The neon lights on the restored facade of The Wink Theatre in downtown Dalton still glow brightly. Flashing bulbs sparkle above the marquee announcing the two Sunday morning services of Rock Bridge Community Church.

But the replica of the original ticket booth installed by former owner Troy Hall during a meticulous four-year renovation is now gathering dust. Box office operations were closed in August.

Today, almost two years after church officials bought The Wink, area residents can still watch a movie in the Art Moderne theater that first opened in 1942. But they’ll have to rent the theater out and bring a group for a private showing.

“When we bought The Wink from Troy, we listened. He said some days it made money, and other days it didn’t,” said Frank Hogshead, an elder at Rock Bridge and a board member of the Downtown Dalton Development Authority (DDDA). “But I don’t think he made money on many of the programs he put on.

“We’ve really had a problem with the public supporting The Wink. We offered some shows, but I was amazed to see the public drive to Chattanooga or Atlanta and not support The Wink. We’re still looking at hosting gospel shows and other events on Friday nights, and I think we’ll find a time that the public will support it.”

After Hall spent an estimated $1.2 million from 1998-2002 to refurbish The Wink to its original grandeur, the theater hosted such artists as Billy Joe Royal, Dan Seals, The Drifters, The Coasters, Percy Sledge, Gary Conrad, James Rogers, Ronnie McDowell and various local talent.

“I don’t think those acts appealed to broad audiences,” said Sarah Harrison, executive director of the DDDA. “They (now) tend to stay in the genre of country and Christian music, which is all right but leaves off a lot of (potential uses). They don’t have a level of promotion one would normally see in a community theater.”

Hall bought the dilapidated theater for $100,001 from the city of Dalton in 1998. The city had originally stipulated in the deed that The Wink must “be used as a stage or a theater for the fine arts” until May 2008 or the city would reclaim ownership. But in January 2002, Mayor Ray Elrod and Tim Jones, a representative of the DDDA, signed two quitclaim deeds at Hall’s request in which the city gave up its right to retake The Wink.

Church officials said when they bought The Wink in December 2004 that they planned to use it as a community theater for plays, musical acts and other events.

“We are determined to grow this theater and continue it as a community treasure,” Pastor Matt Evans said then. “That’s our intentions. Period.”

Elrod, who initially questioned whether the sale to the church was a good move, said recently he’s been pleasantly surprised with Rock Bridge’s stewardship of The Wink.

“They are doing good things for downtown,” Elrod said. “Of the merchants I’ve talked to, everybody has been pleased with the way they’re handling the theater. I did have some concerns about it at first, but the events they’re hosting seem to complement and enhance downtown businesses.”

Evans noted recently that approximately 4,000 people participated in the church’s Fall Festival on Halloween, with all activities centered around The Wink. The block on West Crawford Street was closed off for games, inflatables, a petting zoo, tractor rides, food, blood pressure checks and worship music.

“As far as increasing my business, I’ve not seen anything,” said David Finley, owner of Maryville Jewelers on Hamilton Street. “But I’ve got to give Matt a lot of credit for what he’s doing for kids. It’s a great deed he’s doing. I don’t know how many people brought their kids there on Halloween because they knew it would be a good environment. I’m glad to see some usage out of it, rather than it sitting useless like it could have been.”

The church bought the theater from Hall for an undisclosed amount and kept Hall’s daughter, Jan Stanley, on staff. She originally worked out of the box office as booking manager but now works from home. The theater’s phone number rings through to her cell phone’s voice mail.

For a period of time, Stanley worked with Rock Bridge member Lori Beth Edgeman to operate the theater. Among other things, they instituted a monthly classic movie series that proved unprofitable and short-lived.

“It doesn’t make sense to operate at a loss,” Hogshead said. “If you look at what sells, R-rated movies sell. We made a decision not to offer that, but the public doesn’t support that. They’d rather go out to the mall. So we looked to rentals to schools, weddings and community organizations — no money losers where we only receive a percentage of the gate.”

Hogshead said the new business plan is working well.

“It’s a little different operation from the past, but I think it seems to be doing good,” he said. “The Whitfield Education Foundation just held its ‘Showcase of Stars’ talent show, and Windstream held a corporate meeting there. We’re working around the schedule of the church, but it’s a good system, so there have been no conflicts. I’ve heard no negative comments.”

The DDDA’s Harrison said the church is fitting in well with its neighbors, but she still has some concerns.

“We’re glad it’s being used, and we’ll go with the demands of today,” she said. “Sometimes there are tradeoffs, and there has to be some adjustment. But they’ve been a good downtown neighbor, offering events for the community. It’s a huge theater in today’s world (1,165 seats), and it can be hard to find enough concerts, activities and productions to fill it up.”

But Harrison said The Wink’s potential has been somewhat limited by the church.

“The church prefers to not host events on Saturday nights because they would have to clean up before their Sunday services, and that discourages a lot of groups from using The Wink,” she said. “That leaves them open to pretty much having things only on Friday nights. I don’t see it as a theater in terms of its use. I hope it might be a theater again one day.”

Evans said few changes are planned.

“We may do some internal renovation,” he said. “We may turn the radio station area into a lobby or cafe, but we don’t plan any renovations to the exterior. It’s a historical building, so it has to meet standards. We like how The Wink looks. Downtown is the geographic center of Whitfield County, and people come from all over to worship with us. We still believe the Lord has us as a downtown church.”

Wink Theatre Time Line

• 1941 — J.C.H. Wink begins building the theater at 114 W. Crawford St.

• Dec. 1, 1942 — Wink family opens theater with showing of the movie “They All Kissed the Bride.”

• Early 1950s — Wink family sells to Martin Theater chain

• Early 1980s — Theater closed

• 1990 — Theater supporters win grant to study building’s possible uses

• 1991 — Wink Task Force raises $30,000 through donations, craft shows for new roof

• 1992 — Dalton Public Schools plans to demolish theater for parking lot

• 1992 — City of Dalton trades downtown parking spaces for the theater

• Early 1990s — City spends $50,000 to remove asbestos and 140 molded seats

• 1998 — Troy Hall buys theater from city for $100,001

• 1998-2002 — Hall spends an estimated $1.2 million to restore the theater

• January 2002 — City of Dalton and Downtown Dalton Development Authority representatives sign quitclaim deeds at Hall’s request in which the city gives up its right to retake The Wink if it is no longer used as “a stage or a theater for the fine arts.”

• July 2002 — Theater reopens to two sold-out concerts by The Platters, a spinoff of the 1950s group

• September 2002 — Rock Bridge Community Church begins renting theater on Sunday mornings for about 40 members

• September 2004 — Rock Bridge officials sign option agreement to buy the theater from Hall

• December 2004 — Rock Bridge buys Wink

• August 2006 — Theater box office closes operations, church still allows rental use

• November 2006 — Rock Bridge boasts 640 members and hosts 900-1,000 people during two Sunday services at 9 and 10:45 a.m.

— Source: The Daily Citizen archives

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