MILTON — Stepping into the Imogene Theatre in the heart of downtown Milton is like stepping back 100 years in time.
The old wooden floors still creak when you walk, just as they might have during 1920s dance parties. The acoustics carry voices clearly, and you can almost still hear Hank Williams crooning “Move It on Over” like he did when he played the Imogene in the 1940s.
A backdrop hanging behind the original stage carries a banner of hand-painted advertisements from a fundraiser by the Milton High School senior class of 1941, including an ad for for Joe T. Allen, Sheriff and Harrison Mercantile.
“You can’t build rooms like this anymore,” said Kyle Verner, the theatre’s general manager, as he sat on the stage. “It’s just a really cool place, a unique place.”
The Imogene Theatre is helping to lead a renaissance in downtown Milton by drawing big-name acts such as country music darling Lee Ann Womack, singer John Paul White of the Civil Wars and the band Confederate Railroad, as well as comedy and theatrical acts.
Since Verner was brought in to head the historic theater two years ago, he said he’s seen an increase of interest by artists wanting to play the intimate venue, which has just 350 seats, including a bar and balcony area.
“This theater is in a great location, just 2 miles off Interstate 10, so it’s a terrific place for an artist who is maybe routing through to another destination,” Verner said. “And when they find out the history of the building and how cool it is ... in the music industry right now, that’s kind of a hot trend to play at these kinds of places, and we’re just in the right place and it’s the right time.”
Though it may be enjoying a revitalization, a series of fires — both literal and metaphorical — threatened to destroy the theater before it was able to truly thrive.
Verner likes to recount the building’s history to anyone he meets. In a nutshell, the building was constructed in 1912 — the same year the Titanic sank — after a fire in January 1909 leveled downtown Milton. It was built using six layers of brick, inside and out, to make it as fireproof as possible.
It opened in 1913 as the Milton Opera House and Auditorium, and entertained audiences with the likes of Hank Williams, Hank Locklin and Minnie Pearl.
The Gooch family purchased the theater in the 1920s and renamed it the Imogene Theatre after their daughter, Imogene Gooch, who loved music and dancing.
It thrived as a center of cultural life in Milton until the late 1940s, when a novel “moving picture house” (now known as a movie theater) opened up across the street and effectively forced the theater to shudder its doors.
“The downstairs area was always retail, but the theater portion shut down until the late 1980s,” Verner said. “It was then that the city of Milton grew concerned that the building was a hazard because it had been vacant for a long time and kids were breaking in and so forth, so they decided they would tear the building down and build a parking lot for the courthouse across the street.”
But the Santa Rosa Historical Society stepped in and was able to save the building. They then put in the work to get the Imogene Theatre back up and running.
However, in January 2009, a fire that broke out 100 years to the week of the original fire, nearly destroyed the building again. According to Daily News archives, a fire that started in a building behind the theater spread and destroyed four surrounding structures, causing nearly $2 million in damage.
But the Imogene Theatre survived thanks to the help of local firefighters, and in 2012 it started to “come alive again.”
The building served mostly as a wedding venue and a spot for community plays from then until 2016, when Verner took it over and brought in concerts, improvisational comedy, murder mystery dinners and concerts.
“The acoustics in here are so great, that it’s just an awesome place for live music,” he said. “But it’s just a neat space for anything. It’s flexible — we had a private banquet the other night, and a trade show ... it’s becoming what the historical society wanted it to be, which is a really big source of community pride.”
With talks of the Santa Rosa County Courthouse, which sits directly across the street from the theater, moving, Verner hopes the theater will serve as the new linchpin of Milton’s downtown area.
“We’re very confident that if the courthouse leaves and some of the affiliated businesses leave with it and those buildings become available, we believe this building will serve as the catalyst for revitalization, again,” he said.
Still, Verner said he’s already seen a little bit of the renaissance happening just in the past year, with some longtime Milton residents saying they’ve come to the Imogene for the first time.
Verner said one woman came in for a showing of the movie “Grease” with her granddaughter, and recounted how she used to attend the theater with her own grandmother when she was a young girl.
But the thing that makes the Imogene so unique, aside from its history and the nostalgia that emanates from it, is its intimacy, Verner said.
“The furthest seat in the building is 58 feet,” he said. “It’s like no matter where you sit, it’s a front-row seat.”