has been gutted, refurbished, remodeled and refitted, and lives again as a state-of-the-art performing arts hall, with 230 comfy seats in 21st-Century air-conditioned comfort. And a balcony.
“Seventy percent of the people that live in Effingham County work in Savannah,” says Tommy Deadwyler, the city’s newly-appointed the Director of Cultural Affairs, and the guy who’s running the show(s) at the Mars.
“If you did that commute every day, and you had an opportunity to spend time in your own community ... it’s a really nice thing to have entertainment right here in your own community. I think that’s important for anyone. The more access we have to the arts, the better off we are.”
Opening weekend starts with an April 25 performance by the Austin-based Americana/bluegrass band the Greencards, featuring transplanted Aussies Kym Warner and Carol Young (hence the name). “The Greencards have elevated Americana with great vocals, great playing and songs that are strictly theirs,” said American Songwriter.
Among other high-water marks, the Greencards landed at No. 1 on the Billboard bluegrass chart with the album Viridian.
On April 26, it’s Von Grey, from Alpharetta. Sisters Kathryn, Annika, Fiona and Petra von Grey have an undeniably supple sibling-harmony sound, which they layer over finely-etched acoustic music in Fleet Foxes style.
And in the afternoon on April 27, 84-year-old gospel/blues singer Essie Mae Brooks performs.
“A lot of the artists I’m bringing haven’t really had a home in the Savannah region that wasn’t a bar,” says Deadwyler, who has a lengthy history working with Georgian performing arts booking and production. “And the size venue we have really kind of fits a certain range of artists.”
Already on the boards are shows by Atlanta jam band god-daddy Col. Bruce Hampton, the bluegrass group Red June, and blues artists Beverly “Guitar” Watkins and James Lee Coleman.
Not only will there now be something to do in Springfield, there will now be something cool to do. Concert tickets are reasonably priced, too, at $15. Deadwyler intends to have two or three “big” shows per month.
The Mars will be made available for local rentals as well—already booked are the Effingham High School Chorus and the Savannah Children’s Choir.
To keep the bills paid during concert downtime, brand-new digital movie equipment has been installed (the first feature will be The Amazing Spider-Man 2, opening in Springfield—and everywhere else—on May 2).
“I think a lot of people think it’s still going to be a movie theater,” Deadwyler chuckles. “Until they go on the website and see what I’ve got planned.”
See for yourself at marstheatre.com.
Ten years ago, the ball began to roll with a community organization called the Springfield Revitalization Corporation. In 2013, the Fox Theatre Institute—of which Deadwyler is an active participant—came up with grant money. And then the City of Springfield ponied up.
The idea is that the Mars will spark more downtown revitalization and community development on Laurel Street. “This is very much an investment in the city and an investment in the future,” says Deadwyler. “It’s been shown over and over again that small towns that re-invest in the arts, and re-invest in an old theater in their community, it kind of brings back some life to their town. So that’s the hope here.
“Instead of investing it in a new sewer project, or the other things cities invest in, they decided to invest in their downtown.”