A City Sees Its Past, and Maybe Future, in a Theater
WHEELING, W.Va. ? For 72 years this Rust Belt city was widely known for something besides the steel and glass that was its economic foundation. It was home to Jamboree USA, the nation?s second-longest-running live country music show, beamed from WWVA?s powerful 50,000-watt AM radio station primarily to the northeastern United States and Canada.
A photograph from the 1930s at the Jamboree; a new group in Wheeling is working to rebuild the country music showcase.
And for about half of Jamboree?s life, until it was shut down in 2005, the show was broadcast from the Capitol Music Hall here.
While the steel and glass plants are long gone, and Jamboree USA is only a memory, Wheeling officials think all the history wrapped up in the Capitol Music Hall might help get the city?s struggling downtown going again.
?It?s such an important economic driver in downtown,? said Frank O?Brien, executive director of the Wheeling-Ohio County Convention and Visitors Bureau. ?I don?t think we could let it stay closed much longer, and now maybe it can be the start of other efforts.?
The bureau recently paid $615,000 to buy the theater from the concert promoter Live Nation. The 81-year-old, 2,400-seat theater has been closed for nearly two years because of code violations. A coalition of local groups is trying to raise $8 million to restore the Beaux-Arts building, which it sees as the hub of a future entertainment district.
In its heyday, Jamboree USA was rivaled only by the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville. It drew hundreds of thousands of country music fans to Wheeling every year to see not only local acts, but also nationally known stars like Johnny Cash, Merle Haggard and Charley Pride.
?It was an important show in country music for a long time because it had such a wide audience,? said Bill C. Malone, a former Tulane University professor who is considered the dean of country music historians. ?It was just strategically located to have a big Eastern presence.?
But unlike Nashville, Wheeling never tried to ride the coattails of Jamboree USA and become a music-writing and producing hub ? much to its regret now.
Doc Williams, 94, whose band, the Border Riders, was a regular presence at the Jamboree, said: ?We had businessmen in Wheeling who frowned on the Jamboree. They called us ?hillbilly.? ?
?We could have been a smaller Nashville,? Mr. Williams said. ?It could have been an industry that was still running today.?
Not only is the city trying to build on to Jamboree USA?s history, but another fledgling group, calling itself Wheeling Jamboree, is also trying to rebuild the show. Clear Channel, the owner of WWVA, retained the rights to the Jamboree USA name.
Wheeling Jamboree is putting on the shows at the 700-seat Victoria Theater, and making them available both on the Internet and on five regional stations ? though not WWVA, which is now a talk-radio station.
The group?s president, Jeff McCamic, harbors hope of returning to the Capitol, at least for shows that include national acts.
?We don?t have to reinvent the brand,? Mr. McCamic said. ?We?re sort of going back to the newer and younger acts, the way it was in the beginning.?
He added, ?We want to be part of this effort in downtown.?
Like virtually every other city that has lost its industry, Wheeling, with a population of 29,000, has experienced many efforts to rejuvenate its downtown. One, in the early 1970s, would have turned much of downtown into a mall, but voters turned it down; another, five years ago, would have turned it into an outlet mall.
So can an old factory city find the key to revitalizing its downtown?
?I think so,? said Luis Rico-Gutierrez, director of the Remaking Cities Institute at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. ?But it is more a matter of attitudes than a matter of scales or money. They need to understand that culture is as important as steel was.?
Danny Aderholt, the developer who was behind the outlet mall idea, still believes in his adopted hometown, but he is not sure what the answer is anymore.
?What Wheeling still has going for it is a gorgeous riverfront, and it?s right off Interstate 70; it goes right through downtown,? said Mr. Aderholt, whose office is in downtown Wheeling. ?We need to give people a reason to jump off it in Wheeling.
?We know retail is not going to happen here, so, shake the dust off and move on. Can entertainment be the vehicle? I don?t know. I hope so.?