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Washington's Turnage Theater Opens Again

After being vacant for two years, the iconic Turnage Theater will soon open its doors again for theater performance and live musical entertainment.  We talk to the executive director of the Beaufort County Arts Council about the non-profit's plan for the century old venue for the arts. 

Today, we’re learning about a new development for the Beaufort County Arts Council.  They serve Beaufort, Hyde and Washington counties.  Since the Arts Council started more than 40 years ago, they’ve been operating out of the old Train Depot.   In September, the organization announced they had acquired the historic Turnage Theater. Executive Director Joey Toler hopes they’ll be in their new location by December.

“I don’t know if we’ll be able to start actually doing programming that quickly or have the building available for rent. We would like to.  We’re already getting calls from… a lot of people would like to have some Christmas parties there.”

The 100 year old landmark, Turnage Theater, was purchased by the Beaufort County Arts Council for $250,000, after two years in limbo.

 “We got a loan from one of our local banks, our local committee of 100 loaned us the money for our down payment, we got a sizable donation from the Washington Harbor District Alliance which is our downtown revitalization group.”

Toler says if all goes according to plan, the Beaufort County Arts Council plans to have the mortgage paid off in one year.  Despite the efforts of the Turnage Theater Foundation, the facility closed in 2011 because of financial difficulties during the economic downturn.  As the theater was going up for auction, Toler says the city of Washington approached him and asked if the Beaufort County Arts Council could relocate to the facility.

They asked me to think about that and what that would look like.  Over the past year, the situation had changed the city was not able to get the theater for a price they felt comfortable with but I started working with our downtown revitalization group and a couple of other interested parties that realize the value of having the theater open. And we came up with a business plan and a vision for the theater and made an offer that the banks ultimately accepted.”

The Beaufort County Arts Council is very excited for the prospect of using such a beautiful and ornate building for their events.  The theater was originally built as a vaudeville theater in 1913, and named after its owner, C.A. Turnage. But twenty-five years later, it became a movie theater.

“Because they weren’t sure if movies were going to catch on, they made the stage a little bit bigger so it could also be a performance stage as well.”

For nearly 50 years, people flocked to the Turnage Theater to watch movies.  But by the 70’s, other larger movie theaters began to open in eastern North Carolina.  With the neglected theater falling into disrepair, it closed its doors for the first time in 1978.  Some 20 years later, a group of historic preservation enthusiast teamed up with arts advocates to form the non-profit Turnage Theater Foundation.  The goal was to acquire and renovate to historically accurate standards the crumbling Turnage. Bob Shultz was the Treasurer for Turnage Theater Foundation.  He remembers the theater’s condition before they started restoring it.

“This place was just an utter disaster, the ceiling had caved in, the pigeons were living in here, you had to scoop out the pigeon droppings in here, the smell was overwhelming.  To walk in here while it was still just at the beginning stages, you would have thought it was impossible to reach the stage that it did.”

After an extensive $5 million dollar renovation, the Foundation struggled to repay two million dollars borrowed to complete the process.  Increasing costs and dwindling support from individuals and corporate sponsors shuttered the Turnage Theater again in 2011.  Even as the building sat vacant for two years, Beaufort County Arts Council Executive Director Joey Toler says the facility was maintained; lights were never turned off, and the building was kept at a steady temperature.

 “So none of the equipment in the theater is damaged, all the sound and light, everything is still in great condition, the theater itself is in great condition.”

Before the Turnage can reopen, Toler says there’s still some work that needs to be done, such as replacing two neon tubes in the classic “Turnage Theater” sign outside on Main Street.  He says the inside needs some attention as well.

 “It needs a little dusting and cleaning up, really very minor things we have to do before we move in.  We don’t have to do any major structural changes. The administrative offices are already in a condition we can adapt and essentially move in and turn the lights on and we’re ready to go.”

A clean up event is being held this weekend when volunteers and staff will dust, vacuum, and tidy up the theater.  Toler says the Arts Council has exciting plans for the future.  They want to start offering a children’s theater program.

“We do believe there is a pent-up demand for that in the area, we hear that a lot from our patrons. We used to have a very active community theater in Beaufort County and Washington. We’re going to hopefully bring that back as well.”

Toler says having complete access to the theater’s large stage allows the Beaufort County Arts Council to grow into more of a presenting organization.

“We’re going to take our time and grow into this new entity we’re expecting to become. So we’re going to do what we do already out of the theater, and then kind of add the performances as we go along.  It really takes a year to plan a season in advance.”

In the meantime, Toler says they plan to host a variety of local arts organizations and performers, such as orchestras and choral societies.  They also hope to schedule acts that may be traveling through the area to perform at the Turnage.  For more information on the Beaufort County Arts Council – and their upcoming events, go to

Jared Brumbaugh is the Assistant General Manager for Public Radio East. An Eastern North Carolina native, Jared began his professional public radio career at Public Radio East while he was a student at Craven Community College earning his degree in Electronics Engineering Technology. During his 15+ years at Public Radio East, he has served as an award-winning journalist, producer, and on-air host. When not at the station, Jared enjoys hiking, traveling, and honing his culinary skills.