The Austin Theatre
The building that became known as the Austin Theater was purchased in November 1915 by George Hiley Slappey (1871-1934), a pharmacist who later became a successful peach farmer. The building originally housed a dry goods store, R.S. Braswell & Sons.
The building was remodeled and a second floor auditorium was added in 1916. According to Mr. Slappey, the theater was intended to have "the sumptuousness of a palace, the convenience of a house and the agreeableness of a county seat." Originally called “Slappey’s Opera House,” Mr. Slappey renamed the theater the "Austin Theatre" for his friend, Samuel (Bully) Austin. The theater opened in January 1917, with a presentation of the play "Peg O' My Heart," performed by a traveling theater company.
In addition to staging plays and showing movies, Mr. Slappey would lend the Austin Theatre for community events such as a Fiddler's Convention in 1919, which raised money for charity. In 1921, the management of the theater was taken over by Southern Amusement Company.
The Perry newspaper reported in 1917: "Fort Valley, Jan. 3 - Delegations of people from Montezuma, Perry, Marshallville and other towns attended the opening of the Austin, Fort Valley’s new Opera House, tonight at 8:30 o’clock. Every seat in the house was taken and many people were turned away. The house seats 750 people besides several boxes accommodating eight or ten persons each. The theatre is owned by George Slappey, one of the most prominent men in Fort Valley, who has made a fortune in this section of the country growing peaches. The building and fixtures complete cost $15,000 and the theatre is one of the most up to date in the state. No efforts have been spared. Mr. Slappey is giving the people of this section the very best in modern theatrical attractions and it is expected that the Austin will be liberally patronized."
The building was used as Peach County's first courthouse in 1925, with Judge Henry Matthews presiding. In 1934, the Austin Theatre was leased to the Martin-Thompson theater chain from Hawkinsville, Georgia. Upon his death, Mr. Slappey's estate sold the building to the Martin-Thompson Company which added a third floor projection booth and renamed it the Peach Theater. From that time until the late 1940s, the building experienced its peak use as Fort Valley's premier movie theater.
The Peach Theater went out of business in 1968 and the building was sold to Marion Allen, a former Fort Valley mayor. He remodeled the first floor in 1969 to house a discount department store. The building served as home to numerous businesses over the next 25 years or so, but was abandoned in 1996, The once proud building remained empty until January 2007 when it reopened as the Austin Theatre.
Mr. Allen donated the building to the Downtown Development Authority in 1999 hoping it could be rehabilitated and restored for use as a commercial and cultural venue.
The Peach County Commissioners placed the building on the SPLOST referendum in 2004 and voters approved $500,000 for its renovation. Construction has now been completed and fundraising continues for the interior appointments.
Compiled from research done by the Fort Valley Arts Alliance