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LaBelle Theater gets its encore

The LaBelle Theater has undergone a $60,000 renovation project that makes the historic structure even more inviting, educational, comfortable and, well, just plain fun.

"It has really been a dream come true," said Bob Anderson, executive director of the South Charleston Convention & Visitors Bureau.

Located on D Street in South Charleston, the original structure was built in 1938 by Walter B. Urling. He called the theater LaBelle in honor of his daughter and mother, who were both named Isabelle, Anderson said.

It continued to be a movie house but was renamed Cinema South in the 1960s until it closed in 1979. Various church congregations have met inside the building over the years. In December 2002, the city of South Charleston bought the building from Lighthouse Worship Center for $85,000.

"T.D. Jakes preached here," Anderson said. "Three or four churches have been here and then built other churches. We bought it from Lighthouse Worship Center, and they built a church in Sissonville. We've always had a church here. We've had movies, concerts, birthday parties and reunions here. A little bit of everything."

When the city first bought the structure, South Charleston officials billed the revived theater as a center for the community's arts and cultures. Anderson said the city strives to keep it that way.

On a recent tour of the facility, Anderson pointed out an impressive number of improvements that the $60,000 was stretched to cover.

"About a year and a half ago, the city raised the hotel tax from 3 to 6 percent," Anderson said. "That money helped us to renovate the whole theater. I am grateful to Mayor (Frank) Mullens and city council for raising the hotel tax in order to restore this facility for the next 100 years."

Mullens said he hopes the recent refurbishing of the historic theater will draw more visitors to the area.

Anderson first looked for seats to replace the original ones that kept breaking. Initially, it seemed seats would cost $90,000.

"We finally got them for $20,000 in Ohio," he said. "A distributor had these almost new ones out of another theater."

The 300 seats are larger and have thicker cushions. Additional improvements include fresh paint, new tile flooring and carpeting, light fixtures, a wide screen for movies, new sound equipment, a new marquee, brochure rack, silk flower arrangements, neon lights atop the building, new sinks and mirrors in bathrooms, popcorn machine, and historical pictures throughout the theater. A mural on a wall in back of the stage was contributed by South Charleston Visual Arts Society. Don Evans, of Evans Lumber Co., donated some rare historical pictures that fill one corner.

The building also houses the Convention and Visitors Bureau, which got a facelift with new carpet and paint.

Anderson expressed gratitude to Beth Justice and Mary Basham, who helped with everything from picking out paint colors to searching online for affordable theater seats.

"It's a total restoration of the facility," Anderson said. "People love to have reunions, church services and birthday parties here. It's $60 an hour to rent the place. It's handicapped accessible, and it's right downtown in a safe area. It's a multipurpose building, not just a theater."

Of course, it is fun to walk down memory lane and talk about films shown there over the years.

"The first movie shown here was 'One Foot in Heaven,' " Anderson said. "'The Graduate' was the longest running. 'Gone With the Wind' had the largest attendance. People were lined up around the block."

While visiting the theater with all its charm, don't forget to stop next door in the South Charleston Interpretive Center to learn about the history of the area from Indian mounds to the glassmaking industry. There are exhibits, interactive kiosks, models, Union Carbide relics, and artifacts such as arrowheads and tools. Call 304-720-9847 for more information.

For more information about the theater call the South Charleston Convention & Visitors Bureau at 304-746-5552.

Contact writer Charlotte Ferrell Smith at charlotte@dailymail.com or 304-348-1246.


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