GREEN COVE SPRINGS – The Clay Theatre sits on a strip of road within arm’s reach of Spring Park and eyeshot of the St. Johns River since it was built in 1919 as the Palace Opera House. But for …
GREEN COVE SPRINGS – The Clay Theatre sits on a strip of road within arm’s reach of Spring Park and eyeshot of the St. Johns River since it was built in 1919 as the Palace Opera House. But for the last four years, the massive marquee that for years invited guests inside has collected dust.
Now, a new Clay County nonprofit wants to make enough noise to shake the dust off.
At the start of the new year, playwright and off-Broadway actress Elaine Smith formed the arts, advocacy and acting nonprofit Clamour Theatre Company. She wants to bridge the stark and often impenetrable divide between the church-turned-stage of Orange Park Community Theatre to the talent-rich stage at the Thrasher Horne Center for the Performing Arts.
Smith wants to raise the bar of theatre in the county and put Green Cove Springs in the front seat for artistic tourism. At the same time, the venue would give artists an outlet that sits somewhere between amateur and professional theatre opportunities where, currently, none exists.
“I was involved very much in theatre when I lived in New York City, and I sort of missed that arts community when I moved back,” Smith said. “I could find it in Jacksonville, but that’s a long way to go for rehearsals, so it was to rebuild that kind of community that I was missing.”
Once she realized the Clay Theatre was currently unoccupied, she said that became a big part of the goal. She can’t easily host local shows, rehearsals and other productions without a venue.
So the goal morphed from ‘how to start a theatre company’ to ‘how to raise $350,000 from scratch.’
On Jan. 21, she raised $500 from her participation in the Orange Park innovation festival Pitch in the Park, where she won second place for her idea. Smith hasn’t attempted to officially raise funds yet because she’s still filing paperwork with the Internal Revenue Service to officially register her company as a 501(c)3 nonprofit, but said the support she’s received already has been encouraging to say the least.
She said when she tells people she wants to start a theatre company in the county, she generates intrigue, but when she fills citizens in on her idea to repurpose the theatre into a venue, she creates excitement.
“They don’t have [a theatre company] and I feel that’s a hole in any community to not have a lot of art happening,” Smith said. “I think letting that building sit there and not be used is really detrimental for the economic outlook for the community.”
Aside from community enrichment, engagement and livability, artistic endeavors within communities wring dramatically higher returns than initial investments.
The advocacy and research foundation Americans for the Arts found funds generated from arts on local, state and federal levels totaled $22.3 billion in yearly revenue. This far exceeded the $4 billion appropriated to arts programs throughout the country.
Nationally, the industry generates roughly $135.2 billion of economic activity, over four million full-time jobs and generates $86.68 billion in resident household income, according to the 2011 report.
The general trend in Clay County is to throw pennies to the peasants when it comes to artistic development county-wide. Aside from grants, some state, some federal, the county generated just north of $2,000 last year in taxation of the Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles Florida art license plates.
“There is no one who is attempting to do this, to be in the middle between the community theatre and the big Jay Leno coming into town,” Smith said. “Green Cove had done very well around the turn of the century as a spa destination, then when the railroad was built...that kind of went downhill, then with World War II the Navy was there...when they took the mothball fleet out things sort of went back down, and I see it poised really for a reemergence of prosperity.”
The Clay Theatre played its part in past upticks of tourism in the city, and, Smith said, the Clamour Theatre Company could help the location reemerge and help the city reimagine itself with a better-silhouetted identity.
“The theatre was the soul of Green Cove Springs, yes it was, it was the soul,” said Clay Theatre owner Bill Gause. “I remember going down there a week before we opened up we hung the marquee out front and we would just light up the whole town with the marquee and everybody would stop in amazement.”
In 1998, Gause gutted the building at the cost of $700,000. He ran the theatre until health problems forced him to close it in 2009.
“They’re not the first ones that have wanted to buy it, a lot of church groups, several, that have
inquired about it and had themselves trying to come up with the funds to buy it,” said Clay Theatre realtor Pam Gause. “They’re still out there – they haven’t gone away – they’re just trying to come up with the money.”
Smith hopes she raises the money first. After that, Smith hopes to invest a total of $1 million into the building to remodel it and purchase the adjacent parcel to the east.
“If someone comes in before we raise our money, they’re going to get it,” Smith said. “I would be disappointed because I really do think the location is really good, I love the building I’d love to make it go, but if we don’t get it then we’ll find something else or we’ll create something else.”
Smith’s plan has already caught the ear of city hall. Mayor Pam Lewis asked state lawmakers on Monday for $365,000 to purchase the Clay Theatre as a venue.
“We believe that securing funds to purchase the theatre could preserve another important asset and help revitalize our city,” Lewis said. “The city would work in conjunction with local cultural arts organizations that include playwrights and musical performers. This would be an economic complement to Spring Park, the City Pier and the downtown area.”