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Kimball Theatre History Assignment

Kimball Theatre

The Kimball Theatre today

Located in Merchants Square, the Kimball Theatre is home to current films and live performances. On any given day, you might see a Colonial Williamsburg interpreter portray Patrick Henry or enjoy a jazz ensemble of talented students from the College of William and Mary. Perhaps the Peninsula's Jewish Film Festival is in town, or maybe you'll see players performing an 18th-century Grand Medley of Entertainments. Whatever your tastes, the Kimball Theatre is at the center of Williamsburg's community activities. Creative programming alliances with the College of William and Mary, community organizations, and Colonial Williamsburg link our past with the present.

Theatre dates to 1933

The rich history of The Kimball Theatre dates back to January 12, 1933. Its curtain first lifted over players from the College of William and Mary performing the play “The Recruiting Officer,” which records indicate was the first play staged in the first theater in British North America just a few blocks away on Palace Green.

Opening night at the theater also included the sounds of the William and Mary Orchestra, a newsreel, a Mickey Mouse cartoon, a “Jeeves the Butler” comedy and the world premier of RKO's “The Conquerors.” Outside, searchlights crisscrossed the sky, airplanes zoomed overhead, and fireworks lit the night.

At the heart of a new town center

The Reverend Dr. W.A.R. Goodwin, who convinced John D. Rockefeller Jr. to return Williamsburg to its 18th-century appearance, first proposed the idea of Merchants Square in 1927. Goodwin believed that consolidating the shops and commercial district in one place would remove the distractions of 20th-century life from the Historic Area and would also create a center for the community. A movie house stood on the general area where the new square would be built, but the building was eventually purchased and demolished to make way for a theater suitable as “center stage” for the new Merchants Square.

Rockefeller owned a film distribution company, Radio-Keith-Orpheum, or RKO, who drafted a business plan to build a 600-seat theater costing somewhere between $85,000 and $100,000. From its outset, it was clear the theater would be strictly a movie house, even though devotees at the College of William and Mary lobbied for a facility that would accommodate stage plays and live performances. But the expense was too great, and the college already had a theater in its four-year-old Phi Beta Kappa Hall. The theater was opened with two other RKO theaters Rockefeller owned: Radio City Music Hall and The Roxy Theatre in New York City.

Although built only for motion pictures, the theater was used for community activities from its beginning. Saturday morning PTA meetings included a movie and audience participation programs for the children. The Catholic community used it for Mass, and the Bruton Parish Church held services there during church restoration. Every December, the church held a matinee to benefit the area poor.

A refuge from summer heat

The new theater, named The Williamsburg Theatre, was air-conditioned, an innovation for its time. Mr. and Mrs. Rockefeller loved the theater and would often entertain their guests by taking them to a movie after dinner. The Rockefellers were such regular patrons that part of the back row was always reserved for them. Major renovations in the 1940s replaced the air conditioning system and widened the space between rows by a few inches. The acoustical plaster put on the walls made news as a technological advance, and the sunburst chandelier fascinated the public.

Visitors often found the theater a refuge. On his frequent trips to Colonial Williamsburg, Walt Disney spent many an evening at the theater. He would often talk with William and Mary students before and after the movie and found the benches in front of the theater a comfortable place to while away the time.

Generous gifts restore and renovate

In the spring of 2000, through the generosity of Bill and Gretchen Kimball of Belvedere, California, a year-long restoration and renovation of the theater began. When it was dedicated on September 28, 2001, during the Foundation's 75th anniversary celebration, the 410-seat theater was renamed The Kimball Theatre. In addition, a new 35-seat screening room, made possible by a gift from the Gladys and Franklin Clark Foundation, allows the theater to offer films to the community seven days a week, even when live performances are staged in the main theater.

Mr. Rockefeller intended the theater to be like those of his in New York, showing exciting releases, able to accommodate local needs and to be a welcome stop for any visitor. Today, the beautifully restored Kimball Theatre continues the Rockefeller tradition by showing films, live shows, musical concerts, and special programs for the college and the community at large.

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There's a common trait between Colonial Williamburg's Kimball Theatre and Radio City Music Hall in New York City.

It has nothing to do with the size or the programming that takes place at each theater, but the man who founded them: John D. Rockefeller Jr.

Rockefeller took a special interest in Williamsburg and the development of Merchants Square — so much so that he decided to draft a business plan for a 600-seat theater that would be part of his film distribution company, Radio-Keith-Orpheum (RKO).

It opened as The Williamsburg Theater in 1933, costing between $85,000 and $100,000 — with inflation, $1.5 to 1.8 million in today's dollars. It was less than a month after Radio City Music Hall opened.

Today, that history is on the mind of Robert Currie, director of entertainment for the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, as he leads the way to new programming at the Kimball, which changed to its current name in 2001 after a donation for restoration from Bill and Gretchen Kimball.

/Daily Press

"We're very focused on trying to bring in and produce our own concerts," he said. "Our challenge is to get more exposure for the Kimball Theatre."

Currie, who began working for Colonial Williamsburg in February, has an extensive arts background.

He graduated from the School of Visual Arts in Manhattan before working as a painter. He switched to a behind-the-scenes role, running an organization called Fresh, which highlighted underground and emerging artists on Long Island.

Currie's time with Fresh has been an influence on the programming of not just the Kimball, but Colonial Williamsburg overall.


Jon Favreau played a role in the animated series “Star Wars: The Clone Wars.” He is also in the upcoming “Solo: A Star Wars Story,” set to open May 25.

Jon Favreau played a role in the animated series “Star Wars: The Clone Wars.” He is also in the upcoming “Solo: A Star Wars Story,” set to open May 25.


"What I was doing at Fresh is much similar to what I'm doing here. This is on a much bigger level," he said. "There's a balance between the Fresh ... and having respect for the Historic Area."

His background in multimedia projects has come in handy for Kimball and the greater Colonial Williamsburg area — especially during Halloween.

"Curse of the Sea Witch," a horror-themed exploration of Duke of Gloucester Street, had numerous projections and inflatables. At the Kimball, the 1926 horror film "Faust" was screened with live piano accompaniment.

Colonial Williamsburg also partnered with William and Mary's science fiction and fantasy club for a sold-out showing of "The Rocky Horror Picture Show."

"Halloween weekend, we were jam-packed," Currie said. "I haven't seen so many guys in fishnet stockings since I left art school in New York."

Outside of the holidays, new programming has seeped its way into the theater. This November, Kimball hosted Brazilian-bluegrass band Matuto.

"Something like Matuto had a really wide appeal," Currie said. "Without alienating our core demographic, we're trying to bring in people who've never been. Some people have never heard of the Kimball Theatre, so we're focused on that."

Steve Rose, a James City County resident, has been attending shows at the theater for more than 20 years.

"It's the original movies that it has, as compared to the blockbuster theaters. The character of it being the community space downtown," he said. "I applaud them for bringing in some of the movies that you would never be able to fill in a larger space."

Rose is an independent film fan and one of the founders of Culturefix, a Williamsburg nonprofit that enhances the community's cultural offerings through events and opportunities. The organization has hosted some tribute shows at the Kimball, focusing on 1950s and 1980s music.

"The whole feel of the community theater and the architecture blends well when you're doing a tribute-type show," Rose said.

While the ambiance is a plus, Currie said his main challenge remains drawing people of all ages and backgrounds into the theater to experience it.

In a ranking of audience demographics at the Kimball, Currie said people aged 55 and older are a majority of the audience. That age range is followed by middle-aged locals and professors, regional guests from the Tidewater region, William and Mary students, independent film fans and Williamsburg guests. Bringing up the rear were high school students and children.

"When we can get that kind of programming that really invigorates younger demographic, we do focus on that," he said. "How can we design a kick-off event in Merchants Square, and what can we do special at the Kimball?"

To attract a wider audience, Currie is hoping to continue partnerships with the College of William and Mary, specifically with the university's Global Film Festival at the end of February.

"It's a beautiful venue that understands the goals of the festival and supports them in every possible way. It's fantastic working with the staff," said Adam Stackhouse, a producer of the film festival as well as an alumnus of William and Mary. "I can't imagine the festival now without the Kimball Theatre."

Its location plays a prime role for the festival.

"For us, we really love how the Kimball brings together the college community and city community," Stackhouse said.

He's also hoping to tap into the local music scene. For Matuto, Richmond-based Tin Can Fish Band opened the show.

"There's a big budding music scene from Norfolk up to Richmond with some incredible musicians. We can bring that high-quality regional talent into the Kimball Theatre," Currie said. "It gives us an opportunity to highlight what's a really good local act."

Momentum for the Kimball will be slightly delayed this January, when it closes for a month for renovations. Changes include upgrades to the seating in the screening room, a new sound system and cosmetic improvements. Until then, the theater will be showing Christmas classics like "Miracle on 34th Street," "It's a Wonderful Life" and "The Polar Express."

When the theater reopens, it will have a packed lineup for Black History Month. Events scheduled include re-enactors telling the story of enslaved people, a musical and a film series.

"I'm just pleased Colonial Williamsburg is giving it a new lease on life," Rose said. "We're excited about the way forward."

Black can be reached by phone at 757-247-4607.

Want to go?

What: Kimball Theatre.

Where: 428 W. Duke of Gloucester Street in Merchants Square, Williamsburg.