The Kimball Theatre today
Located in Merchants Square, the Kimball Theatre is home to current films and live performances. On any given day, you might see a Colonial Williamsburg interpreter portray Patrick Henry or enjoy a jazz ensemble of talented students from the College of William and Mary. Perhaps the Peninsula's Jewish Film Festival is in town, or maybe you'll see players performing an 18th-century Grand Medley of Entertainments. Whatever your tastes, the Kimball Theatre is at the center of Williamsburg's community activities. Creative programming alliances with the College of William and Mary, community organizations, and Colonial Williamsburg link our past with the present.
Theatre dates to 1933
The rich history of The Kimball Theatre dates back to January 12, 1933. Its curtain first lifted over players from the College of William and Mary performing the play “The Recruiting Officer,” which records indicate was the first play staged in the first theater in British North America just a few blocks away on Palace Green.Opening night at the theater also included the sounds of the William and Mary Orchestra, a newsreel, a Mickey Mouse cartoon, a “Jeeves the Butler” comedy and the world premier of RKO's “The Conquerors.” Outside, searchlights crisscrossed the sky, airplanes zoomed overhead, and fireworks lit the night.
At the heart of a new town center
The Reverend Dr. W.A.R. Goodwin, who convinced John D. Rockefeller Jr. to return Williamsburg to its 18th-century appearance, first proposed the idea of Merchants Square in 1927. Goodwin believed that consolidating the shops and commercial district in one place would remove the distractions of 20th-century life from the Historic Area and would also create a center for the community. A movie house stood on the general area where the new square would be built, but the building was eventually purchased and demolished to make way for a theater suitable as “center stage” for the new Merchants Square.
Rockefeller owned a film distribution company, Radio-Keith-Orpheum, or RKO, who drafted a business plan to build a 600-seat theater costing somewhere between $85,000 and $100,000. From its outset, it was clear the theater would be strictly a movie house, even though devotees at the College of William and Mary lobbied for a facility that would accommodate stage plays and live performances. But the expense was too great, and the college already had a theater in its four-year-old Phi Beta Kappa Hall. The theater was opened with two other RKO theaters Rockefeller owned: Radio City Music Hall and The Roxy Theatre in New York City.
Although built only for motion pictures, the theater was used for community activities from its beginning. Saturday morning PTA meetings included a movie and audience participation programs for the children. The Catholic community used it for Mass, and the Bruton Parish Church held services there during church restoration. Every December, the church held a matinee to benefit the area poor.
A refuge from summer heat
The new theater, named The Williamsburg Theatre, was air-conditioned, an innovation for its time. Mr. and Mrs. Rockefeller loved the theater and would often entertain their guests by taking them to a movie after dinner. The Rockefellers were such regular patrons that part of the back row was always reserved for them. Major renovations in the 1940s replaced the air conditioning system and widened the space between rows by a few inches. The acoustical plaster put on the walls made news as a technological advance, and the sunburst chandelier fascinated the public.
Visitors often found the theater a refuge. On his frequent trips to Colonial Williamsburg, Walt Disney spent many an evening at the theater. He would often talk with William and Mary students before and after the movie and found the benches in front of the theater a comfortable place to while away the time.
Generous gifts restore and renovate
In the spring of 2000, through the generosity of Bill and Gretchen Kimball of Belvedere, California, a year-long restoration and renovation of the theater began. When it was dedicated on September 28, 2001, during the Foundation's 75th anniversary celebration, the 410-seat theater was renamed The Kimball Theatre. In addition, a new 35-seat screening room, made possible by a gift from the Gladys and Franklin Clark Foundation, allows the theater to offer films to the community seven days a week, even when live performances are staged in the main theater.
Mr. Rockefeller intended the theater to be like those of his in New York, showing exciting releases, able to accommodate local needs and to be a welcome stop for any visitor. Today, the beautifully restored Kimball Theatre continues the Rockefeller tradition by showing films, live shows, musical concerts, and special programs for the college and the community at large.