The lights are back on at the old Overton Theater but no one’s home, at least not yet.
John and Loretta Posey, owners of Posey Signal Inc., have recently purchased the site and Loretta Posey said that their intention is to reopen it as a dinner theater and local entertainment venue.
“We hope to have it serve as both a live theater, for stage productions and live events, but also with a drop-down screen for movies as well,” Posey said.
Built during the oil boom years of the 1930s, when the town boasted a population of nearly five thousand residents, the theater closed its doors in 1965 and was later used by Davis Furniture as warehouse space.
Previous owner Clark Davis remembers that the theatre was considered quite extravagant in its day, even hosting the likes of silent-film star Tom Mix who reportedly quipped, “What’s a little hick town like this doing with a theater like this?”
Bright pinholes of light shine through boarded-up ticket windows at the old Overton Theater. Old stage curtains hang like drooping eyebrows and rain drips through the ceiling, collecting into a puddle on the floor.
Sitting in the water is a lawnmower, an old shopping cart and a piano… but when you’re standing in the balcony, the potential of the building is obvious with high ceilings and a long wooden stage.
Folks who pass by the theater along Henderson Street may have already noticed some significant improvements, not least of which being repairs to the lights underneath the marquee.
Posey explained that initial repairs will be done to the front façade before they begin stabilizing the inner structure to help give citizens a foretaste of what’s to come even as much of the more rigorous work continues behind closed doors.
“We want the community to see the progress but also want them to get excited and want to take part,” Posey said. “There are already people who have a interest and are contributing toward this.”
One of those lending a hand to the restoration is longtime resident John Cohagen, whose mother, Lillian Cohagen, taught speech, debate, and theatre at Overton High School, leading the drama department in the remarkable feat of 30 district championships in One-Act Play over the course of her 31 years.
Cohagen fondly recalls attending the theater in his boyhood and eagerly anticipates the prospect of a civic theater being formed in Overton.
“I used to come this theater, from the time when I was five years old until it closed forty-four years ago, so I have a lot of memories and recollections of it,” Cohagen said. “I’ve been involved in theatre most of my life, one way or another, so I am excited about the possibility of a civic theater being established here in Overton.”
Cohagen has a unique attachment to the old building, his father-in-law was a projectionist there in the 1940s, during that time it was “the place to be” for young and old throughout the area.
“It was a nice place,” Cohagen said, bracing one foot against the rail of the balcony. “Movies were 15 cents, and it was a popular place to go. I remember there was an old candy counter here, because it was my favorite place, and I could get a coke for 5 cents, candy for 5 cents and a movie ticket, and I was ready to go.”
The restoration of the theater came about after the building was bought by Loretta and John Posey as one of several building restoration projects in downtown Overton.
“We bought it because we have a heart for this community, and we’ve had a business here for well over ten years,” she said. “We wanted to do dinner and a movie and have live performances with bands, plays and if the stage is big enough, ballet.”
The building, with leaks, rotted wood and old wiring, has provided quite a challenge for the work crews, Cohagen said.
“It’s been difficult and slow-going due to the sheer size of the building,” Cohagen said. “There’s just so much volume. We’re going to have to replace part of the stage and build scaffolding to the ceiling to work on it, which makes it a lot of fun, especially for a guy with bad knees.”
Both Cohagen and Posey estimated the project will take at least two years of work to complete, but the town is already starting to take notice of the project… especially when the old theater lights began to glow again.
“I’ll tell you, that sure got the whole town stirred up,” Mrs. Posey said, the bare bulbs of the theater lights lighting her face. “People were oh so excited, wondering what they could do, and that tells you what kind of people we have here in Overton.”
The skeleton of the theater remain graceful and curving, from the light fixtures to the blue cobalt tile that outlines the building’s exterior.
“We have one original light fixture that survived, and it’s taken about two weeks for me to copy the original and build new ones,” Cohagen said, gesturing to several brand-new fixtures hanging from the walls, ready to be painted. “A fixture over the exit also partially survived and I traced it out and cut it out with a scroll saw.”
Layers of old paint peek through the walls, from mint green to a purplish-pink shade that Cohagen believes to be the original color.
“We’re probably going to go with painting the original color, or as close as possible,” he said. “Most of the paint is the second color, and why one wall is green and one is white, I don’t know.”
The walls, cut with a unique diamond pattern, will be restored, but finding the material hasn’t been easy, he said.
“It’s brown soundboard, which is a cardboard like material which has been compressed,” he said. “It’s taken about three weeks for me to find it in Tyler, and you can imagine how much fun that’s going to be to hang!”
There have also been some exciting finds — from an old typewriter to a handmade knife in the wall workers used to carve patterns into the material.
“We’ve also found an old popcorn machine and a hot-dog machine, but sadly, they don’t work anymore,” he said.
The building is going to take some modernization, he said, from a new air conditioning system to replacing the front with new neon lights and re-plastering the marquee.
“Original looking materials are hard to find,” he said, “and we’re going to have to replace a lot of the tile and wood. It’ll keep us very busy.”
Piles of electrical wire nest in one corner of the building, and old poster holders sit empty on the walls, but with the careful work of Cohagen and his crew, the theater will be restored to its former beauty.
“But this isn’t something that we really planned,” Mrs. Posey said, “It just kind of happened. We’d love it if other people in the community bought old buildings and helped us too, and the opening of the theater will bring people into Overton, that is our hope.”
The sleepy little town holds a jewel, but like the old typewriters gathering dust with missing letters like missing teeth, it needs elbow grease to bring it back to life.
“When we decide to do something we don’t sit around thinking how are we going to do this, we just get up and make it happen but ultimately it’s about leadership,” Posey said. “When people see that things are happening, that someone is actually doing something to help get things going in our community, they’re going to respond and that’s how things change for the better.”
More than anything else, Posey credits her family’s faith in God as the driving force behind all of their efforts.
“It’s a God thing, it’s not about me or John or what we’re trying to do, it’s about what He is doing and how we all need to find our place in that.”