GOING DARK: Mineral County looking to raze Larenim Amphitheater
BURLINGTON - The Larenim Park Amphitheater stage has been dark for the past four years, and it’s about to go darker.
To “go dark” is theater jargon for there not being any shows presented on a particular stage. The last show to be presented at the rustic amphitheater at Larenim was “The Wedding Singer” in 2017.
Since that time, the theater, which was already feeling the devastating affects of the weather and a lack of funding to address the subsequent deterioration, has sat unattended.
Floor boards are rotting, steps have fallen through, lights left hanging are riddled with rust, and a curtain blocking the audience’s view to the backstage area is flapping in the breeze.
At the bottom of the steps that lead from the parking lot and concession stand down into the theater is a pile of trash which includes a smashed computer and some broken chairs.
The only seemingly still stable portion of the theater is the concrete-tiered seating area and even that in some places has small trees popping up through the seams.
Mineral County Parks and Recreation director Kevin Simon is currently seeking cost estimates to have the structure torn down.
“It needs razed and replaced, not repaired,” he told the News Tribune during a recent visit to the site.
“Pretty much all the wood part, from the concrete back, is beyond repair,” he said.
The Larenim Park Amphitheater has a long history as a Mineral County asset. The community theater group Apple Alley Players held a major fund-raising campaign and had the theater designed and built by A.E. Peterson in the early 1980s. The outdoor theater became home to Apple Alley’s signature historical production “McNeill’s Rangers,” written by Vana Nespor of Petersburg and featuring the music and adaptations by the late Dr. John Hawkins. The history-based musical gained statewide attention and Larenim Park Amphitheater seemed on its way to becoming a viable summer tourist attraction for the area.
Apple Alley would present other musicals there as well over the years, and when the theater would need repairs, the group worked together with the county to see they got done.
Sometimes,however, the needed repair work would get ahead of them. From approximately 2005-2010, the theater went dark for awhile due to unsafe conditions. Thanks to some fund raisers by Apple Alley and matching funds by the county, however, the flooring in the wings and backstage area was replaced and “The Music Man” marked a return to use of the theater in 2010.
At some point the flooring of the main stage was replaced with Trex planks, but Simon said the spacing of the supporting joists was not close enough and now the stage floor is spongy and unsafe to walk on.
The latest repair was in 2016 when Apple Alley, with the help of the Keyser Rotary Club, upgraded the pavilion at the top of the hill where the ticket booth and souvenirs were housed. Apple Alley also purchased a concessions trailer around that time and parked it beside the pavilion. The trailer is still there, but even it has fallen victim to the elements.
According to Apple Alley president Jay Courrier, the cost of keeping the theater up as well as dwindling audiences and multiple rain-outs prompted the theater group to go inside with their productions in 2018 and 2019.
The pandemic, of course, kept the group from mounting a play in 2020.
And while Courrier is also a member of the county Parks and Recreation Committee, he says he was not present at the meeting where the decision was apparently made to tear the theater down.
“We’d talked about trying to fix it up,” he told the News Tribune Friday, adding that he had assumed Apple Alley would “eventually go back out there. I think everybody wants us to go back out there.”
Courrier said he had suggested in a Parks and Rec meeting that they try to get a structural engineer to look at the theater to help determine if it could be safely renovated, but the decision to raze it had apparently been made in his absence.
Simon said the plan to tear down the theater is still very much in the beginning stages because he is just now seeking cost estimates on the work to see if the county commissioners wish to proceed. If those estimates reach a certain threshold, the county will have to put the work out for bids.
Calling the condition of the theater an embarrassment to the county, Simon said, “I don’t think there’s anything we can salvage.”
He feels having a theater at Larenim is a great asset to Mineral County, however, and hopes to eventually be able to rebuild a similar facility and attract other groups in addition to Apple Alley to utilize it for programs.
In the meantime, “we could even bring a temporary stage in,” he said.
Of course, everything depends on any available money.
“With the county, it all comes down to funding,” Simon said, adding that there could be some grants that would be available for the construction of a new theater. But even that can be difficult.
“People think grants are just floating around out there and all you have to do is go grab one,” he said. “It’s not easy.
“I just hate seeing the theater in this shape though,” he said.
Mineral County Commissioner Richard Lechliter told the News Tribune he also hopes a new facility can be built at the park.
“We’d really like to have another amphitheater out there,” he said. “There’s such great potential.”
According to Lechliter, county officials have already had preliminary talks with representatives of the West Virginia Department of Arts, Culture and History about that potential.
Courrier said he is also hoping to see programs back out at Larenim, noting that his entire family has been involved in many productions there.
“It’s certainly disappointing,” he said of the decision to tear the amphitheater down. “My kids are anxious to get back out there.”