Last weekend, Thursday through Sunday, the Claude Gentry Theatre & Simon Spight Auditorium opened its doors on Main Street for the first time, and with great success – four sold-out shows. The new 90-seat venue presented a Relay For Life, fund-raising variety show, produced by the 1st Baptist Church RFL Team, entitled “A Really Big Show.”
As the 500 or so visitors to Baldwyn’s Historic District – a total including audience, cast and crew – enjoyed the reemerging nightlife of Main Street, they passed under two new signs erected on the theater’s front, signs that had been carefully designed to evoke feelings of both nostalgia and progress.
The Claude Gentry Theatre sign is an internally-lighted, steel replica of a neon sign that once hung just across the street at Audie Coggins’ Baldwyn Theatre. When Claude Gentry purchased the theater in 1944, he changed its name to “The Ritz Theatre” and operated it into the 1960’s. It was Mr. Gentry who changed the T-shaped sign to read “Ritz,” rather than “Baldwyn,” horizontally across its top, but he retained the “THEATRE” lettering running vertically down the leg of the “T” as it was originally created.
The sign that now shines over the new theater, 20-feet above the street, was matched to old pictures during its design process, and the exact perimeter shape and coloration was mirrored as closely as possible to Coggins’ original, the clear intention being the re-creation of an iconic sign on the street in Baldwyn. Even the sign’s aesthetic effect on other storefront features, especially the historic Tom’s Drug Store sign hanging three buildings to the east, was considered before its final position was set. As Baldwyn-ites pass on Main Street for decades to come, the Claude Gentry Theatre sign, shining bright white through acrylic panes, will provide a reminder of eras past while ushering patrons into new creative entertainment of the here-and-now.
Alongside the Gentry sign, just to its west, a Simon Spight Auditorium marker was erected on the same brick storefront last week. The late Simon “Buddy” Spight, more than anyone, carried the torch of Baldwyn history into the present with his writings and collections of artifacts. Donations from Mr. Spight’s estate, in fact, made the accelerated opening of the Claude Gentry Theatre even possible as curtains, lights, sound equipment and other theatrical necessities where specifically acquired with funds left for those purposes by Spight. Simon Spight loved to write, not just for content, but to show off the flourishes of his penmanship. The sign erected on the western side of the theater front is a burned steel duplicate of Simon Spight’s actual signature nested on top of the word “Auditorium,” presented in a western-style font. Simon’s autograph was taken from the funeral registry of long-time Baldwyn alderman and post master Bruce McElroy. A digital picture was made and copied into a mechanical design program at Quail Ridge Engineering. The signature was carefully digitized with only a minor adjustment or two being made to hold all the pieces of the name together. QRE then fabricated the sign in its Guntown facility, and Quail Ridge Properties erected it last Friday. Now when people say that Simon Spight left his mark on Baldwyn, they can look at the south-facing wall of 110 West Main Street and point to the literal proof.
This week the Tom’s Drug Store sign is coming down – but not permanently. The most iconic symbol of Baldwyn needs a make-over, and Quail Ridge Properties will begin refurbishing the sign immediately, along with the two building facades at 104 and 106 West Main where it has been posted for more than half a century. It is unlikely that the broken neon tubes which once lit the pharmacy entrance will be restored at this time, but an original paint job, a more stable erection method, and supplemental external lighting will all be a part of this renovation. The ultimate, overall goal for this property is the recreation of Tom’s soda shop which would operate hand-in-hand with a new Baldwyn History Museum. More details are just around the corner on this project.
Soon signs for The Claude Gentry Theatre, The Simon Spight Auditorium and Tom’s Drug Store will all stand in an orderly row on the north side of Main Street, inspiration from the past, shining towards a bright future in Baldwyn.