Christopher Harris: The story of the Virginia is still being written

·11 min read

Jun. 14—The old Virginia Cinema was known for the stories that played out on its big screen. But there have always been other stories within its walls — stories made in the moment by the people in the seats.

Ask those who were there what their favorite movie was, and they'll have something to tell you. Ask John Alexander, perhaps Somerset's most visible film aficionado, what his favorite movie is — and a video played Saturday within the newly-renovated theater quoted him as such — and he'll say "Raiders of the Lost Ark?" But his favorite movie seen at the Virginia? Another from the mind of George Lucas, the 1988 fantasy flick "Willow," about a little person defying big odds to save the kingdom.

John L. Perkins had one of the most compelling personal stories, also shared on the aforementioned video. As an African-American in an age of segregation, he was forced to sit in the balcony with others who shared his skin color. On Saturday, he was right there square in front of the stage, three rows back, a guest worthy of note by Mayor Alan Keck at the open house event for the reborn venue. Perkins also has a favorite film seen at the Virginia — "Shaft."

I can dig it.

Keck himself couldn't remember a specific film. He did remember his experience — "I remember being here, I remember popcorn and a Coke ... I remember it was kind of a treat" — but he did have an emotionally-stirring story. In the video, Keck talked about wanting a place downtown where his children could make their own memories, and he appeared to choke up while saying the words. After the video was over, Keck told how that moment unfolded when he looked out the window to see his family on the street below while he was talking about his hopes for the future. A nice story became a touching one with just a bit of serendipity, that magic usually found only in the movies.

Sommer Schoch, founder and Producing Artist Director of Flashback Theater Co., has made a career of telling stories on the stage. Her company will be able to benefit from the capability of the Virginia now to host live performances, such as concerts and theatre. She recalls seeing a dollar movie at the Virginia at some point, though as with Keck, the title has been washed away by the tide of time.

Every person who ever came to see a movie at the Virginia likely made a memory there, a story that they could hold onto and re-tell later in life, either to others or in their own thoughts. The smell of popcorn or candy. A first date. A thriller that made you grip your seat.

And those who came to Saturday's open house, to officially welcome the new-look Virginia into the modern Somerset landscape, created new stories on that day. All of them are part of a story that this community is still actively writing — and part of the story of the Virginia's long and proud history.

That lore was shared in the video Saturday, that preceded period of music and food and fellowship as the people of Somerset mingled and took in all the hard work done on the once-dilapidated movie house. The Virginia was introduced to Somerset in 1922, as T.E. Jasper was the first person to build a structure locally purposed as a movie theater. It provided a much-needed source of distraction during the difficulties of the Great Depression, and showed many popular films over the years on its single screen — sometimes the audience was so vast that people had to be turned away.

Time itself is a story always being told, and plot twists are plentiful. Despite a 1970 facelift that turned the Virginia into a true "cinema," the clock was ticking on its viability. The arrival of the multiplex-style theater — which was found at the outset of the 1980s in the Somerset Mall — pulled audiences away from more humble movie houses like the Virginia, which finally closed in 1994.

"The building was already even in a little bit of disrepair; it wasn't what it was in the '50s or '60s, when it was in its heyday," recalled Alexander in the video. He said this just before his love of the subject got the better of his history account, and he described how everyone has a favorite movie — a common denominator that brings everyone together.

"We used to tell stories around the campfire; it's our new campfire — the projector light itself," he said of the movie screen. "They're our new campfire stories."

As Keck noted to those present Saturday, the Virginia had its good old days, and not-so-good old days — the latter referring to the days of racial segregation. Perkins has become a pillar of the community as a former local postmaster and BBQ savant, so much so that a mural of his likeness has been painted on the back of the Virginia's exterior. In the video, he recalled sitting in the balcony because that's where people who looked like him were assigned to go — "That's all that we knew; and then as we got older, we started noticing a difference, and wondered why we ... couldn't sit downstairs."

Perkins was about 18 years old the first time he was able to sit downstairs at the Virginia, on a double-date. Despite the injustice of his previous experiences, Perkins saw Somerset's story as one full of admirable characters, a legacy that continues to this day.

"Growing up, we didn't know any better; we accepted it as it was," he said. "The thing about Somerset and Pulaski County, there's always been good folks here. ... Somerset has taken leaps and bounds. Every mayor has done their little bit, every city council. I'm tickled to death to be back in here, sitting down here on the floor. But it doesn't really make any difference, because the vibe that Somerset has always had is still here. It's a place of good folks that try to live by the Golden Rule and treat everybody as they want to be treated."

Ironically, a beautiful piece of handcrafted artwork adorns the wall on the top level of the new Virginia, the former balcony with its dim past now a brightly-light reception space where all can mix and mingle. The metallic sign with the Virginia's name on it was made by local artist Bradley Shane Gilmore — himself an African-American. Again, it's the kind of twist that's hard to write so well.

Once the Virginia's run was over, the building sat empty while the townspeople would walk or drive past every day. Naturally, hopes were high for many years that the Virginia could be restored, but efforts rarely gained enough traction to be seen to completion. Gib Gosser, as much an authority of the town's history as anyone alive today, told how the Jasper family was insistent that the Virginia would re-open, but the structure was plagued by problems like roof leaks and a fallen A/C unit, and other owners weren't interested in taking on the challenge. Gosser was active with the Downtown Somerset Development Corporation (DSDC) then and had to look at the empty Virginia every day across the street from that board's offices. The building itself stared back, like an obstacle to overcome, a plot point in the movie that the hero must solve before the story can advance.

"I knew that we needed it not only as a piece of the fabric of the downtown architecture, but we needed it for its business," he noted — some place to keep downtown busy on nights and weekends, a struggle as stores followed the movies out to the U.S. 27 highway and the heart of Somerset saw its traffic dwindle year by year.

Gosser and the late Bob Sams worked hard on the Virginia's behalf, but it took a lot of time to get the theater into the DSDC's hands so they could figure out a plan for it. Sams' wife Gloria noted that "each generation has played a role in getting it to this point" and discussions would ignite and taper out every few years it seemed about what to do with the Virginia, or how to raise the money to get in back in useable shape. The darker periods of history that lingered in the memories of those affected; Perkins played a role in the efforts to get the Virginia back on its feet, but the possibility of the inclusion of the balcony was a deeply painful issue, considering what it meant for him because of his race when he was a child.

The bottom line, however, was as it so often is, as straight and sharp as the edge of the French guillotine, cutting off any possibility of restoring the Virginia. There came a point when it felt like the end of a film's second act, when all seems lost, when the hero's quest seems to have been all in vain.

But every such film as a third act, a redemption and final push, and that's the story of the Virginia as well. Keck made the priority when he came into office, part of his broader vision to revive the downtown area as a whole, and the City of Somerset worked out a deal to buy the building for a buck — much like the dollar movie that Schoch once saw there — though actually repairing the theater would require a couple million more than that. Keck gave credit to the Somerset City Council for supporting that vision and allowing it to come to fruition.

It's clear then that this story has not one hero but many — a sort of "Fellowship of the Virginia," as a "Lord of the Rings" fan might put it. And we owe them all a great deal of gratitude. Keck, the council, people like Gosser and Sams and Perkins and Alexander and everyone else who had a hand in keeping the Virginia's story alive.

That tale of the Virginia will unfold as such — less a move theater, now a venue for live performances. Those who took on the task of reviving the building think it can be a coveted destination for musical acts; there will also be private events held here, plays and other uses for the stage. The theater-style seating is gone, turning the space into something very different, but the hints of the Virginia's past linger on the walls, the exposed brick a nostalgic contrast against the sleek modern lobby and overall design.

"It's really encouraging; even when I was a kid, everybody talked about trying to get the Virginia re-opened," said Schoch at Saturday's open house. "It's definitely been part of the discussions ever since I started Flashback. My board has always been pushing for something like this to happen, so we're looking forward to having a venue here in Somerset for us to use."

Keck told the Commonwealth Journal that the "treat" of going to the Virginia pales in comparison to the feeling he had Saturday, looking out on the stage at everyone who came to celebrate this accomplishment and seeing how good the result of all the work ultimately looks.

"It's better than I would have imagined," said Keck. "I want to continue to say thank you to everyone who made this possible. The folks who were on Downtown Development, on the city council. People who kept the dream alive. I believe with all my heart this will become the signature live music and event space in Kentucky."

Alexander works with Lake Cumberland Recovery now, a resource for people battling addiction, and he said they're always looking for things people can do that are constructive and productive, and he believes the Virginia can offer that, as well as bringing the community together in downtown Somerset.

"Whether it be Somernites Cruise or the different food truck festivals, think of those as the blood flow of the community. What I think people should look to the Virginia to be is the heart of the community," he said. "(It will) keep that blood flow going, so that Somernites Cruise can utilize it, so that the festivals can utilize it. There's really no end to how much of a center of community this building will be."

The story of the Virginia is told by the people of Somerset. The people who have experienced it as it was, and seek to return to use it for its current potential. Whether the magic inside is that of movies or music or whatever it may be, people will continue to make memories they can tell their children and grandchildren about for decades to come.

Viva Virginia.