The Roanoker - November/December 2017 - 111
THE MASONIC THEATRE
From facing page, clockwise:
Masonic Theatre opening
night (Sway Katz), WestRock
Ballroom, Stage from
Balcony, Crowd during a
Hank Williams concert,
Seldom Scene band, Balcony
and Box seats, The Annex,
terman, the 545-seat Neoclassical theatre had three spacious floors and a warehouse basement beneath street
level. The elegant theatre auditorium had box seats rising
on either side of the stage and perfect acoustics. Upstairs,
the chandeliered, brass-railed balcony housed AfricanAmerican theatre patrons prior to 1965, when segregation officially ended. The third-floor Masonic Meeting Hall afforded stunning views of Clifton Forge and
the mountains that cradle it. Despite defaulting on the
$42,000 loan in 1910, the Masons continued to meet
there until 1921.
In its elegant heyday, the Masonic Theatre hosted
vaudeville acts, operas and operettas, magicians and musicals, plays and politicians-William Jennings Bryan took
the Masonic stage in 1908 during his ill-fated presidential
run. Silent films were added, followed by talkies in 1929.
In the day, you could buy your ticket and see just
about anything at the Masonic. Lash LaRue. Hopalong
Cassidy. Roy Rogers and Trigger. The Lone Ranger and
Silver. Gene Autry, Tex Ritter, Cowboy Bob Steele. Shirley Temple, John Wayne, and Elvis movies. Musical
icons like the Count Basie Orchestra and the Drifters.
Fast forward to 1987. The Historic Masonic-by
then the longest continuously operating theatre in Virginia-closed its doors. Despite reopening in 1991 as a
production theatre for the service group Appalfolks of
America, the Masonic Theatre was returned to the town
of Clifton Forge in 2003. And the west end of Main
Street went dark.
The night John Hillert saw the Masonic Theatre in
2007, he emailed his wife Gayle, working in Switzerland
for Bernina USA. "The Theatre needs to be restored. It
needs to be taken care of."
I can't help but wonder what it was that caught Hillert's eye that night in that dark, neglected place-what
set him to dreaming of a new day for the crumbling
Masonic Theatre? What made him think that spending
ten years of his retired life was the right thing to do, in
a town he was fond of from the start, but in which he
had no deep roots?
Those are questions without answers. Young dreams
rarely make sense to anyone other than the dreamer.
Maybe the best answer is the one Gayle Hillert
provides. "What John saw was a glimpse of what had
been-and what could be. From the start, he saw the
potential of the theatre as a gathering place for the
Alleghany Highlands. He's always been able to see
JOHN AND GAYLE MET IN GRADUATE SCHOOL
at Auburn University, where they were in a guidance
counseling class together. "At our first class meeting,
he pulled out two books: 'The Giving Tree' and 'The
Velveteen Rabbit.' I knew then he was a special man.
NOVEMBER/DECEMBER 2017 | 111