By Scott Harrison
In 1967, Washington and Lee University students staged three performances of Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” in the ruins of an old lime kiln on the outskirts of Lexington. The shows were the first of countless performances held at the future site of the Theater at Lime Kiln.
That same year, The Doors released their second album. Lead-singer Jim Morrison sang, “When the music’s over, turn out the lights.”
Lime Kiln would not officially open for another 16 years. But now, nearly three decades later, the music is indeed over and the lights have gone dark at the theater.
The theater’s board of directors voted unanimously Friday to shut down the outdoor concert venue.
“Our hearts believe the Kiln is an amazing place,” Board Chair Amy Gianniny said. “But we just don’t have the resources going forward.”
Over the past few years, the nonprofit’s finances have been strained and its infrastructure has begun to crumble. Earlier this year, it launched a fundraising campaign to help pay for needed repairs and next year’s operational costs.
The theater got nearly $70,000 in pledges from the community. It also secured a $93,000 loan from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to upgrade the facilities.
Board member George Huger said the “Help Stoke the Kiln” campaign fell short of what the theater needed to keep going. Now that the theater is closing, it will return the donations and give up the federal grant.
“Nobody in the room wanted to close,” Huger said of the board meeting that resulted in the decision. “But there was no reason to think we were going to get more in private donations. We didn’t see how we could raise any more money for the capital improvements and fund operations.”
Gianniny added that the theater’s aging facilities had made it nearly impossible to go forward.
“Even if we put a season together, it didn’t matter because the site’s a dangerous risk to guests and patrons,” she said. “There was a lot to weigh, but it really came down to the fact that we don’t have a site.”
In September, former Executive Director Tony Russell recommended to the theater’s board that it close Lime Kiln. At the time, the board decided to carry on and take over the theater’s day-to-day operations. It also laid off the theater’s remaining employees — including Russell, who has voluntarily advised the board since then.
In the past few months, Gianniny said, the board “exhausted any and every avenue” to fund new capital projects and put on a 2013 season.
The theater had been in formal talks with city officials and council members about possible local government involvement. Council Member Bob Lera and City Manager Jon Ellestad both said the last formal talk between the city and the theater was in early September — before Russell’s recommendation to close.
County Administrator Spencer Suter said he and Gianniny met in October to discuss the theater’s business plan going forward.
Lera, who volunteered at the theater, said that public funding alone was not the answer for the Kiln. He said the most important thing was making the theater self-sustainable in the future.
Ultimately, Huger said, the Lime Kiln board had trouble coming up with a plan it thought would “stand-up” with the localities.
Gianniny said the theater this year had started booking acts based on “quality instead of quantity.” But the performances weren’t consistently making a profit, she said.
The decision to close, Huger added, was “purely economical.”
“If you went on heart and loyalty,” he said, “then we would have never made the decision to close.”
The Lime Kiln board also canceled its upcoming show “A Classical Victorian Christmas” because of low ticket sales and the anticipated costs of production.
While Lime Kiln has gone dark twice before, most recently in 2005, it is dissolving for good this time. The theater plans to sell off its assets and pay back its remaining debt by March.
“This is truly the first time we have said, ‘We are done,’” Gianniny said.
Washington and Lee graduates Don Baker and Tommy Spencer founded the Theater at Lime Kiln in 1983. Together with Robin and Linda Williams, they created “Stonewall Country,” a musical that became the theater’s staple for two decades.
For people in the community, word of Lime Kiln’s closing brought back memories of the theater.
Lexington resident Doug Chase remembered the first “Stonewall” showings as “magical things.”
“People flocked to Lime Kiln back then,” Chase said. “It was such a magnificent place.”
County Supervisor Rusty Ford, whose family owns the land on which the theater sits, recalled seeing many great shows at the theater. His wife was also part of the original “Midsummer Night’s Dream” production in 1967.
At one show, Ford remembered, country singer Robert Earl Keen swallowed a moth as he was singing before a packed audience of Washington and Lee students.
“But he never missed a beat,” Ford said. “He made a comment after the song that he was feeling pretty sick.”
Gianniny performed at the theater while she was in college. She said the board members’ close ties to the theater made the decision to close quite hard.
“It’s been such a nurturing piece of the arts for young people for years,” Gianniny said. “Just that ambience, to be able to witness and be part of this performance in that environment, is a true loss.”
For Huger, going to Lime Kiln has been a ritual in his family. He still has a cassette tape he bought after a show in the early 1980s.
“It’s hard to tell what the real value of something like Lime Kiln is,” he said. “I think Lexington is going to miss the culture that Lime Kiln brought and the camaraderie that was in the community when everybody was out there enjoying the music together.”