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Contributed photo by Cindy Rivers McGraw / The last performance in the Tooga Theater was the 2019 performance of Lion King Jr., but young performers may soon have a chance to return to its stage.

Chattooga County, Georgia, has been selected to receive a Fox Theatre Institute Preservation Grant of $22,600 to use for renovations to the Tooga Theater, the county commissioner's office confirmed on Tuesday.

The funding marks a new milestone in what has been a monthslong effort to restore and transform the historic spot into a hub for entertainment in the county's downtown.

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The Tooga Theater in Summerville has a long history in Chattooga County, dating back to 1947 when the operators of the county's then-theater, the Royal Theater, which had been operating since the 1920s, first constructed the building on Commerce Street. Royal Theater manager Luther C. Smith and Daniel L. McWorther opened the Tooga Theater in the mid-1950s, at which point Chattooga County Chamber of Commerce Director Cindy Rivers McGraw said the Royal officially closed and the Tooga took its place. Under Smith and McWorther's ownership, it served as a movie theater, community center, auditorium and venue for local events and fundraisers.

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Google Maps / The Tooga Theater has gone through many incarnations, including as a Shriners auditorium.

It later came under the ownership of the Shriners and was renamed the Dandee Denson Auditorium in honor of Chattooga Shrine Club honorary member Dandee Denson, who died in 2010. Then, in 2015, the county purchased the theater in a condemnation proceeding for $125,000.

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Officials knew renovation would be a big undertaking — from getting rid of black mold to replacing missing seats, the theater needed a lot of work.

But in April, the Chattooga County Chamber of Commerce and Chattooga County Sole Commissioner Blake Elsberry committed to raising the money to revamp the theater without dipping into any county funds. Locals were invited to donate anywhere from $300 to $10,000, while Elsberry committed to finding grant money to cover other costs.

McGraw said the Fox Theatre Institute Preservation Grant was one they thought of applying for right away because the county had previously applied for a grant from the organization in the past. With the help of the Northwest Georgia Regional Commission, she said she and Elsberry worked to put together a convincing application. The preservation grant is awarded on an annual basis to help complete overall preservation projects and to fund the purchase and installation of equipment such as seating, listening devices, and sound and lighting equipment.

In the case of the Tooga Theater, it will be used to install the new marquee, which was contracted in 2020, to replace windows on the first and second floors, refurbish the front doors and paint the front of the building.

"We knew the application had to be great because this is the first year the Fox Theatre Institute has offered it without it being a matching grant. We also knew that they weren't able to raise as many funds to offer as many grants this year because they couldn't raise a lot of money in 2020 due to COVID, so it was going to be competitive," McGraw told the Times Free Press by phone Wednesday. "We're really blessed to get it. Everyone will see the difference it makes on the facade of the Tooga."

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McGraw said that Tina Lee, the director for Chattooga Curtain Call, a local youth theater group, is thrilled about the grant and is looking forward to getting kids back in the Tooga for shows and practices. The last show held there was Lion King Jr. in 2019. Since then, local churches and recreation centers have served as venues for those events. Ginger Hurley, a Chattooga County resident whose niece is involved with the theater group, said she was excited about the work being done at the Tooga.

"I am really happy to hear that," Hurley said. "The theater has been here for a long time, and it's cute, but it would be nice to see it made into something really big."

Anyone interested in donating to Chattooga County's Tooga Theater project can do so by mailing a check to P.O. Box 211, Summerville, GA 30747. For $300, McGraw said donors can have a plaque with their name put on a seat of their choice in the theater. They will have first dibs to reserve that seat for every show, she said, though they will have to reserve it in advance.

Contact Kelcey Caulder at kcaulder@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6327. Follow her on Twitter @kelceycaulder.

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