Heather Stanley, Managing Director of the Rylander Theatre, provided the program at the November 12 meeting of the Americus Rotary Club. Her program focused on preservation and programming and she used the opportunity to thank the club for its involvement in the history of the beautiful landmark that has become a hub of the cultural arts scene, as well as economic development, in downtown Americus. Nestled in historic downtown Americus, just blocks from the Windsor Hotel, the Rylander offers live performances, organ concerts, movies and numerous special events throughout the year. The theater recently hosted the Georgia Theater Conference with nearly 2,600 in attendance over a three-day period, producing a huge economic impact on the City of Americus during the event.
The historic Rylander Theater was originally conceived of as a joint city-civic group project with the city coordinating the financing with the Chamber of Commerce and the Americus Rotary Club. Arthur Rylander, Mayor John E. Sheppard and city council members William E. Taylor and Charles M. Burke led early planning of the project during the first half of 1919. On July 13, 1919, Walter Rylander, son of Arthur Rylander, announced he would capitalized $60,000 for the theater. Designed by C.K. Howell of New York, the Rylander was (and is!) a visual feast of ornate plaster designs, stencils, and painted murals. Actual construction required a massive year and a half effort overseen by Evan Mathis on Walter Rylander's behalf.In addition to building the Rylander Theater, Walter Rylander was also president of the Rotary Club of Americus during Rotary year 1923-1924, and his son, also named Walter Rylander, followed in his footsteps by serving as Rotary Club president during Rotary year 1949-1950.
The Rylander Theater's first grand opening was on Jan. 21, 1921, with the national touring company of the hit play "Lightnin'".Movies debuted Feb. 14, 1921 with Mary Pickford's "The Love Light" and Harold Lloyd's "Get Out And Get Under" on a twin bill.R.E. Martin then bought the Rylander in Apr. 1932 to add to his movie theater empire and began extensive renovations in June of that year with a second grand opening in July.The theater's namesake, Walter Rylander, severed his financial connection when he sold out to the Americus Grocery Co. on Sept. 19, 1934. Unfortunately, the arrival of on the new (and larger) Martin Theater on Forsyth on Mar. 15, 1942, and the opening of the Sunset Drive-In Theater near the southwest corner of U.S. 19 and 280 in April 1950, brought about the closure of the Rylander in 1951.
Closed for over nearly 50 years, the Rylander Theatre was painstakingly restored in the Art Deco style of design and reopened October 1, 1999 in conjunction with the Celebration of President Carter's 75th birthday (the Jimmy Carter Auditorium is named in his honor). In a second inaugural on October 31, 1999, the Rylander’s “Frank Sheffield Memorial” organ— a 1928 Moller (one of only three in the entire state) – was dedicated. Americus native Anne Sheffield Hale (Frank’s daughter) and her husband Bradley Hale (parents of Sheffield Hale, President and CEO of the Atlanta History Center) provided funding for the restoration of the organ.
The Sheffield name should be no stranger to Rotarians throughout District 6900. Frank Sheffield (for whom the Rylander’s Moller is named) is the brother of John West Sheffield, the first of three Sheffields from the Americus Rotary Club to serve as Rotary District Governor. The Sheffield Leadership Award, established in 1994, is presented by the Rotary Club of Americus in honor of three Past District Governors – all from the same family and the Americus Rotary Club. It honors John West Sheffield (District 39, 1926-27), John W. Sheffield (District 690, 1961-62), and Langdon Sheffield (District 6900, 1975-76), who have each served this Rotary District as District Governors. The award is presented annually to the District 6900 club presidents (from each of the club size categories) who best exemplify the extraordinary leadership traits represented by the Sheffield family and execute their responsibilities in an exceptional manner.