On the Pulse
By Nancy Jackson | Photos By Andrew Davis Tucker and Courtesy of Georgia Theatre
Before Georgia Theatre became one of the most iconic landmarks in Athens, the location was home to many different businesses over the years. Beginning in 1889, 215 N. Lumpkin St. was first home to the Athens YMCA. It was not until 1913 that music came to the building that would eventually become Georgia Theatre, when a music store opened a business on the bottom floor while the YMCA still occupied the second and third floors of the building. The YMCA eventually moved to a larger space on Hawthorne Avenue in the 1970s. The Masonic Temple Association of Athens bought the building in 1926 and shared the space with a furniture company until the building became known as the Elite Theatre in 1935. After many years of growth and change four men turned the building into a concert hall in 1977.
In its first year, the B-52s played at the venue before gaining major stardom. The following year, The Police played there as part of the band’s first U.S. tour. The building was briefly closed in 198, until Kyle Pilgrim and Bill Anderson reopened the concert hall under the name Georgia Theatre.
Since becoming a concert hall the Georgia Theatre has become a significant music venue for major artists across all genres. With performances over the years by artists including Widespread Panic, Dave Matthews Band and R.E.M., it’s easy to see that artists and bands across the world find Georgia Theatre special, and people want to experience it for themselves.
Drew Beskin, the general manager of the Georgia Theatre, said “I love when bands want to come here and charge $20 for a ticket when they could easily charge $100, but they want to play in Athens because of this venue or they want to be affiliated with the musical history of the city. We are a smaller town, but we benefit a lot from having a musical history, and I love seeing that come together.”
On a June morning in 2009, Georgia Theatre broke out in flames around 7 a.m. and suffered major interior and exterior damage. The venue underwent repairs and renovations and was able to reopen in 2011 with improvements to the building including the rooftop bar and a higher capacity. In an effort to help reopen the theater Zac Brown Band and others hosted a benefit concert at the Fox Theatre in Atlanta to raise funds.
Georgia Theatre is still considered a smaller venue than many other concert halls in the state like Masquerade or the Tabernacle in Atlanta. Holding just over 1,000 people the Georgia Theatre gives artists the opportunity to connect with their fans on a more intimate level than a venue that seats 5,000. The rooftop stage holds about 200 people, and is the prime spot for local bands and artists looking to grow.
“It’s a great opportunity for smaller bands to rise and eventually play downstairs,” said Beskin. “We enjoy the process of seeing bands grow and to eventually sell out shows downstairs.”
“I was given some time for a brief drum solo,” said Ian Werden, drummer for the band The Heap, recalling his favorite memory from performing at Georgia Theatre. “After about 30 seconds I looked up and saw the Georgia Theatre was filled to capacity, and from the floor to the balcony was a sea of people jumping up and down cheering on my solo.”
When searching for new bands to play at the theatre, Beskin relies heavily on knowing which bands are gaining popularity in the Athens community and with students at the University of Georgia.
“You have to keep your ear to the ground and be in tune with bands that are local and starting to be on the rise,” Beskin said about how bands are selected to perform upstairs. “Band AFTM started by performing [at] venues around Athens, and so we started them on the rooftop to see how well they’d do. Now they’re selling out downstairs.”
Over the years, Georgia Theatre has become a beacon for talent and has been the epicenter for countless fond memories for musicians, students and Athenians alike. The iconic marquee when lit can’t help but turn heads and draw people in for a cold drink with friends.
“It’s like a home to us and to so many others,” said Beskin. “People love it here; it’s a place where people may want to get married or have their wedding reception or just love that it reminds them of college days.”
Georgia Theatre is not just home to concerts–the venue also hosts many private events and benefits for the community throughout the year and opens its doors for Georgia football games so people can enjoy the action on its big screen. Georgia Theatre has also been a popular background for many proposals for couples in Athens. In the gallery, you can find local art for sale by local rock photographer Jason Thrasher. Georgia Theatre is also a featured stop on the Athens Music History Walking Tour.
“The Georgia Theatre holds a special place in my heart and in the hearts of all the musicians of Athens,” said Tommy Trautwein, member of the band Well Kept. “The venue itself has such as an amazing history, and it is incredible that the theater is generous enough to open its doors to younger artists of Athens and beyond. Doesn’t matter if you are a huge act or just starting out, the staff treats you so well and takes such good care of you. Athens wouldn’t be the same without the Georgia Theatre.”