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Out of this world

POSTED: April 24, 2014 9:39 p.m.
Photo by Pat Donahue/

The Mars Theatre opened for a sneak preview Wednesday night. Its grand opening weekend begins Friday night as The Greencards take the stage at 8 p.m.

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The first reviews are in for the new Mars Theatre.

Consider it a smashing success, and its supporters and fans hope there is a long, long run in its future.

The Mars officially opens Friday night, with The Greencards taking the stage in a weekend-long event. A sneak preview for those who have backed the Mars, financially and otherwise, was held Wednesday and Thursday, and the finished product found a receptive and awestruck audience.

“It’s beautiful, beautiful,” said Dollie Fulghum, who worked at the original Mars when she was 15 years old. “I love it. I really do.”

The city of Springfield and the Springfield Revitalization Corporation spearheaded the effort to renovate the theater, which had been idle since 1957.

“I think it’s the most wonderful thing that’s happened in a half-century,” said former Springfield City Council member Butch Kieffer, who helped push the city’s involvement in the Mars and saw movies there as a teenager. “It’s a wonderful improvement. It’s just the greatest thing, and I’m so happy to have it.”

Flarleen Young remembered how the Mars showed one movie on Mondays and Tuesdays, another movie on Wednesdays and Thursdays and then showed a western for the weekend, along with a cartoon and a serial, “so you’d be back the next Saturday to see what happened,” she said.

The Mars would be packed on the Wednesday afternoon of the annual Sunday school convention, Young said.

“A lot of people would go to the ball game. But the rest of the people would come to the movies,” she said. “They had ‘Gone With the Wind’ on a Wednesday the week of Sunday school convention. A lot of the older people stayed at the campground for the business meeting, but all of the younger people made it into Springfield for the movie.”

The cars were parked up and down the street, Young said, and down to Ralph Rahn’s feed store, all with people going to the Mars.

“It was the place to be,” she said.

As the crowd who made it in for the sneak preview marveled at the new theater, the Mars’ backers were thrilled at the finished product and with finally opening the doors.

“It just means everything,” said Gussie Nease of the Springfield Revitalization Corporation and one of the Mars renovation efforts’ most ardent supporters. “I stood in there today and almost cried, and it would have been tears of overwhelming joy that it turned out like it did.”

City cultural affairs director Tommy Deadwyler had a similar reaction to Nease’s on Wednesday as he took another look inside before guests streamed through the doors.

“I stood in the theater and cried,” he said. “I looked up and saw how beautiful it was. I’m excited and anxious, too. It’s been such an intense project.”

A change of direction for theater
Phil Kieffer, whose company performed much of the work on the Mars, noted how different the Mars looks from when work started and how different the scope of the work was from the original plans.

“It was quite an evolution from where the project started to what we ended up with,” he said. “There was a time during construction when everybody had to take a pause, and the city had to take a pause to make sure of the direction they were going. The city stepped up and made the right choice to finish this thing right.”

Kieffer’s crews had to preserve the look of the Mars, an art deco throwback, and manage to make it an up-to-date and modern facility.

“From a construction standpoint, it was a very interesting project,” he said. “I enjoyed it; it was definitely a challenge. But the city helped a lot.”

Working with Deadwyler, who brought an artistic side to the project, helped bring the project together, Kieffer said.

“I grew up hearing the stories of the theater, and seeing the little things that were tied to those stories,” Kieffer added. “I’m proud of the city for what they have done.”

Nease also thanked the city for stepping up and discussed how the Mars’ renovation changed direction — and for the better, she said.

“When we started, we just wanted a theater. We just wanted a building,” she said. “And we didn’t get that — we got something much, much more. We got a state-of-the-art theater. It’s beautiful inside. I couldn’t be more pleased.”

Nease said she wanted to see people’s reaction as they walked inside the Mars, some for the first time in almost 60 years, and saw what it has become.

“It’s not what they think it’s going to be,” she said. “It started out a very plain, concrete block building. But it’s not a plain building anymore. The stage is beautiful.”

The original plans for 300 seats, including the redone balcony, were scaled down to accommodate larger seats, opting for more comfort for the patrons. The lighting, sound and video systems also are state-of-the-art.

“It won’t seat 300 anymore. But I am so glad we sacrificed that for comfortable seating,” Nease said. “They didn’t spare anything in there.”

Excitement abounds for the opening
Deadwyler has monitored the Mars’ Web site, and the hits for it are coming from all over. The anticipation for the opening goes well beyond Springfield, he pointed out.

“There’s a ton of excitement around,” he said. “We’re reaching really strong into Savannah and Rincon and Statesboro. It’s cool to see people paying attention.”

The accoutrements for the performers also could help sway other acts to come calling on the Mars.

“The artists are going to go home and tell others, ‘you have to play this little theater in Springfield,’” Deadwyler said.

Those who remember the old Mars hope the reborn Mars continues to draw crowds and remain a viable entertainment venue.

“I love it, and I think we have a lot to be proud of,” Fulghum said. “I hope that we as a community will really support it in every way.”

Beyond the opening weekend, Deadwyler has lined up acts and events to keep the doors swinging, from Col. Bruce Hampton (retired) to the Effingham County High School chorus to the Savannah Children’s Choir and the first-release showing of “The Amazing Spider-Man 2.”

And he promised still more to come for the Mars.

“Man, we’re just getting started,” Deadwyler said.

Mars Opening Weekend
• Friday, 8 p.m. - The Greencards
• Saturday, 8 p.m. - von Grey
• Sunday, 2 p.m. - Essie Mae Brooks
For tickets and more information, see marstheatre.com

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