By Louise Caccamise
In this month’s edition of the Land Around Us, we travel just up the road to DeLand and the Athens Theatre to explore the rich history within the community.
The Athens Theatre in DeLand, where many of us have enjoyed plays, has a history that dates to 1921. It was then that prominent Orlando architect Murray S. King, Florida’s first registered architect, designed the building with an Italian Renaissance style. It was built by Andrew Bradshaw and opened on January 6, 1922. Though many restorations have taken place through the years, it still has the original Grecian Frieze in the 1920s made by Samuel Judson Stone over the stage’s proscenium arch.
When Henry DeLand envisioned the town, he hoped that it would be a cultural center where the arts and learning would flourish – “The Athens of Florida.” It was in honor of his idea that the theatre was named. The Grand Opening featured a movie, theatrical performances and vaudeville acts.
The theatre offered residents a place to find refuge from happenings in the world. During the Great Depression, entertainment there was affordable. Children could enter for only nine cents. Years later it was a movie theatre, a community theatre, and in the late 1970s, it was a dinner theatre.
In the 1950s the Athens was renovated and continued until the early 1990s when it was closed for extensive renovation. In 1993, Mainstreet DeLand Association joined the effort. A matching grant from the Florida Bureau of Historic Preservation was received. The Athens Theatre Restoration Society was formed, comprised of supporters who were united in a vision to rebuild the historic theatre.
In November 1997, an unveiling of the Façade and Marquee on the exterior of the building took place during the 5th Annual DeLand Fall Festival of the Arts. E. C. Kenyon Construction of Jacksonville received great commendation for their work. They won the Horizon Award which was presented by the Association of General Contractors. News of the award was published in the 1998 Northeastern Florida Constructor magazine. Old photographs had been studied and great attention had been given to the original architectural details.
Still closed, fundraising for interior renovation continued with a series of events. In 1998, the first Annual Gala was held. The evening featured a spectacular party based on the theme of the motion picture Titanic. In 1999, the second fundraiser, based on the movie Casablanca, was a costume ball held at St. Peter’s Activity Center. Innovative fundraising activities have continued through the years. DeLand artist Brenda Star created a painting of the Athens Theatre that was made into limited edition color prints that were given
On January 6, 2009, the Athens re-opened its doors after the complete renovation. Today it features outstanding theatrical productions, live concerts, drama workshops and summer camps. Located at 124 North Florida Avenue in DeLand, at the end of West Indiana Avenue, it represents the best in live entertainment. The lighted marquee welcomes all to this historic building where the past and present are forever entwined.