Two Grand Ladies: Patsy Cline and Lynchburg’s Academy of Music

One Sunday afternoon, while I was strolling through the ruins of a Victorian palace in the backwoods of Central Virginia, I stumbled across a Latin verse etched into a wooden bookcase. When translated, the quote read ‘Architecture is frozen music’.

As I sift through books and photos that illuminate the once grand stature of Lynchburg’s Academy of Music, I suddenly realize the poignancy of that carved-in piece of wisdom. When it first opened in 1905, the Academy was an epicenter of excitement and activity for Lynchburg residents, who had never before stepped into a building that was fully equipped with working electricity. The theatre was a symbol for the city’s societal progress in the arts, but Lynchburg’s relationship with the building has eroded with the innovations of film and television. Yet, the theatre still stands today, as a symbol of an era frozen in time.

With its Ionic pillars protruding out of its cemented exterior, the Academy is a living relic to the Neoclassical period of architecture that was popular in the United States during the early 20th century. Appropriately nicknamed Lynchburg’s ‘Grand Old Lady’, the building’s antiquarian design was thought of as a remedy to cleanse the clutter or urban life, but none of the Academy’s classical features could protect it from a long history of rebirths and destructions.

At the height of its popularity, the Academy of Music was victim to a fire on April 20th, 1911. Up to that point, the Academy had housed the talent of memorable names such as George M. Cohan, Ethel Barrymore, Will Rodgers, and Mary Pickford. For a then-astounding cost of $2.50, the Lynchburg elite could enjoy the front row antics of John Drew or Stella Mayhem. The fire of 1911 would be the first crack to crumble this house of fantastical escapism, as the nation increased its involvement in World War I.

Though Lynchburg mercantilist Charles M. Guggenheim was able to surge a quick renovation of the theatre within a year of its first fire, the number of performers touring into the city via railroad steadily decreased as coal became a commodity to fuel the war effort in Europe. Lynchburg residents found that the new “movie palace” across the street from the Academy offered a greater variety of entertainment, and so a fierce competition for ticket sales was ignited with the advent of talking pictures in the 1920s. 

Not to mention, the highbrow theatregoers of the city were beginning to recede into the suburbs as the number of families owning an automobile had increased to almost 50% by 1925. That same year, the Academy would be victimized once again, but this time at the hands of a tribe of barbaric hooligans. The once ‘Grand Old Lady’ would be reduced to housing amateur talent for the next three decades, until finally the Academy ended all theatrical entertainment in 1958.

Serving as an incubator for dust and cobwebs for the next three decades, the Academy managed to avoid demolition by the city council due to its merit as a historical site, though the building could not fight Mother Nature, as demonstrated when it lost its roof during a storm in the summer of 1993.         

The tumultuous journey of the Academy found new direction when it merged with the Lynchburg Fine Arts Center in 2003 to form the Academy of Fine Arts. This consolidation has inspired bold new plans to completely renovate the original Academy building back to its original design from 1905. Until the renovation is complete, many present productions are being staged behind the Academy theatre in the Joy and Lynch Christian Warehouse Theatre. This will be the site of Endstation’s final show of the season, Always…Patsy Cline

A musical play about the unapologetically independent singer of the late 1950s, the life of Patsy Cline strangely correlates with the location that will stage her story. A wife and mother who would survive a near-fatal car accident in 1961, Cline had the strength to rise from the ashes and continue her career as a headliner at the Grand Ole Opry, only to be struck down again just two years later in a plane crash that would end her life at the age of 30. 

Just as the Academy of Music experienced many premature tragedies in its lifespan, Patsy Cline’s legacy would depend on public appeal to maintain its prevalence. Thanks to the eternal timelessness of her music, she continues to reappear in pop culture with Hollywood dramatizations in Sweet Dreams and Coal Miner’s Daughter, and this play by Ted Swindley is now one of the most produced musicals in America. 

Similar to how a listening of “I Fall to Pieces” can enchant a person’s lonely heart with the memories of a lost love, a quick glance at the fading marquee of the Academy of Music induces a feeling of nostalgia for a simpler time. 

Lynchburg’s Grand Old Lady will welcome the grand lady of country music on July 24th, and will house her in its the Warehouse Theatre until August 3rd.

Kevin C. Reagan is a student of the University of Arizona, where he studies theatre, history, and journalism. While in school, he works as the editor of the arts & life section of his university’s award-winning newspaper, the Arizona Daily Wildcat. He also works as a content producer for Arizona Public Media. He hopes to pursue a professional career in arts-focused journalism upon graduating with his BFA degree this December. You can follow him on Twitter @KevinReaganUA.

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