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Dahlonegas leading lady turns 60
The cast of "Big River: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" rehearse Tuesday.

A pretty lady is celebrating the big 6-0. Her name is Holly, and she's never looked better.

The Holly Theatre, a historic art deco gem on Dahlonega's Main Street, has seen a lot of changes since its July 12, 1948, opening day.

That day the little theater was filled with a capacity crowd of 500, excited to see a comedy called "The Bride Goes Wild."

"For Dahlonega being a rural town, it was quite a lavish theater palace," said Colleen Green, executive director at the Holly. "It had Georgia marble on the facing, brocade material on the walls and lush curtains."

The Holly, which is on the National Register of Historic Places, still bears signs of the times in which it was built - a segregated balcony, which now seats "VIPs" during plays, and a segregated box office window currently used for will-call pick-ups.

Holly Brannon Gilkeson of Dahlonega has a very personal connection to the Holly - her parents built it.

In the early 1930s, Gilkeson said, after traveling to Roswell, Alpharetta and Dahlonega with portable movie equipment to show films in schools, her father, Randall Holly Brannon, purchased the Price Building on Dahlonega's square and began showing films on its ground floor.

"He was very impressed that North Georgia College was here in Dahlonega, very impressed with the quality of the college, and felt that the college would be a source of patrons to the theater," Gilkeson said.

Then, after deciding that the building was inadequate, Brannon bought the Holly's current location at 69 W. Main St.

"After the war, my parents started to build the current Holly Theatre," Gilkeson said. "My father had difficulty getting materials to build the theater because, after World War II, most of the construction work and the materials were going into housing for the vets who were returning from the war."

At first, Brannon couldn't even get the go-ahead to finish building his business.

After a year of petitioning Washington, D.C., legislators - which included a trip to plead his case in person - Brannon finally got a telegraph on Dec. 23, 1947, saying he could go ahead with the project.

"My earliest memories in the theater are being taken in my pajamas to the old Holly Theatre on the square," Gilkeson said.

"As a child, I came up frequently with my dad from Roswell, where we lived, especially in the summertime, and it was always such a great experience to come to Dahlonega," she said.

Gilkeson said her mother, Mary Bales Brannon, had to close the theater in the 1970s because it was no longer paying for itself.

The Holly stood empty for the better part of the 1970s and 1980s, except when it was used a couple of times every year for NGCSU activities and Gold Rush.

The roof caved in, and pigeons began to roost in the projector room, with access through broken windows above the faded marquee.

It wasn't until the early 1990s that Hal Williams began a community project to restore the theater and bring it back to life.

Williams, director of the Dahlonega-Lumpkin County Convention and Visitor's Bureau, said Dahlonega middle and high school students needed a place to go to perform band, chorus and drama programs, and area business owners wanted "something to hold people downtown."

"We looked at the old theater, which was falling down upon itself," Williams said.

After sending out 40 letters to people he thought might be interested in the restoration, Williams expected a small response.

"All 40 came," he said. "It caught fire. It was like they were waiting for somebody to light the match."

Thus started The Holly Community Center, now a nonprofit group. Members of the community volunteered their time and money to clean and rebuild the Holly.

After hosting concerts and school productions, The Holly Theatre Company was established in 1998.

Williams said it was about the same time that a donor gave new projector equipment to the theater, enabling it to again screen films, usually family-oriented, as it did back in 1948.

"In its truest sense, it is a community theater, it is owned by all the people, all the residents of Dahlonega and Lumpkin County," Williams said.

The Holly is a charming alternative to multiplex theaters, and an affordable one with movie tickets at $5 and popcorn that costs less than a gallon of gas.

The community theater has spawned the careers of actors like Blake Daniel, who now plays a lead role in "Spring Awakening," on New York City's Broadway, and others who have gone on to work at Disney World in Orlando, Fla.

"My parents would be both amazed and thrilled that the theater is such a center for the arts in Dahlonega," said Gilkeson, who serves on the theater's board.

The 60th Birthday Celebration will be held from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Saturday.

The Holly's most recent production, "Big River: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn," will open with a preview at 8 p.m. tonight. Tickets are $18. The show will run through July 27.