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Margaret Martin center made to resemble Apollo Theater

Ben Hillyer / The Natchez Democrat — Filmmakers for the movie “Get On Up’”changed the original theater space in the Margaret Martin Performing Arts Center to look like the Apollo Theater in Harlem. Set designers and artists added temporary balconies and gilded ornamentation to resemble the theater as it was when James Brown performed there.
Ben Hillyer / The Natchez Democrat — Filmmakers for the movie “Get On Up’”changed the original theater space in the Margaret Martin Performing Arts Center to look like the Apollo Theater in Harlem. Set designers and artists added temporary balconies and gilded ornamentation to resemble the theater as it was when James Brown performed there.

NATCHEZ — The auditorium inside Margaret Martin Performing Arts Center received a blast from the past when it was renovated to represent the Apollo Theater in 1962 during filming of “Get On Up.”

But nearly a month after the renovations and filming of the James Brown biopic finished in Natchez, Festival of Music board members are hoping they can convince the Mississippi Department of Archives and History (MDAH) to make the changes permanent.

The City of Natchez designated Margaret Martin as a Mississippi Landmark in 1993, meaning MDAH must approve any changes to the exterior and interior of the building.

Since 1993, MDAH has awarded nearly $300,000 in grant funding to be used for the upkeep and renovations of Margaret Martin. MDAH only gives grant funding to Mississippi Landmarks.

Natchez Festival of Music president Mary Lessley said the group received approval from the state agency for temporary changes to the historic building months ago when Mississippian Tate Taylor showed interest in using parts of the building for filming.

The board, Lessley said, agreed to allow film officials to use the building in exchange for a rental fee and payment for any costs associated with the renovations.

“The movie people came in different groups to look at the building and see what shots they could visualize making work inside,” Lessley said. “The same day they called me saying they wanted to use the building, they had an architect there showing me all the drawings for what they wanted to do.”

The plans involved using a few of the rooms throughout the building for different scenes, but the biggest effort was turning the auditorium into the Apollo Theater in Harlem, where Brown performed throughout his career.

Plastering and painting the walls inside the auditorium were some of the more basic changes necessary before anything else could be done, Lessley said.

“All of that work was wonderful for us because we’ve been needing to do that for years but just haven’t had the funds,” Lessley said. “The other thing they did was build and install two balconies for each side that just look amazing inside the auditorium.”

Movie officials told festival of music officials the balconies cost between $60,000 to $100,000 to build and install and will cost $40,000 to deconstruct and take down.

“That’s $140,000 down the drain, where as if they’re left up, they could enhance all our performances and really help us out,” Lessley said. “The movie people want us to keep everything, but it’s just a matter of convincing (MDAH) to allow it.”

Apart from being a welcomed addition to the auditorium for other festival of music performances, Lessley said the renovations would be beneficial for tourism purposes.

Following the release of Taylor’s award-winning film “The Help,” the City of Greenwood capitalized on tourism efforts by creating tours to various locations where scenes were filmed for the movie.

The auditorium could easily be a stop on a Natchez tour for “Get On Up” fans, festival of music board member Bob Dearing said.

“It would be a wonderful attraction that could be used to promote the center and the city,” Dearing said. “It’s done so much for the auditorium and the stage that we want them to stay.”

Dearing said MDAH gave the board 45 days from Dec. 20 to remove the balconies, but board members are in contact with officials from the agency to extend or abolish the deadline.

“If not permanently, keeping them up through the Tricentennial year of 2016 might be a realistic request,” Dearing said. “It’s a long shot, but we’re going to try.”

Lessley said she would be sending a letter to MDAH in the following days on behalf of the entire board, formally requesting to keep the balconies in place.

“It would just enhance the opportunities we have to create some additional revenue to put back into the building and help run our festival of music events,” Lessley said.

Filming for the movie is continuing in Jackson through Jan. 24 and is set for release Aug. 1.

The film will depict Brown’s life from when he was nearly 5 years old in 1938 until he was about 60 in 1993.