Throughout my childhood, my parents and I would travel to Bells, Tennessee, to visit our relatives. With me being an only child, looking out of the car window was my main source of entertainment until we reached our destination. While passing through, there was one particular building that caught my eye. I suppose it was the huge movie poster displays or vibrant signs that always grabbed my attention. We’ve stopped in and shopped at a few stores on that strip, but I can’t recall ever entering in the mysterious building. Nonetheless, I never mustered up enough courage to ask my parents, “Can we go in there—please?” But I know for a fact that my continuous outburst of “Are we there yet?” was already too much for them. So I just admired from afar.
Recently I visited the small town of Bells, drove along East Main Street, and recognized the building that always struck my interest as a child. I slowed down and parked my vehicle, eyes drawn to the Casablanca movie poster displayed outside of the tan colored building. A huge “Save the Bells Theatre” banner hung in front of the entrance way, mentioning ways to donate to the project. Curious and eager to learn more, I contacted one of the helping hands who informed me about the fundraiser: Christina Kincaid Gooch.
“The Chamber of Commerce partnered with the Arts Council of Crockett County for this project,” Gooch said. “They are asking for donations to help restore the historic theater as a multi-purpose venue for community events.”
Along with the Arts Council, there have been several Bells and Crockett County residents who have joined forces to revive the historic building that brought so much joy into their lives and community.
“The Bells Theatre has been closed for a little over twenty years but definitely has a lot of history. We all want to bring it back to life and create more memories,” said Sarah Conley, chairperson of the Arts Council. “This building has been a part of so many people’s lives, including mine.”
The historic theater, originally named The Ray, was built in 1936 and was considered to be one of the most opulent theaters in the area. After being closed a few years later, Sam Sullivan reopened the theater in 1941 and renamed it the Bells Theatre. Thirty-three years later it became the Winter Garden Theatre, where vocal coach Joe Kincaid moved his voice studio from Humboldt. After gaining more students, it became known as the Kincaid Voice Studio for nine years. After Kincaid’s death in 1984, his sister Deby and brother-in-law Gary moved back to Tennessee to continue Joe’s legacy.
“It was a magical place—not only for me but for Joe as well,” Deby said. “We are very blessed to have had such wonderful students and shared incredible memories in that building.”
In 1996, due to outgrowing the building, Deby and Gary decided to relocate the Kincaid-Gooch Voice Studio to Alamo. Bob Pigue and wife then purchased the historical building and made some upgrades, within including painting the exterior. Pigue owned the building for nine years, and with great pleasure the couple then donated it to the Arts Council for the revitalization program.
“You can see why this building is so precious to so many people with their memories and stories,” Pigue explained. “With all the history behind this building, this community takes great pride in it.”
This memorable spot has impacted many people’s lives in a variety of ways. From the lingering smell of freshly popped popcorn to memories of first dates and recitals, the stories add up. And with donations and grants, one third of the west side of downtown will be rebuilt when the theater is restored.
As of now, the Save the Bells Theatre fundraiser needs $170,000 to build entirely. The Arts Council received several grants, such as a $380,000 grant from Tennessee Parks and Restoration, a $350,000 clean energy grant, and a $50,000 Tennessee USDA Rural Development grant. Once restored, the space will be a versatile venue as the main headquarters for movie screenings, theatrical plays, wedding receptions, job training, and endless other possibilities.
Phase one of the renovations has begun as of August 1, in which—some residents will be happy to know—pieces of the original décor will be refurbished, such as the vintage sunbursts on the walls. Additionally, some of Joe Kincaid’s beautiful chandeliers were saved to incorporate a touch of elegance.
“There was a lot of water damage in the theatre, but we got a chance to save some things to showcase, so people can recognize from when they saw them last,” Conley said. “I am so excited about this project and can’t wait for the completion.”
The renovations for the Bells Theatre will not only increase the historical value but will create jobs for the community. It will also help to showcase the amazing talent that Crockett County and surrounding areas have.
“It will most definitely help sharpen the economy to unmeasurable heights,” Conley said. “We are so thrilled and proud of the community.”
Asanta Brooks is an author and freelance writer. Her passion for writing stemmed from creating and illustrating comic strips as a child, which lead to her becoming involved with the high school paper and excelling as a feature writer for her college paper. She resides in Brownsville, Tennessee, with her adorably energetic two-year-old son, Alex.
Photographer Victoria Phillips is a senior at Madison Academic Magnet High School and a self-taught photographer and videographer. She is passionate about capturing beauty in the world around her via her camera.