The Clock's Ticking on a Challenge Grant to Save the Historic Franklin Theatre 

In the climactic scene of Charlotte's Web, the love of Wilbur's life dies alone in a deserted fairgrounds stall. There, too, the Franklin Theatre might have died on Jan. 7, 2007, as the credits rolled on the last picture show to play commercially on Franklin's Main Street before the historic movie house closed for business.

Since then, an ambitious renovation, revitalization and fundraising initiative has stepped in to save the 71-year-old downtown theater, also known as the Franklin Cinema. But it now faces its biggest test of widespread community backing, as supporters have less than a month left to win a challenge grant pivotal to the theater's future.

The nonprofit group leading the initiative, the Franklin and Williamson County Heritage Foundation, has put everything it could beg and borrow into saving the theater. It plans to turn the nondescript brick-and-cinder-block structure into a multiuse showplace with state-of-the-art lighting, sound and projection, new seating and new interior and exterior decor.

The foundation bought the theater Nov. 1, 2007 from Nashville developer Mark Bloom and partners for $1.75 million. Heritage Foundation volunteer Emily Magid offered a bridge loan while the foundation's leadership geared up their fundraising effort. So far, they have netted some $3.5 million of the estimated $6.5 million needed to pay off the loan and make a serious start on the renovation.

But despite the generosity of major donors—including Magid, who turned her $1.75 million bridge loan into a gift, then added another $250,000—the Heritage Foundation is again under the gun. Under the terms of a $1.5 million challenge grant from the Martin Foundation, founded by the family of Vanguard Health Systems founding chairman and CEO Charles N. Martin Jr., the cinema's backers have until the end of the year to raise a matching amount.

That means, come New Year's Day 2009, the Franklin Theatre will either get $3 million in badly needed capital to complete its campaign—or it'll get nothing.

"They are not going to be able to finish this campaign with washing cars, bake sales or T-shirt sales," says Shannon Presley Martin, executive director of her family's foundation.

"We could have given them the $1.5 million, but that still would have left them underfunded. This challenge grant is a litmus of public support. If other major donors don't step up, then there's not enough sentiment in the community to have that theater restored."

Whether the Heritage Foundation meets the Martins' deadline or not, the restoration effort will go forward, according to Franklin Mayor John Schroer. Although they have declined to commit city money in light of decreasing tax revenues, the mayor and several aldermen are working hard to convince corporations and wealthy citizens to back the theater.

"We need to continue to work on the viability of downtown because it is integral to the overall economic success of Franklin," Schroer says. "Downtown Franklin hasn't been lucky. It's the result of hard work, sweat equity and cash equity. We can't rest on those laurels. We need to continue to invest in downtown."

Ever since it opened in 1937, the Franklin Theatre has played host to everything from Franklin teenagers' first kisses to midnight screenings of The Rocky Horror Picture Show, which played throughout the '90s to costumed fans. Like hundreds of other Franklin natives, veteran Music Row promoter Tandy Rice spent some of the best days of his childhood at the Franklin Theatre.

"Back then there was no television fighting for attention, no country clubs and no shopping centers," Rice says. "Life as we knew it was wrapped up in Main Street. The gem of Main Street was the theater. More of us went there than went to church, because churches back then were only open Wednesday nights and Sundays.

"Many of us held hands with our girlfriends for the first time there," he adds. "And many of us tried to go to first base, then summoned up the courage to make a stab for second base."

But support for the theater extends to Franklin newcomers. To have a theater in the heart of the community is of vital importance, says Cal Turner Jr., former chairman and CEO of Dollar General and a recent Franklin arrival, who ponied up a cool million.

"The long-term viability of downtown Franklin will be positively impacted by that theater," Turner says.

In addition to Turner, Magid and the Martin family, the "Save the Franklin Theatre" effort has already generated significant community support. That ranges from a $100,000 donation from developer Jay Franks—who is also lending construction expertise to the renovation—to dozens of citizens who have bought $2,500 naming rights to the theater's new seats. Fundraising events, including the premiere of a documentary about local World War II hero Jimmy Gentry, have raised several thousand more.

The Heritage Foundation still hopes that in the waning weeks of 2008, a few good donors will meet the Martins' challenge. In the meantime, reopening the theater can't come soon enough for Joey Morris, 13, a Franklin eighth-grader who was just getting used to walking to the movies by himself when the theater closed.

"Franklin is just not the same without the cinema," Morris says. "Everyone wants to know when it will open again."

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