Jamey Hewitt approached an iPad attached to a wall, gave it a couple of taps and a movie screen — something not seen in McComb in years — descended from the curtains hanging high above the stage of the Palace Theater.
A projector mounted on the balcony ceiling switched on and played some stock footage of lush mountain scenery, the earth as seen from orbit and drone footage of an endless cityscape of skyscrapers.
More screensaver than feature film, the sight was still breathtaking, especially considering how the theater looked just months ago, when scaffolding, scissor lifts and sawdust filled its expansive hall.
When Hewitt and Jason Van acquired the theater in 2013, their dreams of turning it into the building that it has become faced long odds. After all, the previously condemned building was only left standing because former owners thought the $20,000 quote to demolish it was too much.
Now the theater is closer to becoming a polished finished project, with a three-tiered terraced floor, 50 tons of HVAC, a new roof, 30-foot steel beams added along the walls for support, a new stage, professional stage lighting and sound installed, and new bathrooms and a bar taking shape.
Walking into the entrance from Main Street through three new glass doors, visitors immediately see signs of life being breathed back into The Palace’s former art deco glory. The original “P” logo in the tiled entryway remains. Just beyond it is a wall with an elaborate geometric design that continues when pocket doors leading into the theater are closed. The original staircases on either side that lead up to the balcony have been sanded and refinished.
Structurally, it’s gone from rickety to rock solid.
Now Hewitt sees it as the “shot in the arm” that could be transformative for downtown McComb.
“We thought that we were fixing up just this old building. This is about to be way more for downtown McComb and all of Southwest Mississippi,” he said.
From humble beginnings to an empire
The Palace got its start as a livery stable in the 1880s, when McComb was a fledgling railroad city.
Brothers Najeeb and Haleem Solomon, whose family immigrated from present-day Lebanon and made their way to Mississippi from New Orleans, opened a dry goods store in the building before converting half of it into a theater called The Strand.
“They came over with the shirt on their back,” Hewitt said. “What a story of the American dream.”
The expanded Palace followed in 1939. It was one of several downtown movie houses in McComb in operation for decades before closing and falling into disrepair.
The Palace was the birthplace of the Solomon family’s eventual theater empire. Najeeb’s son, the late T.G. “Teddy” Solomon, went on to establish Gulf States Theaters, which had locations from Oklahoma to Florida. A few years ago the Solomons financed the construction of the National World War II Museum’s theater, which was dedicated to Teddy Solomon when it opened in New Orleans.
“The love for the business happened right there in that theater for my dad,” said Teddy’s son Gary Solomon. “At least for the Solomon family business, that building did keep everything alive.”
More than sentimental value
Gary, the fifth of six children, moved with his family when he was in the eighth grade in 1969 to New Orleans because his father was about to take his business public and all of his advisers said he needed a more recognizable address than McComb in order to attract investors. But the family always kept McComb close to their hearts.
“They moved away 50 years ago, over 50, but they still consider this home,” Van said.
Solomon, a venture capitalist with many businesses and developments under his belt, got word from his childhood friend Jim Alford that Van and Hewitt had purchased the building and were breaking their backs and their budget trying to revive it. He decided to help out.
“I can go back to the day I came here and met these two guys,” Solomon said. “First and foremost, it was more nostalgic for me. Very quickly it all shifted from what was important to the legacy of the Solomon family to what’s important for downtown.”
The involvement of Solomon, his son and siblings — from finances to business and technical advice — fast tracked a lot of the developments taking place inside the theater. But Solomon gives credit to Hewitt and Van for having the vision to make the Palace into something special.
The two have spent a lot of time and energy working on The Palace for the better part of the last decade while running their own businesses.
Hewitt, who owns Clear Creek Cabinetry, oversaw a lot of the carpentry and woodwork inside the building. Van, whose family business is City Paint & Glass, has significantly contributed to the overhaul from roof to the foundation. Contractor Frank Parsons has done the lion’s share of the renovations.
“Without Jamey’s and Jason’s vision, I don’t know that I would have come back here,” Solomon said. “If it hadn’t been for these two guys it wouldn’t be standing.”
Hewitt and Van see Solomon’s involvement as equally crucial to The Palace’s renovation and its future operations.
“Gary has definitely been the key to all of this, but one thing that was important from Gary is that the community is behind this,” Hewitt said.
Bringing in the pros
A significant share of the help is coming from The Solomon Group, a company run by Gary Solomon Jr. that does lighting, sound and effects for major events for the NFL, NBA, as well as New Orleans’ Essence Festival and the Mississippi Arts + Entertainment Experience in Meridian.
“They understand lighting and sound and so they were natural to do this,” Gary Solomon said of his son’s business.
Flight cases with the company’s logo stenciled on the side are seen throughout The Palace, and the Solomon Group will soon train Hewitt and Van how to make theatrical magic through sound, lighting and effects.
They also plan to “tune” the building to optimize its acoustics.
A foundation for the future
As for the business of running the reincarnated Palace Theater, Hewitt, a musician, would like to host as many concerts there as possible.
“Our main goal is to bring live entertainment into downtown McComb. That was our main thing. This was like Hal & Mal’s or the Varsity Club, Hard Rock Cafe, Tipitina’s,” he said referring to popular music venues in Jackson, Baton Rouge and New Orleans.
Solomon suggested holding weddings and events inside the building as well. “This is going to pay the bills,” Hewitt said.
Leslee Brock, an accountant who recently retired from teaching business courses at Southwest Mississippi Community College, has been hired as the business manager.
The building will be owned by the nonprofit Palace Theater Foundation.
“The foundation will sustain the building and keep it in perpetuity,” Solomon said, adding that Hewitt and Van will be the initial tenants. “They’re going to run it as a business and The Palace Theater Foundation will make sure the asset is preserved for the future.”
Hewitt, Van, Alford and Pike National Bank President Jennifer Wallace will serve on the foundation’s board of directors.
The foundation is trying to raise about $300,000 to $400,000 to completely finish the work.
“I would say it’s always going to be a project in motion,” Hewitt said.
In the meantime, crews are racing to get the theater ready for its first official event, a wedding scheduled for Oct. 16.
“We’ll start booking events in December,” Solomon said.
Like Hewitt and Van, Solomon believes the remade Palace could mean more positive developments for downtown McComb, and he’s open to being a part of those, too.
“I’m sure this won’t be my first rodeo downtown,” he said.