That is, if they could see anything at all. A lack of lights to brighten the parking lot and illuminate the building itself made it difficult for many people to even find the theater. Many newcomers drove right by. When they actually made it into the theater, they were forced to sit in lumpy, decades-old seats.
Cosmetic problems like these took a toll on the Mill's audience. "People would complain to me about the parking lot and the seats all the time," Deiss says. "All I could do is apologize." Add to this the general downturn in the number of people attending live theater, and the Mill was a theater company in serious decline.
At least it was until last summer. Bob Walker, president of the Tri-Cities land development company Roslyn Farms Corp., bought the 350-year-old Mill from previous owner Chip McCoull and got to work on a revival. As someone who knows real estate, Walker understood that capital improvements had to be a top priority. "[The Mill] is one of the area's major assets, but it has been underappreciated and underfunded," Walker says. "The first thing we had to do is bring the facility up-to-date."
Walker has overseen the resurfacing of the parking lots and installation of new lighting. The theater's seats have been reupholstered, several doors have been replaced, and anti-flood measures have been put in place. Multiple floods during the past two years had ruined the Mill's downstairs tavern space. Walker refurbished it to act as a pre- or post-show hangout, complete with live music.
"Structurally, the Mill was in great shape," Walker says. "We just needed to put some time and effort into it. And some of the green stuff." Walker didn't provide specific amounts, but the cost of repairs and renovations has been estimated to run upward of $100,000.
Walker says it's been an opportunity to give back to a community that's been good to him. Under his leadership, Roslyn Farms Corp. has developed prime real estate in and around Petersburg, Colonial Heights and Chesterfield County, including multiple complexes near Southpark Mall. The company has distinguished itself with its sensitivity to environmental and historic preservation issues. Roslyn Farms donated the tract of land that became the Pamplin Historical Park in Dinwiddie County, and it played a lead role in establishing the Appomattox Regional Governor's School.
Through his involvement with the governor's school, Walker first met Chip McCoull. The Mill had recently been converted from a private company into a nonprofit organization, and McCoull approached Walker about being on its board of directors. Though he says he "isn't very artistic" and had attended only a few shows at the Mill, Walker saw the preservation of the theater as vital to maintaining the quality of life in the Tri-Cities area. After about a year of talks, he agreed to buy the Mill outright and now serves as chairman of the theater's board.
Walker says there's more work to be done. "We're still just crawling right now; there's plenty of room for improvement," he says. "We need to get more people involved and bring back some of the people who might have been frustrated in the past." To that end, the Mill may soon offer revivals of some of the big, crowd-pleasing musicals that have proved popular in the past. Former patrons drawn back to the theater are sure to be impressed with the dramatic changes and are more likely to come back again.
The Mill's fortunes already seem to be turning. The theater's current production, "The Diary of Anne Frank," is drawing good audiences, and its next production, "Caught in the Net," is a sequel to the slapstick comedy "Run for Your Wife," which was very popular last season. "We're hoping the momentum we're getting right now will carry on into the next year," Walker says.
But for Deiss, one improvement already has made a significant difference. The stream-side trash and weeds were recently cleared from the banks of Swift Creek. "It's beautiful back there," Deiss says. "It's a big relief. It's nice not to have to apologize for [the Mill] now and instead have the opportunity to brag about it." S
"Caught in the Net" begins preview performances on March 11. Call 748-5203 for ticket information.
Style Weekly's mission is to provide smart, witty and tenacious coverage of Richmond. Our editorial team strives to reveal Richmond's true identity through unflinching journalism, incisive writing, thoughtful criticism, arresting photography and sophisticated presentation.
We make sense of the news; pursue those in power; explore the city's arts and culture; open windows on provocative ideas; and help readers know Richmond through its people. We give readers the information to make intelligent decisions.