By Adam Ganucheau/NEMS Daily Journal
BALDWYN – The near-completed construction of a community theater in downtown Baldwyn is leading the way in the resurgence of a once-popular Northeast Mississippi entertainment destination.
The 90-seat theater, which will host its debut production Aug. 8-11, is being completed in a building that was once an opera house, as well as multiple other businesses through the years. It is just one project that downtown developers are using to draw people back to Baldwyn.
“This community theater is so important to what we are trying to do in Baldwyn,” engineer and Baldwyn native Clark Richey said. “I see the history of this great town and the resurgence of this great town working hand in hand.”
A drive down Main Street is a telling way of showing what Richey and other Baldwyn developers are planning – the majority of the old brick buildings in the four-block historic district are being gutted, remodeled or renovated. Locally owned business leases already are being signed for storefront construction that is barely under way. Downtown apartment space, retail business space and restaurant space also will be available for lessees.
“What’s going on here right now is special,” Richey said. “This theater is just one of the first steps in the resurgence of this little town.”
The theater will be the home of the Baldwyn Main Street Players, the town’s play production group, and is scheduled to host its debut production as a Relay for Life benefit Aug. 8-11 and its first stand-alone production in late September.
The theater, which Richey boasts is the “nicest community theater in America,” was paid for mostly by himself. However, Simon Spight’s estate paid for things like stage lighting and curtains. Spight was a Baldwyn historian and Lee County district attorney before his death. According to project manager Stuart Cockrell, the total cost of the theater is about $120,000.
“The theater will have a major impact on our town,” said Baldwyn Main Street Chamber Executive Director Lori Tucker. “It is something that brings great family fun and the arts back to downtown. It’s great for kids or for parents that want a night out on the town.”
Richey said each production will run in two-week intervals every two months, which he hopes will bring in multiple visitors to the town. In addition to hosting play productions, developers are looking into the possibility of showing movies or leasing the theater for meetings and gatherings.
Richey’s engineering firm, Quail Ridge Engineering, is responsible for construction of the theater. His office, which is directly adjacent to the new theater, was once the Lyric Theatre – a popular destination for Baldwyn-area residents between the 1930s and 1960s. Across the street during the same period was the Ritz Theatre. Both theaters were owned by Claude Gentry, another Baldwyn historian and businessman whose insurance agency was in the new theater’s building.
“I remember when the streets of Baldwyn were so crowded, you couldn’t even walk,” Gentry’s son-in-law Billy Roberson, and insurance agent who sold the building to Richey in 1996, said. “It sure would be something to see that happen again.”
The theater will be called the Claude Gentry Theatre, while the auditorium will be called the Simon Spight Auditorium. Framed photographs of both men will hang in the lobby, another aspect of the town’s history that Richey is focusing on.
“The combination of history and resurgence is what makes what we’re doing so special,” he said. “I want to make people have to fight for parking spaces downtown.”