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A movie house divided
What's to become of the Tybee Post Theater?
Singer, songwriter and guitarist Bobby Lee Rodgers will perform with the Donna Hopkins Band at Saturday's Tybee Americana Music Fest, on the Tybee Lighthouse grounds. The event is a partial benefit for the Friends of the Tybee Post. Theatre.

For 47 years, the afternoon sun and the Atlantic wind have had their way with the small red brick structure at 10 Van Horne, Tybee Island. Its insides long ago gutted, its doors and windows boarded up - although not nearly tight enough - the old building has been at the mercy of the shifting elements since John F. Kennedy was in the White House.

Yet there is hope for the Tybee Post Theater, erected in 1930 as a recreational center for military men and their families, a peacetime casualty left to die out of neglect and greed.

Developers fought and plotted for four decades over the carcass. In 2001, just as the wrecking ball was about to swing, the Tybee Historical Society bought the theater building, just to save it from being turned into condominiums, or yet another housing development.

The society, in turn, sold it three years ago to the Friends of the Tybee Theater, Inc., a non-profit group organized with the sole purpose of breathing new life into the old girl.

"There are essentially three reasons we want to save the theater," says president Pam Lappin. "One, it will help stimulate economic development for the town; two, it will help provide badly needed cultural arts for Tybee's residents and visitors; three, to preserve what little historic property we have on the island."

That's a big bite of cheese, but Lappin and her group are determined to see it through, and raise the necessary funds to restore the historic venue's vital signs.

"I think it's important for any city, no matter its size, to have a slice of life from every part of its history," she says, "from beginning to now. One of the unique things that makes Tybee Tybee is it's not a pre-fab, seaside-type development, and it's not totally given over to tourist development, like a Myrtle Beach."

Lappin says Tybee's "old-style beach town allure" needs to include not only a movie theater, but a place where the occasional concert can be held (the theater will seat 500 people, when there are seats in it) and local theater, dance and music groups can perform.

Saturday's Tybee Americana Music Festival, at the Tybee Lighthouse, will donate part of the proceeds to the restoration project.

The bill includes Atlanta's bluesy Donna Hopkins Band, with Savannah guitar legend Bobby Lee Rogers sitting in, plus sets from the Packway Handle Band, Boo Ray and others.

In 1887, the U.S. Government built the Fort Screven complex, a post artillery fort on about 150 acres on the northeast end of Tybee Island. The complex originally had 279 structures (the massive concrete gun batteries remain, to be climbed and ogled by tourists on a daily basis).

Eventually, Fort Screven became an infantry post, and in the ‘30s served as a training center for the Civilian Conservation Corps (George C. Marshall was one of the commanding officers), and during World War II the facility was a deep-sea diving school.

(The area was named for General James Screven, the first well-known Georgian to die during the American Revolution.)

All those soldiers needed a little recreation, of course, and silent films were screened in a tent until 1930, when the 5,000-sqare-foot, red brick structure was erected (standard government design, it was a carbon copy of base theaters at Fort Benning, Ga., and Fort Hancock, N.J.). Silent movies became "talkies" in 1929, and the Tybee Post Theater was certainly one of the first in all of Georgia to have a sound system.

The floors were concrete, with rubber mats to control the traction of hundreds of army boots going in and out. Enlisted men brought their wives, girlfriends and Tybee-native dates; officers and their families had reserved seats on the three back rows.

There was no air conditioning - that was first installed in 1949, a few years after the town (then known as Savannah Beach) bought the Fort Screven complex from the government, which had deemed it surplus.

As the Beach Theatre, the building showed first-run movies until 1962, when it was shuttered for good. Any hopes for its revival as a movie house evaporated in the 1970s, with the advent of multi-screen theaters and giant mall cineplexes. It was too old, too small and too decrepit.

In the intervening years, it was almost this, almost that. The walls almost came tumbling down. Almost.

"With each subsequent buyer more of the building was taken out," Lappin says. "It was just a series of owners who didn't really know what they had. Or didn't care."

In late October, the Friends of the Tybee Theater, Inc. will debut Phase One of their multi-tiered plan: New doors and windows. This was funded through a $30,000 state grant from the Historic Preservation Division of the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, from its historic license plate program.

Georgia's Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax (SPLOST) gave the theater $350,000 to refurbish the walls, recondition the steel structure and install a new roof.

"Structurally," Lappin explains, "it's in excellent shape. We replaced the roof in 2007 and were pleasantly surprised that almost all the support beams were still intact and useable. Very little of the wood had to be replaced."

It's still little more than a shell, however, and still bubbling on the "immediate need" burner are funds to "burn the mortgage" ($300,000) and about $400,000 to at least make the theater inhabitable, with everything from lighting and air conditioning to restrooms and other mandatory interior works. That's the multi-tiered plan.

The group hopes to have the necessary money in place, and the work completed, by the end of 2010.
Of course, $3 million would make everything perfect, state-of-the-art, with an expanded stage, dressing rooms and a green room. "We call that plan the Cadillac," Lappin laughs.

Until then, every little bit helps. Numerous Tybee organizations have donated all of part of their event profits to the cause; the latest to pony up are the promoters of Saturday's Americana Festival.

"We're excited about this event, because we don't get this type of music here very often," says Lappin. "And I know there's a big following. My brother-in-law is a bluegrass musician."

Tybee Americana Music Festival

Where: Tybee Lighthouse Grounds

When: 6:30-11 p.m. Saturday

Tickets: $25 advance (, $35 at the gate