By LEIGH C. MERRIFIELD
News & Journal Editor

The massive marquee at the Robinson Grand Performing Arts Center in Clarksburg is now in place and drew quite a crowd as it was lit up for the very first time last week to test its operation.

Construction on the Robinson Grand Performing Arts Center (RGPAC) began in early 2017 and, although work is still being performed, it is in the “wind down” phase now.  The remainder of the month of June will be spent tying up any loose ends before its scheduled soft opening in early August.

There was what RGPAC Executive Director Ryan Tolley called “tangible excitement” at the site last Wednesday when the massive new marquee was lifted into place and is now very visible and prominent at the facility’s entrance.  And the switch was flipped to test its elements!

“When the lights came on, a crowd of enthusiastic spectators assembled across the street, and passing vehicles were honking their horns!  You could feel the energy and excitement as people could finally see some of the last pieces being put into place,” Tolley stated.

Mimicking the historic marquee, it includes a vertical blade that sticks up above it, and although it looks very classic and similar to the Robinson Grand’s original signage, there is a major difference.  It is equipped with all the modern technology … video boards that will allow messages and upcoming events and the display of sponsors.

“It was designed so that its light bulbs would look like the old classic bulbs, but those bulbs are LED and have lots of capabilities such as allowing us to create a variety of colors,” Tolley added, saying that seeing its presence makes it obvious that the project is in the home stretch!

After a year and a half of construction and renovation, Tolley reports that everything is on time.  There are currently 40-50 construction workers still working on a daily basis who are now finishing up interior light fixtures, bathroom fixtures, exit signs, etc.

“The painting is 90% finished and they have just completed the complex rigging system over the stage,” he continued.  “The next step will be to hang the stage curtains and drops, etc. that will arrive over the next week or so.  Then the final major element will be sidewalk construction that should begin in the next few weeks.  The sidewalks surrounding the theatre were worn and have suffered additional wear and tear from construction.  This will all be repaired or replaced so that it will be in tip top shape for our opening.”

Since the property was first purchased and plans were developed to make the Robinson Grand “grand” once again, its history in Clarksburg was never ignored.  Tolley said that many of the building’s artifacts and historical items have been saved and are stored off-site.  The plan is to feature these items – such as old photographs, dated electronic equipment, etc. – in the new RGPAC and display them in places of prominence to pay tribute to the structure’s rich history.

Within the next month, everything is expected to be completed, and furniture and computer systems will be moved in and set up.  After that, thoughts will turn to ramping up events leading to the theatre’s grand opening in late October.  Tolley noted that in addition to highlighting notable national acts, the facility is already stirring quite a bit of interest for local events.

“We are about 70-80% booked through the end of 2018, and we’ve had roughly 50 rental inquiries into 2019!” he continued.  “Inquiries have included utilizing the facility for dance recitals, weddings, reunions, corporate events and training seminars, and there are already a number of contracts signed.  My next goal is to finish our calendar for 2018 and proceed into 2019.”

Over the past couple of weeks, two staffing positions have been posted.  They are looking for an Operations Manager who will oversee the functioning operations of the theatre, interface with various productions and technical teams as well as oversee the concession services.  A Sales & Marketing Manager is also sought.  This person will be responsible for continuing to manage events, the box office, ticket sales, and look for new event prospects.

“These will be full-time staff members, but we will also have some on-call positions (in the box office, concessions and technical positions) that we’ll be posting in the next week or so.  And we are receiving a number of offers from interested individuals who would like to volunteer to help with guest services, as usher staff, ticket takers, greeters, etc.  These are a few of the details that we’ll be working on so that we’ll be fully prepared as we look forward to officially opening the doors in October,” Ryan added.

He is also continuing to work on finalizing an online ticket site for the RGPAC, and he’ll focus more on this in the coming weeks.

Looking to the future, Tolley says that a good framework will include feedback from the community.

“Over time, we will continue to mold based on what the audience is receptive to and where the major interest lies,” he added.  “I have gotten a pretty good idea of what rental clients are interested in and we will continue to evolve and grow over time.  I see this facility drawing from not just the immediate area here in north central West Virginia, but from across the entire state and from the tri-state area as well.  Other theaters reach out within a 200-mile radius and we will as well.”

At the time of Tolley’s hiring, Clarksburg City Manager Martin Howe said that he was completely confident in Tolley’s selection as Executive Director and that his expertise and past experience were assets that would help the City steer this huge project.

In addition to holding three degrees, all involving the entertainment business and show production, Tolley gained experience while working at the Breakers Palm Beach, a massive luxury resort complex in West Palm Beach, Florida.  Throughout his tenure there he was associated with executing a wide variety of live entertainment and business functions, and he became quite familiar with working with top entertainers and notable keynote presenters.

Tolley further explained, “The Breakers Palm Beach is located in an area where there is a high concentration of wealth.  The property is comparable to The Greenbrier but has much higher volume.  I became quite familiar with construction projects there too because The Breakers makes major improvements every year  – from their restaurants to the beach club to ballrooms and meeting spaces.  I would say that as a rough estimate, over the last five years, they have invested over $100 million in capital improvements to the property, so needless to say, I gained LOTS of experience!  I spent a total of ten years in Florida – between going to school and then my work at The Breakers – and while I loved it there, you just can’t top West Virginia!  I love the people and the scenery here in the Mountain State, and I really had a desire to return, to be closer to home and my family.  I was anxious to start a new chapter in my career, and it has been thrilling to be involved with restoring this iconic theatre and to use my skills here at home.”

Tolley says during his first year as RGPAC’s Executive Director, he has also enjoyed hearing the many memorable stories about the former Robinson Grand from people in the area.

“It has been a well-rounded oral history from locals – people who had their first date at the theatre … people who worked there during the theatre’s early days … even comical stories about people who got kicked out of the theatre!” he related.  “It has been exciting to participate in bringing new life into something so historic.”

Tolley actually has his own personal piece of history to add.  He said that before talking pictures came into being, his great-grandmother at one time played the piano for silent movies in this local facility!  Wouldn’t she be amazed to know that someone in her family is now overseeing a project to restructure its importance to the area?

State and historical tax credits along with a successful capital campaign have helped to bring this $15 million project to fruition. From the onset, the Robinson Grand Performing Arts Center has had three main objectives:  to restore and revitalize an historic building built in 1913; to increase economic development in Clarksburg and Harrison County; and to provide a venue for more entertainment and cultural opportunities in north central West Virginia.

Having been front and center throughout every phase of its progress, Ryan Tolley is anxious to proudly stand with Clarksburg officials and many supportive donors as RGPAC’s doors finally open in the not-too-distant future!