Living a dream

Published 12:00 am Monday, August 14, 2006

Proctorville woman renovating old Huntington theater into performing arts center and studio

By Kirsten Stanley/The Ironton Tribune

HUNTINGTON, W.Va. — Jessica Burcham-Fox has a vision. As she strolls through the Camelot Theatre, the Proctorville native says she sees more than an old Vaudeville house-turned-movie theater, she sees a place that “needs some love.”

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The theater will open under her direction as the Jeslyn Performing Arts Center at the Camelot Theatre.

Burcham-Fox, a graduate of Proctorville’s Fairland High School and Ohio University, bought the theater in June and has been working feverishly to renovate the historic building ever since.

She has enlisted the help of her entire family, including her father, Lawrence County Treasurer Stephen Dale Burcham, and her grandfather, former Lawrence County Clerk of Courts Dale Burcham.

The Camelot originally opened as The Palace in 1923, Burcham-Fox said. It was a Vaudeville house that featured acts running the gamut from magicians and gymnasts to mathematicians and comedians.

The original dressing rooms, lights, trap doors and other backstage features still serve as reminders of the theater’s beginnings. The Palace was renovated and converted into a movie theater in the 1960s by the Greater Huntington Theatre Corp., the group that sold it to Burcham-Fox.

There are several components to the new arts center. Three studios are where most of the instruction will take place — one to be used for young children’s classes and the others to be utilized for classes for older students.

The focal point of the center is the large main theater, which seats about 400 and will serve as the venue for performances of all types, including drama, dance, music and combinations of all three, Burcham-Fox said. A smaller theater upstairs seats about 150 and will also host performances and classes.

Burcham-Fox also hopes to spruce up the exterior of the building to get it looking as close to its original appearance as possible.

The center will have its open house from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m., Aug.12-14.

At the time of its initial opening, Burcham-Fox said that the three dance studios will be open for classes. Because of the massive amount of renovation needed to the two theaters — including the removal of the movie screens — they will not be completed until sometime between December and May, she said.

Burcham-Fox hopes to have the center in full operation in two years.

“It’s very exciting,” she said beaming. “It’s been a huge undertaking, but I’ve had a lot of help. There has been a lot of work that needed to be done, but it has been great.”

Although she is only 24, Burcham-Fox is already an accomplished dancer and teacher. She has a bachelor’s degree in dance performance, choreography and education and is a certified instructor of pilates and yoga. She has danced professionally in Washington, D.C., and New York, where she founded the nonprofit modern dance company Jeslyn Dance Gallery.

Burcham-Fox and her husband, Jared Fox, a Web designer and Dayton native, had not planned to move from D.C. back to the area in any time soon, but that all changed when the couple, along with Burcham-Fox’s immediate family, took their first tour of the Camelot.

“It was a mess. There was dirt and things lying all over the place,” she said with a laugh. “But, they saw the vision that I had. They caught on to the vision.”

Rosa Lowe, Burcham-Fox’s grandmother, said she believes the center will be a success because of her granddaughter’s love of dance and her already-numerous accomplishments.

“It’s going to be great. I think it’s wonderful. She has the experience and the knowledge to make it work,” Lowe said during a break from cleaning the theater’s woman’s restroom. “It’s been a lot of work, but we all believe in her.”

Burcham-Fox said some people think she is crazy for renovating such an old, run-down theater, and she joked that sometimes she may agree with them. But, she really doesn’t care what they think — she is living her dream.

She said “You don’t get anywhere if you don’t try. To me, this came along at a perfect time and it is something that I feel strongly about.”