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Canebrake Players have kept old Main Street School viable

Editor’s Note: the author of this article is leading an effort to renovate the old Main Street school building in Demopolis.

The recent history of the old Main Street school is intertwined with the history and efforts of The Canebrake Players theater group. The building is known by many in the Demopolis community as the Canebrake Building.

Although most of the work has been done in the auditorium, the presence of the players in the building has certainly kept it from being totally neglected and demolished.

The organization is currently not able to use the building until an issue of fire exits in the auditorium is worked out. Mayor Austin Caldwell is working on that issue, and the Demopolis City Council has voted to bid out work for renovating the electrical wiring of the building.

The city has also applied for a $400,560 grant to further renovate the building.

The Canebrake Players were formed in spring 1981, said Jan Wilburn, board member. The first production (August 1981) and the second were actually presented in the Demopolis Civic Center.

The moved to the Old School because it was "more theater friendly," said Ann Parsons, board member. The City of Demopolis allowed the organization to make the building its headquarters and a permanent place to store their equipment.

West Alabama Mental Health had offices in the building at the time, Parsons said.

The group has twice expanded the size of the old school auditorium stage. "It was just a little semi-circular thing," Wilburn said. "There is a little dip in it for the original foot lights.

Permanent seats would later be bought and installed.

Not long after the group had moved into the school, they made covered the floor in donated carpet samples. The metal chairs scraping on the wood floor made a lot of noise, Wilburn said. "A lot of women and men got down on their knees and nailed down each little carpet square," she said.

Later "the air conditioner was donated," Parsons said, "and a contractor that was working at Gulf States at the time donated his time to put it in for us." A three-phase power system was also installed to accommodate the air conditioner.

The group used to have kerosene heaters to heat the auditorium, Britton said. The steam heating system was eventually repaired so the portions of the building in use can be heated.

Permanent seats were obtained in the mid 1980’s from a school in Marion, Alabama. The price was $5 to $7.50 a seat. It took a week to unscrew the 240 chairs from the Marion school and install them into the auditorium, Britton said. "Oh, what a difference. We thought we were rich with the carpet and chairs," Wilburn said.

The wiring of the lighting booth in the balcony was made possible by Britton, Jim Rogers and Wallace Harper, who went out and sought donations. "That’s the only new wiring that has been done," Parsons said, "and it’s all to code as far as the fire department."

None of the wiring has been redone in the rest of the building, Parsons said.

The balcony had previously been walled in as a library when the school was still being used. The wall had to be knocked out, Wilburn said.

The drop system of pulleys for the stage was donated by Theatre Tuscaloosa and installed, Britton said.

The old curtains were finally replaced after a number of years, Britton said. During one production, the old curtain gave way and exposed one cast member changing his costume between scenes. "We patched it until we could get a new one," he said.

The sealing-to-floor curtains that are in the auditorium to help with the sound, stapled to the wall, were made from material bought in Georgia and dipped in a supposed fire proof solution, Parsons said. "We’ve really tried to do everything (fire officials) have asked us to do," she said.

A metal fire door was installed backstage along with emergency lights and exit signs in the front, Parsons said.

A handrail was also built for the front steps of the building, Wilburn said.

When West Alabama Mental Health stopped using the building, the Canebrake Players took over the basement area. "They made the improvements downstairs (including) the paneling," Wilburn said. The Canebrake Players built dressing rooms.

Circular stairs were built so actors and crew could reach the stage from downstairs. Previously you had to go through the audience, Wilburn said. "We used to come up the fire escape if we weren’t already on stage because we didn’t want them to see us."

One summer in the late 1980’s workers from the Cattle Ranch were paid by the Canebrake Players to renovate the entranceway to the building, Parsons said. The floors were sanded and refinished, and the lobby was painted.

A grant was received from Alabama Power, and the front windows of the building were replaced.

Plans were drawn at one time for an elevator, top-to-bottom, to be installed in the building, Wilburn said. "It was going to cost $1 million-and-a half," Britton said. "…The city couldn’t afford it." Some members of the community wanted to put in the public library in the old school, he said.

The Canebrake Players would like to continue to use the building, Parsons said. She would like to see other community organizations eventually use rooms in the building. "I like the idea of it being kind of an arts center," Wilburn said.

There are people who would donate their time to help renovate the building, Parsons said.