The Theater At The Center Of The Universe

10/28/2011 02:04 pm ET | Updated Dec 28, 2011
  • Pam Grout Author, National Geographic's 100 Best Volunteer Vacations

There's a small brass circle on the stage floor of the just-renovated art deco Franklin Theatre. It reads: C.O.U. It stands for Center of the Universe and, when it comes to music, it's not an exaggeration.

This 300-seat theater on Main Street of historic Franklin, Tennessee regularly books acts like Michael McDonald, Keb Mo, Vince Gill, the Judds and others who normally sell out 25,000-seat arenas.

These big-name stars play at this intimate venue because it's their "local" and because it's a way to support their hometown and the Heritage Foundation that made the valiant decision to save the legendary community icon that was shuttered in 2007.

"Franklin and Williamson County has more talent per capita than anywhere on earth," says Mary Pearce, Executive Director of the Heritage Foundation of Franklin and Williamson County. "The stars used this place even before it was renovated. They'd have their kid's birthday parties here. Alison Krauss once did a fundraiser here. This was back when the theater was best seen in low lights."

Originally built in 1937 by community matron Cynthia Fleming who wanted to keep her teenagers from driving the 17 miles into Nashville, the Franklin was showing its age.
It had a faux Polynesian sign and was competing unsuccessfully with nearby cineplexes.

"We decided to take P.T. Barnum's advice," says volunteer director Aubrey Preston. "We decided that if we were going to do this, we'd have to 'Go big or go home.' We decided we were going to make this theater the best 300-seat theater in the world. Our goal was not to meet performer's expectations or even exceed them. We wanted to freakin' blow their minds."

To do that, they installed two state-of-the-art sound systems, one for Sunday's classic movies (such old favorites as Gone with the Wind and Singing in the Rain) and the other for concerts. The $8.5-million facelift that was completed in June also included a full-scale replica of the 1930's art-deco marquee and a green room unlike any other.

Displayed on the wall is a collection of rare, vintage instruments including a $70,000 1929 Gibson L-5.

"It's the guitar Mother Maybelle Carter used for Keep on the Sunny Side," Preston says.

When I peeked in, Raul Malo, former lead singer for the Mavericks who had blown off a baseball game to sing a few songs, was chatting up Zach Bevill, lead singer for the Farewell Drifters, who were also on the bill that night.

As for that C.O.U.?

"You can unscrew it and there's a satin-lined cavity underneath. The superstars who play the Franklin leave little mementos behind," Pearce says.