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A music-scene icon trying to rise from the ashes

Athens' iconic Georgia Theatre, host of REM and the B-52s, needs about $1 million in donations to renovate and bring the 19th century building up to code after a fire gutted the interior.

August 30, 2009|Richard Fausset

ATHENS, GA. — Wilmot Greene was sitting on a stoop next to the hulking Georgia Theatre, the movie-palace-turned-music-club that was supposed to be his ticket to a carefree future in this rock 'n' roll college town.

It was a hot Monday afternoon, and Greene, the club's co-owner, was pulling drags on a Camel and talking into his iPhone in his deep, emphatic and subtly Southern voice. These days, there are charity concerts to pump up, and Greene was practicing the art of the pump.

"Oh, they're huge," he was saying to an ex-girlfriend. "They have three No. 1 hits. . . . They're doing a big benefit for us too."

From outside, it's hard to tell how badly the Georgia Theatre burned that Friday morning in June, when a fire of unknown origin tore through the place, leaving the interior a wreck. The exterior paint job remains immaculate.

But the theater is fenced off and plastered with condemnation notices. The marquee spells out a laconic punch line: "OUCH."

A city garbage truck cruised by. Greene, a bear-sized, garrulous 39-year-old in a T-shirt and river sandals, cupped his hand over the phone and yelled through the fencing to the two-man crew.

"What up, Boo?" "Y'all look like you're in prison," one of the men said.

"Yeah," Greene replied. "Feel like it too."

The garbagemen gave a commiserating chuckle and roared away.

All over Athens, people are pulling for Wilmot Greene and his beloved theater. After the University of Georgia's wrought-iron arch, the art deco-ish downtown theater is arguably the best-known visual icon in this city of 100,000. It is also a crucial component of Athens' vaunted local music scene, whose variety and abundance of bands have lent it a reputation as a sort of rock 'n' roll Galapagos.

Some of those bands -- R.E.M., the B-52s, Drive-By Truckers -- have earned varying degrees of worldwide fame. But most remain close to home and play venues like the Georgia for beer money and bragging rights.

As a younger man, Greene played guitar in some of those beer-money bands and reveled in the good times in and around UGA, which perennially ranks among the Princeton Review's top 20 party schools. Eventually he earned his degree in geography and ran off to join the professional classes in Charlotte, N.C.

But a few years ago, Athens -- with its siren song of pretty girls, cheap booze and obsessive music-making -- lured him back. He bought the theater with the help of a doctor brother-in-law and some big bank loans, and at age 34, found himself happily back in the scene, more mogul than musician.

It seemed like a good move at the time: Greene plunged with raffish delight into the eternally young dating pool. His on-again, off-again band, Ashtray, always had a place to play. And now he bought his booze by the case.

He and his brother-in-law spent, by Greene's estimate, about $500,000 on renovations. They upgraded the bathrooms, the sound board, and the indoor drainage pipes built to carry away rivers of spilled beer. Just months before the fire, he spelled out a proud boast on the marquee, borrowing a line from rapper Kool Moe Dee: "HOW YOU LIKE ME NOW."

"It was really getting to where you walked in there and went, 'Damn, it looks good,' " he said. "It even smelled good."

Today, it smells of ashes, and the hot Georgia sun shines through the hole where the roof had been, beaming an unwanted spotlight on the mess.

The building was insured, but Greene says the reimbursement will fall short -- largely because he can no longer work around the modern code requirements from which the late-19th century building was long exempt. To rebuild to code, and reopen with a workable debt load, he figures he needs $1 million in donations.

Raising that kind of money in a recession -- and for a bar, no less -- is no small feat. Greene would be lying if he didn't admit he's thought about selling the lot and taking the proceeds to the slopes of Tahoe.

But after the fire, donations and ideas for benefits came in so fast that Greene had to publicly ask people to slow down until he could set up the legal apparatus to accept them. So far, he said, about $30,000 has rolled in from benefit concerts and T-shirt sales.

He's working the big angles and the small ones. There is that major recording artist he was yammering about on the phone -- one who, Greene says, is nearly ready to announce a benefit show. Local restaurants have organized a dine-out-night fundraiser. A bikini car wash is in the works.

Randy Camp, owner of the Globe, the bar across the street, sauntered over and suggested that Greene charge people $100 to put personal announcements on the marquee.

"If the Theatre disappeared, you'd take away 15[%] to 20% of what makes Athens what it is," Camp said.

Greene said the city government has been particularly supportive, which is no longer a surprise.

There was a time when official Athens didn't know what to do with the loud, dissonant noise that began blasting here in the late 1970s. Until then, Athens was known beyond its borders as a conservative Southern college town obsessed with football.

But these days the caterwauling generation has kids in the public schools, and votes Berkeley-style liberals onto the City Council.

Rock is part of the marketing plan: The visitors bureau sponsors a music-history walking tour, and the Georgia Theatre, whether revived or a ruin, is sure to remain a favored stop.

--

richard.fausset@latimes.com

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