Walk through the lobby doors at the Keith-Albee Performing Arts Center on a show night and you feel it. An electric surge that flows through you and is as familiar to you as your childhood living room. It is in that sigh of contentment as you plop down on your childhood couch. Home at last.
I see that same look on the many faces who come for a show at the theater. That contentment never more apparent than in the moment after they take their seat under the stars and glance at the curtain. They admire their ornate surroundings and they remark of the beautiful shabbiness that the Keith-Albee exudes after 90 years of continuous operation. Chaos reigns before the curtain rises and the show marches on.
Truth be told, I live for those moments of wonder. The performing arts business is not easy. There are long days and even longer nights. It is a business where your work begins months in advance, and show nights for you is the final act while for the audience it is the main event. Our work is another’s source of entertainment.
It is striking sometimes because 2,000 people smiling and laughing make the responsibility of taking care of 2,000 people a bit easier. For me, those moments define a space like the Keith-Albee. There was a saying in a movie once that said, “If you build it, he will come.” Moreover, like baseball, theater isn’t only about what you’re watching but how you feel while you are watching it. Those feelings, memories, and experiences are consumed by the space.
At the Keith-Albee, if those seats could talk, they would speak of its rich history. They would tell the story of the day they arrived and were put in place because at the Keith-Albee no seat can fit anywhere other than its exact place, and the front row might brag on their good fortune. They would speak of hardship and struggle during the Great Depression, when there were free days for patrons to come to the theater to escape life’s burdens.
The orchestra seats might chime in about the time they were packed to the balcony before a great Huntington flood; the balcony seats could not relate because they were safe above the water, so they have never moved. Some might talk about the war years where they saw more women and fewer men or the post-war years where they saw many children.
Orchestra left and orchestra right might talk about the 40-odd years they did not see each other or the rest of their sisters, as they hosted moviegoers instead of live entertainment seekers. The balcony seats might chide their younger loge brothers, because the previous inhabitants, unbolted parlor chairs, tended to be thrown over the banisters. Actually, they might not mention that at all, because those brothers were given away. Excitedly, the orchestra and balcony might mention when they reunited for a major movie premiere and a packed house. They remember that night because the Herd came to visit with their green carpet and Hollywood glamour.
I like to believe that if the seats could talk, they would not necessarily mention just those big things. I like to think, like me, they remember the small things. They remember the first season patrons from the Marshall Artists Series shortly after they moved from City Hall and the years thereafter where they sat in their seats from decade to decade escorted by their loyal seasoned ushers. They could recount the late nights of stagehands breaking down finished shows and early mornings of stagehands loading in new shows. Orchestra seats might bristle thinking of the times when nimble stagehands ran across them to bring in some lights.
I imagine they would mention excited children seeing performances with their Marshall parents. They might fondly remember siblings sneaking in and giggling about seeing a double feature for the price of one. They might stay quiet about the first dates, the 100th dates or the visits of lifetime partners. Instead, the seats might simply talk about the love they have observed through the years, all the while hinting about held hands, side eye smiles, and maybe a stolen kiss or two.
I try to imagine the stories the Keith-Albee seats hold. However, I can only imagine because each has lifetimes of memories to share. That is what drives me, and to me that is why the theater was built and continues to stand. It was a glittery palace built for the people. “If you build it, he will come.”
In the movie “Field of Dreams,” it was “Shoeless” Joe Jackson, but I believe for the Keith-Albee the mysterious phantom voice would say, “If you build it, they will come.” They did build it, they did come, and they continue to come 90 years later to Take A Seat Under the Stars.
We owe it to those long-grown children, long time lovebirds and continuous line of moviegoers that took a beautiful building and used it well and permeated it with generations of laughs, smiles, love and tears, to restore it so we can give the arts to tomorrow. Future generations of our community must have this building because past generations loved it well and it stands testament to their legacy.
That is how I see myself, one small caretaker of this place. I call to action our community to restore this beautiful theater because a single occupied seat does not an audience make, because in the Keith-Albee, it is 2,212. I invite you to come see me and take a seat under the stars and among those echoed stories of theatergoers from long past and create new memories to be shared by future generations.
For more information about our fundraising efforts or if you would like to submit your stories about the Keith-Albee, please contact Shaleena Ross, General Building Manager. Mailing Address: PO Box 5425, Huntington, WV 25703 Email: firstname.lastname@example.org Phone: 304-696-3313.