Its thick oak floorboards have held up to the pressure of superstars like Barbara Mandrell, Kenny Rogers and the frantic piano playing of Jerry Lee Lewis.
When the rock band Wild Cherry came to town, the band’s extravagant light and effects show covered the wood floors with theatrical smoke.
Its floors have been polished smooth by the clacking shoes of cloggers, taps of touring comedians and the Bible thumping of traveling evangelists.
For the past 20 years its floors have gotten much quieter. But the venerable building known as the Gym of ’36, just a few blocks off the downtown Gainesville square, can boast of a time in its past when it was Gainesville’s meeting place — the place to catch a hot touring act and see some friends, even though the party lasted just a few years.
Booking the tours and often running the sound board was the building’s owner, Gainesville native Billy Peck. His family purchased the gym — along with the former Gainesville High School — in 1964 when the city sold it as “surplus property.”
For 10 years, Peck said, the family sat on the investment, using part of the 3-acre parcel as a parking lot. But because the terms of the deal required nothing be done to the buildings unless one large tenant would lease all 60,000 square feet — which wasn’t an option for department stores at the time — Peck said his family waited to do anything with the buildings.
“The restriction came off in 1974 ... So we started to renovate it to an auditorium to seat 1,500 people,” said Peck, who is now retired and spends much of his time working on classic cars in his downtown Gainesville garage and warehouse. “Then, we came in and we ran the concert series through there.”
A little history
The year 1936 was not a good time to build something in downtown Gainesville. When the devastating tornado ripped through town, the metal shell of the gym had just been started. Part of it was damaged, Peck said, and had to be rebuilt; the gym was finished later that year.
The gym was adjacent to the original Gainesville High School, built in 1918 and held classes until 1959. Peck was among the senior class that started the school year in the old building and graduated in the building that today houses GHS.
According to news reports from the 1970s, the gym building was notable because, for its time, it was the Taj Mahal of local basketball. An article in the May 22, 1977, issue of The Times noted that when basketball tournament time rolled around, “teams came in from such places as Tate, Ball Ground, Jasper, Marble Hill and all points north. They came with their homemade uniforms with numbers sewn on the jerseys by mother’s hand.”
Today the building is home to offices, and the 1918 school building has long been demolished.
But for a handful of years in the 1970s, this humble gymnasium was hoppin’.
Rock your socks off
Country music star Donna Fargo kicked off the Gym of ’36 as a main concert venue in May of 1977. Peck said he and his wife, along with lots of friends, would pitch in to move equipment, set up lights and man the sound board. There was a VIP room upstairs to make the performers comfortable, and despite the hard work, the friends had a lot of fun pulling it off night after night.
“It was really a lot of fun,” Peck said. “We had some friends that would come to stay with us and work the shows. It was a real big party.”
Peck said he’d never booked a concert before. He had to learn how to read riders, the contracts that come with each performer specifying technical requirements of the venue, and he learned to catch acts that were on their way to Florida for a concert — that way, he could book them coming or going for a better rate.
But, he said, he also learned that the famous musicians coming through his venue were pretty down to earth, too.
People like Larry Gatlin, Jerry Lee Lewis, Freddy Fender and Barbara Mandrell.
Peck said he remembers Mandrell touring with her young daughter, and she would set her up with some food in the backstage lounge before Mandrell went on stage. And the night she and her band was scheduled to perform, with Vern Gosdin opening, his band got in an accident en route to the venue.
“He flew in, we picked him up at the airport. But his band was in a wreck and they didn’t show up,” said Peck. “So he went to (Mandrell’s father) and said, ‘Herb, can you cover for me?’
“Well, they changed, put on a different color outfit and did the whole show. And you’d never know it wasn’t his band. That’s how professional they were.”
When the rock band Wild Cherry came to town, Peck said he had to get a 100-kilowatt generator and park it outside to help power the band’s light show.
When Lewis came to town, his trysts with his young cousin had Lewis’ wife watching him from backstage during the entire show.
When Kenny Rogers came to town, Peck and his friends carried two tractor-trailer loads of equipment into the Gym of ’36, since Rogers travels with his own sound equipment. That translates to about 45,000 pounds of stuff.
“And then, after two shows (in one evening), you put 3,000 people through the building, you break all that stuff down,” Peck said. “I had to deliver a truckload of his equipment to the Atlanta airport.”
While it was fun having the concerts in his venue, Peck said, it did start to wear on him after a while.
“I didn’t get to enjoy it as much because I was backstage,” he said. “You had the sound and all that, and I was on stage and calling the shots.”
Lots of work, little money
Eventually, though, the concert scene started to change. In 1979, Peck said he stopped thinking about the Gym of ’36 simply as a concert venue. Besides, he added, chart-topping acts were no longer charging $10,000 for a show; today, national acts can charge between $40,000 to $100,000 to play a venue.
That kind of money can only come from large venues, like the Gwinnett Arena, seating thousands.
“That’s when the acts started to get so expensive I couldn’t afford them. So I put in a 150-seat restaurant, and we did that for about 10 years,” he said.
Gainesville businessman and musician Allen Nivens said the concert booking business has changed form the 1970s. Although the concerts at the Gym of ’36 were before his own concertgoing days, recent experience in putting together benefit concerts has taught him that everyone wants a percentage of the action. That makes it hard for a small venue or an entrepreneur to book their own shows.
“The entrepreneurial spirit for Billy Peck and even (Georgia Theatre owner) Will Greene today, to take the love of music and make it an income source, it’s almost impossible unless you have some capital behind you,” he said.
In the 1980s, a small fire burned a room in the building, and Peck decided to go in a completely different direction.
“That’s when I started changing it over. I was a general contractor all those years, so I renovated the whole thing into an office building.”
Peck said he loves history and remembering downtown Gainesville the way it was in the 1950s and ’60s — but he also wanted to keep the building in use.
“The main thing was, I was trying to do something with the building, the best use of the building, and when I had the fire I just decided to turn it back over,” he said.
Today he still hangs out with many of the same friends who helped him tote sound equipment into the old gym. A few will drop by his garage from time to time, looking for an extra part to fix up their own antique car. The friends have formed a club for antique car enthusiasts — the Old Friends Car Club — and are holding a car show at the downtown Gainesville square this spring. The Old Friends Car Club Car show will take place from noon until dark on April 17, with all proceeds from donations given as entry fees going to the Good News Clinic.
It will be the first event Peck has promoted in years, and it has a decidedly more mature slant to it.
But then again, he said, it’s simply a natural extension of what he and his friends like to do. He and his friends have grown the car club to about 50 members, but it’s still just old friends getting together and working on something they love — classic cars.
And it was the same thing 30 years ago, when a bunch of young men helped Peck set up the sound board for a concert by Donna Fargo.
“I like to be out,” Peck said. “So when you have a building and a natural auditorium, why not try?”