Live at the Smoot Theatre

Felice Jorgeson works with the community in Parkersburg to keep a tradition of live entertainment thriving.

By Ryan Whytsell | 01/06/2012

When it first opened its doors in 1926, The Smoot Theatre hosted everything from comedians to elephants on its stage. The theater was one of seven live theaters in downtown Parkersburg, W.Va., and its stage was filled with up to five acts daily at its peak. Now 85 years later, the theater is still hosting a variety of live entertainment in the heart of Parkersburg. The theater is operated by a group of volunteers whose time and efforts keep the doors open.

Felice Jorgeson is the director of the Smoot Theatre. Jorgeson spends 60 to 70 hours a week volunteering her time to keep the theater running. She is something of a renaissance woman for the Smoot; she does everything from directing the house band to changing the words on the marquee above the theater’s entrance. Jorgeson says dedicating her time to keep the Smoot running is worth it.

“We’ve got to keep this going,” Jorgeson said. “This is one of the only sparkles left in downtown Parkersburg.”

The band director at Parkersburg High School in the 1980s, Jorgeson left to teach music at Ohio University. In 1989, Jorgeson was asked by a friend from Parkersburg to bring her band from Ohio and perform a benefit concert for the Smoot Theatre. The building had been closed in 1986 after it had deteriorated into a shell of its former self and was scheduled for demolition. Jorgeson was initially reluctant to bring her students to the theater to which she now dedicates so much of her life.

“At first I thought, who cares? They tear down everything else in Parkersburg, but then I thought that this would be good for the kids so we went,” Jorgeson said. “All we did was put ‘big band’ up on the marquee, and tickets flew out the door like hotcakes, and I thought this could be a gold mine.”

The initial success led to a return performance. This time, Jorgeson was introduced to a man named Jim Wakely. Wakely was the President of the Bernard McDonough Foundation, a philanthropic group dedicated to improving culture and education in the Mid-Ohio Valley.

“The next day he called me and asked me why the building was in such bad shape. I told him there was no money to make any improvements,” Jorgeson said. “The next day he gave me a check for $50,000.”

The $50,000 investment was a start, but Jorgeson realized that without consistent leadership, the theater could not be taken seriously. She decided to step up to the plate and take control of the theater’s day-to-day operations. More than 20 years later, Jorgeson still dedicates much of her time to the theater.

The theater’s restoration was finely detailed to make sure the building was as historically accurate as possible. Pictures from the Smoot’s heyday decorate the walls with images that document the history of the theater. Pictures of the flood of 1913 that covered much of downtown Parkersburg, the Smoot family who originally opened the theater, past stars who have visited the Smoot (including 1920s pop-culture icon Rudolph Valentino) all have their places and add to the historic flavor. The interior of the theater is painted in an art deco style that pops off the ceiling and walls. The dressing rooms, feature old gas burners, which actresses used to heat their curling irons.

In addition to his initial investment, Wakely continued to donate money for improvements such as mahogany doors and crystal chandeliers. Wakely’s status as a community leader put the rest of Parkersburg on alert, and soon help began to flood into the theater. A local glass company donated beveled glass mirrors, while a pipefitter and his apprentice fixed every pipe inside for free. A man in the concrete business donated a new, decorative sidewalk for the building’s entrance. The local Cadillac and Toyota dealerships began to re-upholster the theater seats for free. One of the final touches was when Wakely paid for a historically accurate, 9,000 pound marquee to be restored above the theater’s entrance.

“I’m not originally from this area, so this theater meant absolutely nothing to me,” Jorgeson said. “But what I kept hearing from people was that they formed their childhood memories here. This is where they had their first date with the wife and things like that.”

Originally a vaudeville theater, the Smoot has seen nearly every form of live entertainment on its stage. Vaudeville was a form of variety show that was popular in the early 1900s. Entertainment included comedians, jugglers, acrobats, magicians and musicians. By the 1930s, cinema overtook vaudeville as the premier form of entertainment. Movie companies began to rapidly purchase declining vaudeville theaters. Warner Brothers purchased the Smoot and transformed it into a movie theater.

Today the Smoot Theatre offers a wide variety of shows for all tastes and ages. Broadway shows, bands, choirs and other forms of entertainment are part of the schedule. In addition to what is seen on the marquee, the theater is host to a group of art education programs designed for children in the area. As a former school teacher, Jorgeson knows the need for youth arts education.

“When my husband and I left the school system in the early 1980s, arts education was going down the tubes,” Jorgeson said, “And this is in Wood County, one of the better education systems in the state. The Smoot Theatre supplements what the school system can no longer provide.”

Two of the programs the Smoot provides are Camp Vaudeville and Camp Broadway. These camps teach their attendees the art of their respective namesakes. The Kids Club is a series of shows designed for parents to attend with their children. The theater also hosts two different children’s choirs. She claims programs such as these are invaluable experiences for children looking to go into the arts.

“One young man here went to Camp Vaudeville, then Camp Broadway and went on to attend the Savannah College of Art and Design,” Jorgeson said. “He is in the animation industry now, but he got his start here because the West Virginia education system can’t offer that kind of education.”

Jorgeson said that former students now come back to teach at the camps and offer valuable experiences they’ve learned in their professions. Technology plays a huge role in the arts industries, and she says it’s something the children really enjoy.

“Combining older art forms with new technology is something a kid can really sink their teeth into,” Jorgeson said.

Jorgeson says the non-profit theater is maintained through grants, donations and ticket sales. She says the biggest misconception about the arts industry is that it doesn’t cost a lot of money. The theater recently booked America’s Got Talent winner and West Virginia native Landau Eugene Murphy Jr., and she was surprised by some of the responses.

“Someone asked me, well he’s coming for free right? Umm, no,” Jorgeson said. “People think just because he’s from West Virginia, he’s coming for free. The arts aren’t free, they are a business like everything else. It takes a lot of money to keep something like this going.”

Jorgeson said the theater reached its peak around three years ago. Much of the equipment in the theater is historical and adds to the experience, but old equipment is also in need of constant repair. Jorgeson said many repairmen are often amazed when they glimpse some of the old heating and plumbing equipment that keeps the building running.

“I’m starting to notice things that need to be redone. There are a lot of walls that need repainted and little things that constantly add up,” Jorgeson said. “It’s about time to get started fixing this place up again.”

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