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Ashland Theatre celebrates 75 years

More than a dozen volunteers and employees crowd behind a green ribbon in front of the "Celebrating 75 years" sign.
Louise Keeton
Downtown Ashland Association
“We wanted to make sure that it was something we could all utilize again. So we are willing to make the effort to make sure it happened.”

The town's iconic landmark celebrates decades of bringing arts and fun to the "center of the universe."

The brightly-lit marquee of the Ashland Theatre has welcomed family, friends and visitors for well over seven decades, but just a few years ago the town’s cultural hub was in danger of closing its doors for good.

Opened in 1948, the 260-seat theater on England Street was the go-to spot for the people of Ashland until the late ‘90s — when the theater fell on hard times and stopped hosting all events and productions.

Louise Keeton, marketing director of the Ashland Downtown Association, told VPM News losing the event space felt as if the town had lost its own heartbeat. Keeton said she still has fond memories of going to see classics like Gone with the Wind while in seventh grade and hosting small play productions with groups of friends as she got older.

“For such a long time, those lights were out and it felt like the very heart of Ashland was out seeing those lights dimmed. It meant a lot to us growing up that we had a space we can all gather and come together,” Keeton said.

As the building began collecting dust, owners Jean and A.D. Whittaker landed on a unique solution to donate the theater to the town of Ashland in 2013 so it could be maintained.

All it took was the yearslong work of volunteers like Keeton to organize a series of pop-up markets and events to bring the structure back to life.

“It's a beautiful space and it's a community space,” Keeton said. “We wanted to make sure that it was something we could all utilize again. So we are willing to make the effort to make sure it happened.”

Ashland Theatre exterior marquee: "Ashland Theatre Celebrating 75 Years Open House Today 10AM" ""
Louise Keeton
Downtown Ashland Association
As Ashland Theatre began collecting dust, owners Jean and A.D. Whittaker donated the theater to the town in 2013 so it could be maintained properly.

The town’s grassroots efforts culminated in 2017, as residents completed a crowdfunded campaign to complete a $2.1 million renovation, which let the Ashland Theatre officially reopen Dec. 26, 2018.

Now the Ashland Theatre Foundation — a nonprofit founded by former pop-up volunteers — manages events and productions for space. General Manager Courtney Caldwell told VPM News it's hard to imagine the theater was ever closed.

“It’s not just a cinema, not just a concert venue, but a place where all types of arts, all types of events are happening on a regular basis,” Caldwell said. “It's just incredible to see people who were here in the past, who are now bringing their younger family members … it genuinely feels like this theater will be around for the next 75 years without a problem.”

Since becoming general manager in 2021, Caldwell has organized a series of new events that invites new generations of theater-goers like Toddler Takeovers, Rocky Horror Picture Show–themed productions and showcases for classic cinema.

Getting to know theater regulars, newcomers and now celebrating the theater's 75th anniversary has been some of the most memorable parts of Caldwell’s decadelong career in the arts.

“Seeing those smiles in the crowd everyday, that's why we're doing all of this,” Caldwell said. “To give children, families, adults, an hour and a half, two hours, with their mind on nothing, but just laughing and fun. Forgetting the troubles of the outside world.”

With the conclusion of the anniversary celebration in August, the theater will continue to celebrate its 75th birthday with a series of classic movie showings throughout the 2023-24 season.

Ticket and showtime information can be found on the Ashland Theatre website.

Updated: September 5, 2023 at 11:07 AM EDT
Disclosure: Louise Keeton is a former VPM employee.
Lyndon German covers Henrico and Hanover counties for VPM News.