If you wanted to see one of the most spectacular Mayan temples in the world, you can take a trip to Yucatan, Mexico to see El Castillo at Chichen Itza. Or you could travel to the small country town of Marion, Virginia, to see one of only three Art Deco Mayan Revival theaters in the world, which was designed to evoke images of an ancient Mayan temple. With the addition of six painted murals depicting national and local history, a state-of-the-art sound and lighting system, and comfortable theater-style seating on two levels, The Lincoln Theatre is one of the most unique, beautiful, and architecturally cool theaters in the country.
The Lincoln Theatre is a historic landmark that is part live performance venue and part motion-picture theater. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places and a Virginia Historic Landmark, this theater has had a long history of opening, closing, falling into disrepair, but today serves as a firm anchor for a booming and increasing tourism industry in Marion.
The history of the Lincoln Theatre began as a dream in 1928. Charles Wassum, a prominent Marion citizen, had returned from New York with two goals: build an apartment building and a motion-picture theater. But after completing the apartment building, Royal Oak Apartments, he decided to sell the land intended for the theater to local business magnate Charles C. Lincoln, Sr.
Just a year earlier Lincoln had finished construction on The General Francis Marion Hotel, which at the time was considered the most modern hotel between Roanoke and Knoxville. With that project finished, he turned his attention to building a state-of-the-art movie theater for the small town (Marion only had a population of about 4,000 at this time). But before construction on the theater was complete, Lincoln died of pneumonia. His sons, Charles C. Lincoln, Jr. and John D. Lincoln, inherited his business and continued the construction.
The Lincoln Theatre opened on July 1, 1929 with a screening of Close Harmony, staring Buddy Rogers and Nancy Carroll. For the next 44 years dozens of Hollywood feature films appeared on the screen for people to enjoy. But in December of 1973 the theater closed for the first time. Operating just part-time throughout the remainder of the 1970’s, the theater closed again on August 28, 1977.
A few years later, The Lincoln Theatre Foundation purchased the building with hopes of renovating the space, updating the equipment, and reopening the historic theater. But it would take over thirty years before their vision was realized. Finally, on May 16, 2004, the theater reopened with a performance by Grammy Award-winning western musical and comedy group Riders in the Sky.
The theatre’s art deco mayan revival interior design makes one of the most unique theaters in the world, with only two others fitting the same description. The interior was designed to mimic a Mayan temple with appliques and a bold color palette. It is like a seamless blend of art history museum and entertainment space with state-of-the-art sound and lighting equipment. It is a functional space meant to be used, but also a space to be appreciated for its unique beauty.
As your eyes travel from one applique to another up the walls and across the ceiling, you eventually fall on one of the six gigantic painted murals. Contrasting with the Mayan decor, the murals depict six scenes from national and local history. Local artist Lola Poston was paid $50 for each painted mural. Ironically (and I say ironically because I believe Poston deserved to be paid more), nearly $20,000 was spent on each mural during the restoration period near the end of the 20th century.
Today the Lincoln Theatre hosts a variety of events. Most notably is Song of the Mountains, an award-winning bluegrass concert series aired nationally on PBS. Since its reopening in 2004 the theater has focused more on live band performances, concert series, and comedy shows. But from time to time the theater will pull out a large portable projection screen for various 35mm films to be screened, bringing back the roots of the theater as a motion-picture theater. My absolute favorite was a midnight screening (killed me I couldn’t attend, pun totally intended) was Night of the Living Dead, the original zombie movie by George Romero that started them all, on Friday, October 25 for just $5.
Looking into the future, The Lincoln Theatre hopes to once again become a major motion-picture movie house, competing against larger, corporate movie chains. I certainly hope they can move in this direction, perhaps with screenings of art house films, independent movies, foreign films, or some other particular niche. It would be great to see a movie theater that was shut down during my entire youth to once again become what Charles Wassum first envisioned in 1928: a motion-picture theater in the heart of Marion that provides wonderful feature film entertainment for all the local residents.