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Seats of distinction

Historic theater chairs are looking for a home

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Back when ladies still wore gloves in mixed company and messages sent from handheld devices was the stuff of science fiction, Savannah movie theaters were sacrosanct.

Now local businesses, film buffs and sentimental citizens can own a piece of memorabilia from that elegant bygone era: Chairs from the historic Weis Theater are for sale in an effort to save them from the scrap metal yard.

Film producer and ice cream scion Stratton Leopold remembers the times when movie theaters seemed to outnumber churches in downtown Savannah. In one short block of East Broughton, there was the Avon, the Roxy and across the street, the Weis.

"I saw Around the World in 80 Days there," recalls Leopold, who with his wife, Mary, revived his family's ice cream shop next door in 2004.

"I remember that especially because they used to do something called a road show, where they would send someone out from the studio who would talk about the film."

Opened in 1946, the Weis was once the crown jewel of Savannah theater venues, all velvet opulence and curvilinear design. But like Sunset Boulevard's Norma Desmond, its relevance and beauty waned, and the Weis shut its doors in 1980 after moviegoers decamped for southside multiplexes.

SCAD spruced up the faded gem in 1998 and renamed it the Trustees Theater, keeping the integral design elements intact. After almost 70 years, the well-used space eventually needed a significant overhaul, and a tasteful floor-to-ceiling renovation took place last fall before the 2013 film festival.

But when a giant dumpster appeared behind the ice cream shop during construction, Leopold was distressed to learn that the theater's original chairs were to fill it.

"I said, 'You can't do that! I sat in those chairs as a kid!'"

He struck an agreement with SCAD to reclaim the maroon seats, moving all 1100 of them in three days to a nearby warehouse owned by his friend (and Connect publisher) Charles Morris.

To help repurpose the art deco beauties, Leopold enlisted his friend Mark Malenich, an artist and metalworker who crafts the commemorative ice cream cone pins available at Leopold's.

Malenich has spent the last few months among the sea of maroon cushions in the cavernous storehouse at the end of East Broughton, lending his skills to repair arm rests and oil hinges.

"They're still good, they're durable. You don't find stuff made like this nowadays," says Malenich a bit wistfully, running a hand down the art deco flourishes. "It would be a real shame for them to end up in a landfill."

The plush models were the height of luxury when they were built in the late 1930s by the American Seating Company, a Michigan-based family business that continues to manufacture benches and chairs at its historic Grand Rapids plant. Though they're all the same deep burgundy color, those originally on the ground floor bear a distinct harp design while the balcony versions have a reed pattern forged into the cast iron arm pieces.

The Weis seats were also among the first theater chairs to feature an adjustable reclining position, providing an extra element of comfort and possibly initiating the generations-old tradition of making out at the movies.

Funds collected from the sale of the chairs go towards the restoration of a major Savannah historic musical piece, to be revealed by Leopold in the coming months. He and Malenich have priced the chairs affordably, hoping to save every last one: Non-profit organizations can purchase the seats in bulk for just $15 a piece, and the general public can snare a pair for $125.

So far Malenich has farmed out 300 to the Tybee Post Theater, around 100 to a church in Garden City and a sprinkling of pairs to private denizens. Other area venues have also expressed interest.

Kit Tarver, who owns the swank House of Mata Hari speakeasy on Lower Factors Walk, bought 40 on the spot after she saw them on a flatbed truck heading towards the warehouse.

"I chased them down!" laughs Tarver, a Savannah native.

"My parents and my grandparents sat on these chairs and I just had to have them."

The chairs fit in perfectly with glamorous, old-school ambience of Mata Hari's new performance space, the Carnival Theatre, featuring burlesque-inspired variety act the Downtown Delilahs.

"I didn't have to do a thing to do them," says Tarver. "The paint is in great shape, and the color matched what was already here."

As of press time, there are still about a hundred chairs available. Interested buyers should be aware that time is of the essence: The tenants of the warehouse need the space back, and the chairs must be out by the end of this month. Those that don't find homes will likely end up in the dreaded dumpster.

"The goal is to sell as many we can before this deadline," says Malenich.

"If I had the space, I'd make a home theater out of them."

It's one way to preserve those good ol' days of yore, when refinement reigned at the theater—and you never had to worry about the person next to you playing with their phone during the movie.

To purchase, contact weisseats@gmail.com or find Weis Theater Antique Seats on Facebook.
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