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A mission to restore Chase City’s Mecca to glory / September 29, 2021

Former Hollywood cinematographer and Chase City native Beverly Wood is on a mission to restore the theater where she once climbed the back stairs to see first-run movies.

Wood is working with the non-profit “Save Our Heritage” group to restore the Mecca Theater in Chase City.

On Sunday, she shared her vision with two friends, acclaimed Hollywood director and author Rodrigo Garcia and award-winning producer Julie Lynn, while touring the property. Garcia and Lynn are currently working together in Richmond filming a movie, “Raymond and Ray,” that Garcia wrote. They made a quick trip to Chase City to catch up with their former colleague and longtime friend.

Walking through the theater built in 1936, the trio reminisced about first meetings, and old times and discussed Wood’s vision for the 600-seat theater.

Both Garcia and Lynn remember Wood as “the Queen” for her ability to apply her technical skills to a movie so that the result — its look and feel — matched the filmmaker’s vision. It is the behind-the-scenes work of the cinematographer that gives a film its feel — moody or gritty, or given the aged patina of an old-time sepia photograph. Lynn remembers Wood for her graciousness: “Bev never gave any less guidance, energy or attention to the budget-challenged film than to the big-budget movies. She always championed young filmmakers who were ambitious but often impoverished.”

Wood brushed off their compliments, preferring to talk about the theater — its history (Randolph Scott, Minnie Pearl and Elizabeth Taylor visited the Mecca) and its future. “My mission is to reinvigorate this magnificent theater, not for plays but for second-run movie screenings, concerts, and lectures,” Wood said.

Plans call for restoring the former lobby as a lounge area where people can enjoy a bite to eat or a beverage. Just off the lobby, at the rear of the theater, Wood is looking to install a small kitchen that will serve up quick bites and simple foods for people to enjoy while at the theater or for takeout.

The walls, which are now stripped bare, were once adorned with plush velvet fabric. Wood said she plans to restore the fabric to give the theater that art deco feel it once had.

As she climbed the stairs to the balcony, Wood pointed to the side door in the theater, the one that she had to enter as a child. Wood was a Black child living in the segregated South. She shares the fact without animus, only as a historical reference.

Wood said she always loved the theater. It’s where she first realized there was a life to live beyond Chase City and Southside Virginia.

Reaching the balcony, she turned Garcia’s and Lynn’s attention to the plush art deco seats left behind when the theater closed in the late 1970s. The final film shown was “Lost Encounters of the Third Kind,” released November 16, 1977.

“Of course, they need some work,” she said. The cloth seat coverings are tattered and worn after decades of neglect. Structurally the seats are sound, “wide and comfortable,” Wood added.

She plans to have the seats restored and will offer donors a chance to have their name plate affixed to a seat by making a contribution equal to the cost of refurbishing the chair.

She hopes to turn the former projection booth into a museum of sorts where visitors can see how movies were shown before the digital age. Wood sees the two antique cameras and film reels left behind as symbols of the rich history of motion-picture technology, worth preserving.

Garcia, who majored in history at Harvard University in Boston, Mass. before heading to Hollywood, expressed excitement at seeing the old-time equipment. Lynn added her encouragement for Wood to preserve some of the operating instructions by framing them.

Before the tour wound down, both Garcia and Lynn promised to return to Chase City to see the restored theater. Maybe, Wood will make an exception and show their film, “Raymond and Ray” when it is released in late 2022.

As a teaser, Garcia summarized the plot of the movie, which will star Ewan McGregor and Ethan Hawke. It is about the impact that parents have on their kids. In this case two-half brothers were given the same name by their father “just to screw with their heads,” Garcia said. As the pair travel from Ohio to West Virginia and then to Virginia to bury the father who they haven’t seen in 15 years — his dying wish is that the brothers dig his grave — they ponder their relationship with their estranged father and his power over them and their life choices.

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