When you’re sick, you call a doctor. When a
hospital is sick, it calls T. Mills Fleming.
Fleming, of HunterMaclean in Savannah,
represents health care systems, but his
subspecialty is helping hospitals get
off life support. “I call them distressed
hospitals,” Fleming says. “Hospitals that
are in very difficult financial, operational,
managerial or governance straits, where,
for whatever reason, if things don’t get
fixed, the hospital is going to go bankrupt
or be closed down, or be subject to merger
or sell off. That’s where I come in.
“And I cut my teeth on the Lucas Theatre.”
The Lucas Theatre opened in 1921, the
era of opulent movie palaces, and was built
by Fleming’s great-grandfather, Arthur
Lucas. For the design, Lucas and architect
C.K. Howell combined Greek revival, art
deco and neoclassical styles.
“He was a big man, a big personality,
“There were allegations money had
with a can-do attitude,” Fleming says. “He
had a deep love for the community, his
family and just everything that he did.”
Despite completing only the third grade,
he also had a head for business. By the time
he died in 1943, he owned 40 theaters across
the Southeast. “Of all the theaters that he
owned and built,” Fleming says of the Lucas,
“it was the only one he put his name on. … If
you had to build the Lucas Theatre today, it
would be a $50 million project, easy.”
The theater closed in 1976, a result of
a population shift to the suburbs. The
last straw for its owners was a deserted
film screening. The movie? “The Exorcist,
believe it or not,” Fleming says, with a
laugh. After a string of unsuccessful
attempts to turn the theater into a
comedy club, the building was slated for
demolition. End credits. Except in 1986 a
group of citizens founded a private group,
Lucas Theatre for the Arts, to save it. Funds
were raised, but then the money dried up.
been misspent, which was not true, but this
thing was an ogre of a project—the dog of
all dog projects—and there was no way it
HOW T. MILLS FLEMING GAVE THE LUCAS A SEQUEL BY AMY KATES
MIDNIGHT IN THE THEATER OF GOOD ACOUSTICS:
A SAVANNAH STORY
was going to survive,” Fleming says.
Someone needed to lead the charge.
“I’d only been in Savannah five years.
People were going, ‘Who is this lawyer
guy? He’s nuts!’” Fleming remembers.
They thought he was even crazier when,
not long after being named the theater’s
board chairman, he cold-called a man
who had hosted a party for the Lucas
earlier that year.
“I call and say, ‘I understand that
you’re upset about the Lucas; let’s have
a conversation.’ He chewed me out for
an hour. And I said, ‘Well, I will make a
promise to you. I promise that I will call you
every week and tell you exactly what we are
doing and have done and will do, and I will
not spend a dollar we don’t have.’”
Within nine months, Fleming and
the board raised $3 million. “And that
gentleman called me up and we went to
lunch and he had an envelope for me,”
he says. “It was a check for half a million
dollars. Why? Because he said I did what I
told him I would do.”
Fast-forward to 1996, when Clint
Eastwood’s Midnight in the Garden of Good
and Evil was filming in Savannah. Fleming
put out feelers to the stars for a tour of the
Lucas, and Kevin Spacey accepted.
“Kevin, in his heart of hearts, is a theater
Today, the Lucas runs a full schedule that
actor,” Fleming says. “We were under
construction at the time Kevin toured, so
he literally crawled through every nook
and cranny. And he got on the stage and
said, ‘I could perform here and not wear a
microphone.’ And I said, ‘So?’ And he said,
‘You don’t understand. The acoustics in
here are perfect. That doesn’t happen.’”
Spacey was impressed to the tune of
a $200,000 donation. Eastwood threw
in $50,000, and the Garden wrap party
was at the Lucas, right in the midst of
renovations, with tickets at $100 a pop to
benefit the cause.
includes concerts, ballets, opera and classic
films, including, recently, To Kill a Mockingbird.
“It’s a community asset, but it’s also
a top-drawer, A-plus, Broadway-level
theater,” Fleming says. “Having this
experience in your community takes you and
puts you on a higher plane. You see what
beauty and art do. It makes life better.”
Fleming’s great grandfather, Arthur Lucas, built the Lucas Theater in 1921.