By Kim Barto Meeks
“The show must go on.” Losing the historic Rives Theatre to fire on Sunday night has been devastating for the community, but it won’t stop Rooster Walk from bringing live music to Martinsville, the organization’s leaders said.
Just the day before, on Sept. 7, East Church Street was filled with hundreds of revelers gathered in front of the Rives Theatre for the fifth annual Brewster Walk Craft Beer Festival.
Twenty-four hours later, the street was blocked off with yellow caution tape and filled with emergency vehicles as the building burned. Flames could be seen through the charred wooden rafters of the attic, and people as far away as Collinsville reported seeing the column of smoke.
The building was empty when the fire broke out, and no one was injured in the blaze. Fire crews contained it before it could spread to neighboring businesses. However, the theater was a total loss. Martinsville Fire Chief and Fire Marshal Ted Anderson said Tuesday that the investigation into the cause of the fire is ongoing.
On Sunday, Sept. 8, event organizers and friends spent the afternoon at the Rives cleaning up from Saturday, packing supplies and equipment, and watching sports on the theater’s movie screen. Nothing seemed amiss when they turned the lights off and locked up for the night, said Johnny Buck, Rooster Walk, Inc.’s Executive Director.
The emergency call came in around 8:30 p.m. Sunday, “We had trucks out here within five minutes, and there was already fire and smoke through the roof,” Anderson said. “In a commercial building this large, when the fire is at that stage, we’re already behind. It was already through one end of the building to the other.”
Fire crews from Martinsville, Fieldale-Collinsville, Dyers Store, Collinsville, and Henry County Public Safety stayed on the scene through the night, pumping 2,000 gallons of water a minute.
Buck praised the fire and rescue workers, “who did a tremendous job keeping everyone safe and the other buildings unscathed.”
When he heard about the fire Sunday night, Buck recalled, “You feel disbelief and shock at first, then you start to process not only that it’s real, but you start to realize what it means for next week, next month. It’s just a really sad moment.”
Thinking about all the live music that has come through the Rives in recent years, “a lot of good memories come back to you,” he said. “While we hope to continue making more memories in uptown Martinsville with live music, it’ll never be quite the same again.”
Rooster Walk, Inc. does not plan to cancel any of their upcoming concerts, Buck said, though they are having to find new venues.
“I can’t believe this is happening. It’s surreal,” said Rives Coleman, who managed the theater for 12 years. His name is no coincidence – the building was named for his great-grandfather, Rives S. Brown, Sr., and it has been owned by the Brown/Coleman family since 1938.
On Sunday night, he sat on the curb watching the fire crews work and thought about “all the work and memories and that have gone on there, especially during the past 12 years. It’s emotional. It’s been an important part of my family, for my daughters.”
Though its latest incarnation was as a music venue, the Rives Theatre meant so much more to many people, Coleman said. His two daughters, Bailey and Claire Warner, grew up not only going to concerts at the Rives, but also birthday parties, movie nights, and class field trips there. The lower theater featured a stage for live music, while the upper theater retained a large movie screen and projector.
“I remember Claire Warner getting to see ‘Gnomio and Juliet’ here with her second grade class and being so proud that her daddy was selling popcorn,” he said. “I worked many of those events and enjoyed them immensely.”
One tradition in recent years was showing “The Polar Express” on the big screen for local elementary students each December.
“Seeing the kindergarten classes come in their pajamas, so excited to see the Polar Express, that always made me happy. There were kids who had never been to a movie theater before,” Coleman said. “To be an affordable outlet for families to experience this – it meant a lot, in my opinion. Those are the little things I love.”
The theater was built as a playhouse in 1928, then turned into a movie theater. It continued to show movies for decades, until the 2000s, when the economic downturn threatened to close its doors. Community members joined forces to try and save the theater by turning it into a live music venue. A group of volunteers formed the nonprofit Arts at the Rives Theatre (ART) and held concerts monthly, eventually raising enough money to keep the theater going. ART and Rooster Walk merged into a single nonprofit organization in 2016 with the goal of continuing to support the arts and music in the community.
“Our family has been very, very happy with the direction that things have gone, that the name lives on, that we’re making magic,” Coleman said.
The Rives stage launched many local musicians and also brought in nationally touring bands, including Leftover Salmon and Billy Strings. Signed posters and memorabilia from years of Rives shows and Rooster Walk festivals hung on the walls of the theater’s lobby, including two large original paintings by artist Jonathan Blake that he painted live in front of the stage during the first Rooster Walk in 2009.
Fortunately, Anderson said, “quite a few of the pictures are still salvageable. Obviously, they’re going to smell like smoke, and the frames and such are soot-stained, but the lobby is mostly intact.”
Many musicians said they enjoyed playing the Rives Theatre because of its excellent acoustics, Buck said. This was due to the soundproof carpeting, walls, and ceiling tiles that were installed for the movie theater when it was renovated in the 1990s.
“When we were getting ready to put on the first couple of shows in there, we had no idea how it would sound,” he said. “We were pleasantly surprised that, from the very beginning, musicians were very complimentary of the sound. They would tell us, ‘Man, this sounds really good. I can hear myself, hear every note.’ Several remarked that it was like performing in a professional studio with a live audience.”
Buck said Monday that many musicians who had played the Rives had already contacted him to express their sadness about the fire. In addition, “hundreds and hundreds of local people have reached out directly or on social media. Everyone’s been so supportive and asking how they can help.”
After the fire, Facebook was filled with Martinsville residents sharing memories of the movie theater and past concerts. Some called for the Rives to rebuild and offered to make donations.
Buck said the future of the building remains to be seen. “It’s far too early to predict where the shows will take place in the next year or two,” he said. “But we do know we’re going to keep bringing great live music to Martinsville-Henry County.”