Throughout the day Monday people walked solemnly around and in front of the Rives Theatre, and traffic passed by slowly, many drivers taking pictures or videos from their moving vehicles.
It was in an atmosphere of eerie silence uptown that people with connections to the Rives talked about the theater’s importance to the community and its destruction by fire the night before.
The last event there was Brewster Walk, a beer and music festival sponsored by Rooster Walk, on Saturday. Rives Theatre Manager Rives Coleman said he and Rooster Walk co-founder Johnny Buck were in the theater watching sports until around midnight Saturday, and then they returned on Sunday and watched football. They shut everything down and left around 7:30 p.m.
About an hour later Coleman’s teenage daughter, Claire Warner Coleman, called him. She had seen a picture of the burning Rives on social media.
Rives Coleman said he made it back to the theater on Church Street in 2 minutes and stayed on the scene until 1:30 a.m.
“The Martinsville Fire Department with [Chief] Ted Anderson and the EMT … did a wonderful job,” Coleman said. The fact that neighboring properties were not damaged “was a saving grace for us.”
“I’m just glad knowing everybody was safe.”
The name is no coincidence. “Rives” is a family name, and the theater was started by Coleman’s great-grandfather Rives Spotswood Brown Sr. in 1935. The theater still is owned by several members of the family under the name Browns Inc.
“All of Martinsville and Henry County’s finest, they really responded with a lot of effort and care,” said William Baptist of Rooster Walk.
He said he was one of the guys at the theater Sunday cleaning up after Brewster Walk. They left at 7 or 7:15 p.m., and the fire “must have started just thereafter.” He said he was called about it around 8:30 p.m.
“I was so shocked it hardly registered,” Baptist said. “As I drove up Church Street, I could see the flames coming out. It really sunk in.”
Anderson said he was at home working on a project when he received the call about the fire. “I’ve been doing this over 33 years. When I heard” it was the Rives, it was a shock, he said.
He couldn’t repeat what he said in a family newspaper, he said, but added “I got ready as quick as I could” and zipped to the scene.
“It’s a gut check” to see such a “hub of Martinsville history” be destroyed, Anderson said.
While doing their work, emergency personnel must “keep a little bit of emotion … but not so much that you can’t do your job,” he said. “Last night was one of those nights” emotion was close to the surface.
The main thing firefighters had to do was to keep the fire from spreading to other buildings, he said.
The turnout of many community fire departments “in itself shows this building meant something” to the entire region, he said.
People have been sharing their memories of the Rives, Anderson said. One he heard was from Abe Powell, who remembered how the Martinsville Fire Department had a ladder truck set up outside the theater for the opening of “Towering Inferno” in 1974.
“I doubt many people in Martinsville do not have a memory” of special times at the Rives, he added.
Several dozen spectators watched the fire throughout the night, Anderson said. Because there was a chance the walls could have fallen outward, the crowd had to be kept far back to be protected from potential flying debris.
Meanwhile, firefighters were able to reach the people of Belltone Audiology & Hearing Aid Center, which adjoins the theater along the back wall, and S&K Office Products, separated from the Rives only by an alley. Personnel from those businesses moved vehicles and removed any valuables from their buildings, Anderson said.
Videos taken by drones show some things inside the theater that could be salvaged, he said.
Cindy Summit, president of S&K Office Products, said she and her husband are members of a group that holds concert at the Rives and often go to the shows. The theater “is a huge part of Martinsville history,” she said.
One of their employees was called by someone from the fire department around 8 or 8:30 p.m. Sunday, she said. They had some vehicles in the alley between their business and the theater to move.
“We came up here as quick as possible and were very scared,” she said. “It was a scary scene to see.”
Before the fire knocked out the power, S&K staffers ran into their building to get the computers they need to run their business. Then they “stayed across the street praying the building would not be affected,” Summit said.
However, the fire departments’ presence and actions were reassuring, she said: “We were surrounded literally with fire trucks angling at that fire, protecting our building. It just amazed me how great a job they did.”
Sunday night, she was “trying to make arrangements where I can work. I have to have power and internet to process an order” and do practically anything, she said.
She and the staff arrived at 8:30 a.m. Monday, and much to their surprise, city utility crews were on the scene by 9 a.m., and power, water, internet and phone services were restored by 10 a.m.
“It was just like, ‘Wow’ – I was just shocked, it happened so quickly,” she said.
“Those guys have been wonderful,” said Summit’s mother-in-law, Jean Summit. “They got our vehicles wetted down, our building wetted down,” and had utilities restored early the next morning.
S&K has been in business for 35 years, the early years across the street, and in its present location, between Church and Main Streets, since 1988.
Belltone was closed Monday, with yellow tape warning people not to enter. At the side of the building, water was standing in the basement wells.
“My first music show was here,” said Horsepasture resident Kendall Davis, a 2011 graduate of Magna Vista High School.
Davis also is the bureau chief in Martinsville and Danville for WDBJ-Ch. 7, and he was in front of the Rives Monday filming for a news report.
Reporters get accustomed to covering all types of stories, he said, but even so, when “you do stories that are nostalgic to you and connected to you, its hits close” to the heart.
The Rives started out in the late 1920s as a theater for live performances, then for many decades was a movie theater for first-run movies. In the early 2000s it went under varied management and types of movies. In 2010, live music started being performed there.
The theater has been the site of “a lot of first dates, a lot of first kisses, a lot of fun times for families … over the years,” Coleman said.
The theater remaining open and with regular events has been thanks to grassroots fundraising and volunteer labor, he said.
“It’s grown and expanded over the years,” said Tom Berry, who has been the sound technician for nearly all, if not all, the concerts there, and “had nationally touring acts in here repeatedly.” Berry also has performed on stage many times “in various guises.”
Many genres of music have been played there. Organizations Artisan Café, ARTS at the Rives and Rooster Walk have held shows there, and the Lions Club held a monthly bluegrass show for seven years.
The lower theater could seat 225 in chairs, or 275 to include standing room, Buck said.
Several events are scheduled for the Rives, and organizers say they are looking for venues for those events. The next one is Forever Doo Wop at 7 p.m. Friday, presented in partnership with King’s Grant.
The Rives Theatre has been “a pretty vibrant part of the Martinsville community, and there’s to be a lot of regrouping to do,” Berry has said.
“I can tell you one thing: This is not the end of music in Martinsville,” Baptist said. “We are going to continue here on bringing in world-class music acts.”
Holly Kozelsky is a writer for the Martinsville Bulletin; contact her at 276-638-8801 ext. 243.