Local News

Troubled theater reopens to packed house

Posted December 19, 2008 2:39 p.m. EST
Updated December 19, 2008 7:01 p.m. EST

— More than 1,300 people packed the hall of the Roanoke Rapids Theatre for a Christmas performance Thursday night, filling the troubled entertainment venue to near capacity.

The $21.5 million theater has sat idle since July after a number of management issues, poor ticket sales and a contractual buyout of the theater's former namesake, country music singer Randy Parton.

"I'm glad to see the doors open again," Roanoke Rapids Mayor Drewery Beale said at Thursday's night's performance by the singing group Temptations Review. "It's been a long struggle."

Roanoke Rapids officials are now in contract negotiations with Chicago businessman and North Carolina native, Lafayette Gatling, who announced earlier this year his plans to buy the theater and expand it.

In October, the Roanoke City Council approved the sale of the theater for $12.5 million.

"We're not focusing on the negative," Gatling said at Thursday night's performance. "So, we're only concerned about the positive. Everything is positive going forward with this theater."

Gatling, who is expected to take ownership of the theater in 2009, said he anticipates having at least two shows a month and said that the 1,350 tickets sold confirm his desire to expand the 1,500-seat facility to at least 5,000 seats.

Built to anchor a planned entertainment complex along Interstate 95 in Roanoke Rapids, the theater lost Parton as its headlining act and manager last December because of lower-than-projected attendance and revenue as well as controversies over spending.

Ticket sales remained low after Parton's departure, and the theater lost more than $1 million in the first three months of 2008, including the costs of buying out Parton's contract.

The losses played a role in a 5-cent increase to the local property tax rate that city officials approved in July.

Boston-based UGL Unicco, which the city brought in to manage the theater after Parton, terminated its contract with Roanoke Rapids in February, claiming the city owed the firm more than $100,000.

The city then decided to manage the theater independently and eventually struck a deal with Gatling.

"I never lost faith in this place," Beale said, "even at the last show we had, when I went out on the stage and I told them that this was our last show but that we would return."