At night, The Legacy Theatre glows, its brick, stone and stucco façade lit by numerous Hollywood lights spelling out its name in gold on a purple background. Inside, a crystal chandelier hangs from a tray ceiling in the spacious lobby adorned with original artwork, gilt frames and lavender walls with heavy white trim. Even the lounge areas exude glamour—embossed pink and gold wallpaper and ornate mirrors for the ladies, dark blue and pewter walls and a flat screen TV for the gentlemen. Glamour and elegance continue into the theater hall itself. Deep purple upholstered theater seats with carpeting and a grand drape to match. A hand-painted, wood proscenium arch encases the 50-foot wide by 30-foot deep stage. Elaborate sconces line the walls and a state-of-the-art sound and lighting system enhance the word, dance and song of the talented professional and amateur actors and actresses who step onto the stage.
Custom-designed to her plans, the Legacy is the theater that 33-year-old Bethany Hayes Smith always wanted; and it is the one she built—her vision, her dream, her baby.
“My dream was never about doing something edgy,” says the blond, green-eyed Bethany, sitting in the lobby of the Legacy. “I wanted glamour. I grew up watching those elaborate Hollywood musicals of the 30s and 40s—Shirley Temple, Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. The movie “Annie” came out when I was nine years old and that really cemented my love for musical theater.”
Bethany believes that the romance and glitter of the grand musical movies and theater of those years is what influenced her thinking about theater today. “Back then, you dressed up to go to the theater. It was an event. Each theater was unique, special and beautiful—a landmark in whatever community it was built. My dream of building a theater wasn’t about doing the avant-garde or black box type of theater that you see so much of today. It was different. I wanted to go back to that former time. I wanted something that was beautiful, something that would bring back that Hollywood glamour of the 30s and 40s. That was always part of my dream.”
Born in Terre Haute, Indiana, Bethany was raised by a single mother who taught her to work hard, never put all your eggs in one basket and believe that anything was possible. “Because of my mom, I have always known the value of money and how to make it. I saw my mother struggle from job to job. She was an interior designer, but there was not a big call for interior designers in Terre Haute, so she sold furniture, sold carpet and did other things that incorporated her design skills. She would do anything just to make sure we had decent clothes to wear, so that we would look cute and feel good about ourselves. She made sure we had the lessons we wanted. My sister was a gymnast and I was a dancer. She never held us back or told us we couldn’t do something that was part of our dream.”
Bethany spent a couple of years in college working on a musical theater major and a dance minor but admits she was unable to spread her wings in the conformity of school. So she headed for New York City, where she displayed her diversity in singing, dancing and acting. She sang on cruise ships that sent her around the world and would return after a cruise to perform in theaters, including summer stock in Kentucky where she met her future husband Mark in 2001.
During this entire time, Bethany was continually formulating her dream of owning her own theater. “As I traveled around touring, I was always writing down addresses and phone numbers of vacant buildings that would make interesting theaters and discussing it with my friends,” recalls Bethany. “I was always thinking about how I would go about having my own theater. I had a friend who was working on a degree in theater management and loaned me all her textbooks. At first, a lot of things didn’t make sense, but I would read them over and over until they finally did!”
Bethany had another friend who had written a thesis on opening a theater and mentioned to Bethany that the outskirts of Atlanta would be a good place to start one. Bethany tucked away that bit of information and, providentially, a couple of years later after she and Mark were married, he was offered a job teaching theater and film at Landmark Christian School in Fairburn. The couple left New York for the south side of Atlanta. Bethany landed a dance-instructing job at the Doris Russell School of Performing Arts in Tyrone, and she began taking steps to make her dream a reality.
“Once we started researching, we realized how little theater there was on Atlanta’s south side. Mark was completely devoted and occupied with his job at Landmark, but he gave me his blessing to do what I needed to do to start my theater.”
Bethany met some discouragement from a few individuals and even one organization that asked her not to build a for-profit theater in Fayette County; but within six months, she had a business plan in place, architectural plans for a new building, a commercial contractor who would build it, and was producing her first fund-raising performance.
“Bethany’s drive and determination are amazing,” says Mark. “If someone tells her she can’t do something, she will take it in, process it and keep on going. She’s not reckless; she does her homework. And she definitely does not run over other people. She is very careful with feelings. But she knew a theater would work here and she went after it.”
“Usually, the system is to get community involvement,” says Bethany. “You get people to rally together, then they raise money to build a theater, but that takes many years. We wanted to find or build a building and immediately set up a theater company, and I don’t know of anyone who has done it that way.”
Bethany credits Stephen Ball at Doris Russell with supporting her dream and helping her make it a reality. Together they partnered with TCG Holdings in Tyrone to construct a building that would house both a new studio for Doris Russell and a theater for Bethany. They were settling on a location on an out of the way cul-de-sac near Highway 74 when the town of Tyrone got involved and lobbied for a more prominent location. And the rest, as they say, is history.
“I think I had such a clear picture that it was easy for the developers and everyone to get on board with my visions,” says Bethany, “but I was very naïve. I knew it would be a lot of work—and I embrace work—but I had no idea how much work it would be.”
To build the theater, Bethany armed herself with more textbooks. “A friend gave me a book called Will It Make a Theater? It told how to set up a stage, the lighting and other things. Then another friend in the business reviewed our plans and made some adjustments to make it a smarter design.” Bethany contacted other theaters around the country, asking what they liked and didn’t like about their theater’s design. Her sister, who also owns her own business, offered some financial advice. Bethany had a campaign to sell seat dedications to help with startup money, but all and all, there were no investors, no business loan and zero debt. “I just tried to spend wisely and spend where I needed to spend. It was pretty scary in the beginning.”
Bethany was confident that she could bring in professional actors and produce excellent shows. She knew that she could give the audience the quality, on a much smaller scale, of the Fox Theatre or the Alliance in Atlanta. But to be able to give the audience and the community a beautiful building from the beginning as opposed to having to work her way up to that was the foundation of her dream.
“My sister owns a very successful business that incorporates cheerleading and gymnastics,” relates Bethany, “so my single mom has two entrepreneur daughters. I have always been driven. I was raised not to sit back and wait for someone else to give me opportunities. I believe that if I make my own opportunities then I am in control. That’s why I think this theater was more my destiny than doing Broadway where you are at the mercy of producers and show closings.”
Today, The Legacy Theatre is well into its second season, and the box office is solid with regular season productions as well as a children’s series, which is always sold out. Bethany holds auditions for the Legacy’s productions in New York, annually at the Atlanta unified auditions, and locally. “We do small, affordable shows and bring in high-caliber actors. Our shows will keep getting bigger, and we will land even higher caliber talent. My next goal is to buy actor housing right behind the theater, hopefully by the end of this year, so we can have actors staying here full time,” she says.
The theater holds a Broadway Workshop that has about 200 children enrolled, is rented by two different church services each Sunday, and can be rented for weddings or as a lecture hall. Bethany’s goal is to market the theater to Fayette County and to make it a tourist destination as well.
“I think we are one of the best regional theaters in the country already just after a year and a half which sounds very confident and over zealous and whatever. But I truly believe we are giving people something special here with the high-caliber actors and production, the intimacy and the elegance.”
Come this June, Mark will be the full-time artistic director for the theater. “It’s a learning curve for our marriage,” says Mark. “You try not to take it home with you when you’ve had a stressful day, but then again, we love talking about the theater. Our goals and plans are the same.”
Dustin Lewis, Bethany’s best friend from college days, also joined the Smiths in their venture, acting and directing as well as handling sales and marketing. Bethany describes Dustin, who has traveled all over the world performing, as having “transferred his life to Tyrone, Georgia,” to help her fulfill her dream of owning a theater. “From the beginning, Bethany and I had the same interests. We were inseparable in college,” says Dustin. “We are all passionate about this theater. We’ve all talked about this for years. It is a way to continue doing something I love, yet have security and be able to stay in one place.”
“We went round and round on what to name the theater and we chose Legacy,” says Bethany
“This is our legacy—my husband’s, Dustin’s and mine. We are here to stay.”
Drive, diversity and holding fast to her vision have made Bethany Hayes Smith’s dream come true. And as Bethany would say—it’s a lot of work, but it’s fun, and she wouldn’t trade it—even for the lights of Broadway.