Walking into the Mt. Vernon Theatre in Tallassee is like stepping back to 1935.
Melinda Landers-Emfinger and other Alabama Power employees helped usher in a new era for the theatre.
Mt. Vernon Theatre hadn’t seen customer foot traffic since its 1968 closing. But after years of hard work to restore the building to meet city and state codes, the theatre opened to much fanfare, with about 500 guests Jan. 20.
Landers-Emfinger and a crew from the Southern Division Chapter-Tallassee subarea for the Alabama Power Service Organization (APSO) helped smooth the way. Every ticket was sold and the lobby was full for the opening night of “Dear Mama: Letters and Music from World War II” by local playwright Adrian Lee Borden.
The APSO team – Auburn Office Manager Rod Cater; Customer Care Specialist Missy Coker – South Residential Center, Southern Division Office; Tallassee Customer Service Representative Landers-Emfinger and Thurlow Dam Superintendent Joel Johnson – was there to greet guests, take tickets, usher patrons to their seats and work in the concession stand.
Helping with opening night was a labor of love for Landers-Emfinger.
“The reopening of Mt. Vernon Theatre is a really big deal for Tallassee,” said Landers-Emfinger, whose husband, Mark, also a Southern Division APSO member, served customers during the evening show. “We’re trying to get the heartbeat of our downtown beating again.
“It’s a close-knit community; everyone knows everybody,” said Landers-Emfinger, who has worked at the Tallassee Office for about 10 years. “If you have bad news, you’re here to kind of pick somebody up, and if it’s good news, we want to celebrate with you.”
The theatre’s reopening is a cause for celebration, Landers-Emfinger believes.
“This is going to help the community as far as having a nice venue and will generate dollars for small local venues,” she said. “We’re trying to get a mixture of different businesses to come to Tallassee.”
Reopening the old, beloved theatre
When the theatre first opened its doors, it was a perfect fit for the small mill town. Built by Mt. Vernon Textile Co. for its employees and the community, the building is a Tallassee icon with its sturdy, 17-inch-thick walls. Though the building was closed for 50 years, its foundation stands strong, Tallassee resident Jan Autrey said.
“It’s been a long time coming, but we’re back,” said Autrey, a member of the theatre’s executive board. “It took a long time to get it finished, and we’re so proud of it.”
About 10 years ago, Autrey said, a group began making plans to refurbish the 7,600-square-foot building. The Community Development Corp. and the Tallassee Historical Preservation Society played a large part in ensuring the theatre design stayed true to its roots. Many Tallassee residents donated their time and services to the restoration.
“The stage was rotting and we had termite damage,” said Autrey, chairwoman of the theatre operations board. “This has been an expensive project – we originally planned to spend $750,000, and we’re running out of funds. We added a new electrical system and plumbing, and brand new HVAC. We’ve got quite a sophisticated sound and lighting system.
“We’ll have a nice, pretty courtyard for the outside, where people can go and sit,” said Autrey, who was raised in Tallassee. “That’s planned for late spring. We want to do a fundraiser to replace the downstairs seats.”
Wooden seats were recently purchased to fill the downstairs theatre, while the upstairs balcony has cushioned seats.
Planned as a multipurpose cultural arts center, the venue will be used on alternate weekends for children’s movies and classics for adults. With the success of “Dear Mama,” Autrey wants to continue hosting plays once a month.
“We hope to provide a cultural boost our town has missed,” she said. “This theatre belongs to the community, and we hope it will be an impetus for economic growth.”
Landers-Emfinger echoed those hopes.
“I am so excited about the reopening of Mt. Vernon Theatre,” Landers-Emfinger said. “It’s bringing a piece of Tallassee’s history to life.
“I love being in APSO,” she said. “It’s our opportunity to give back, and that’s what we’re trying to do here.”