No Ceilings at the Crossroads
By Julian Rankin
Photography by Rory Doyle
Clarksdale’s New Roxy Theater, one of the region’s most unique music venues, is constructed of the Delta’s rich and colorful past.
Every inch of the New Roxy’s Issaquena Avenue thoroughfare – once known as Clarksdale’s Beale Street – has a story: W.C. Handy and his visiting orchestra who came here in the early 19-aughts; the breeding ground for innovative Delta blues; the percussion of barroom dance floors as sharecroppers let loose in the Saturday night shadows; and the sounds of local prodigy Ike Turner playing talent shows in the streets in the 1940s before rocketing to stardom. When Robin Colonas – a Seattle expat – purchased the vacant New Roxy structure in 2008, this history swirled in her head. It was the same music and authentic culture that brought her to Mississippi in the first place and inspired her to resurrect the New Roxy. “I came to Clarksdale as a blues tourist,” Colonas says. “And I kept coming back.”
In 1999, Bill Clinton stopped through Clarksdale on a tour of some of the country’s most impoverished areas. He posed for photographs in front of the New Roxy, then little more than a solemn shell. Clarksdale and the surrounding Delta are still economically depressed. The majority African American region is hindered by inequality and dwindling opportunity. But in the heyday of the New Roxy and the other businesses that comprised downtown Clarksdale’s New World District, hardworking cotton laborers and thrill-seekers flocked to the bordellos, bars, restaurants and jukes. Businesses owned by black and white and Jewish and Italian and Chinese and Lebanese provided distraction and escape from the toils of the plantation. Musicians sent wailing notes up and down the avenue.
The New Roxy Theater was opened around 1950 by Lebanese couple A.N. Rossie Sr. and his wife Sadie as an addition to their existing Roxy movie house. The original Roxy burned in the 1970s. After the fire, the New Roxy atrophied and closed. Clarksdale visual artist Michael Mabry recalls the bustle of those good years. “Clubs on this side. Clubs over here. Everybody running from one store to the next. All day long. It was fun. You’ve got a theater and your girlfriend on your arm.” Mabry wishes Clarksdale’s younger generations could have seen it. “Kids today aren’t having the fun we had.”
When the businesses closed, the structures decayed. Colonas purchased the New Roxy so it might avoid a dust-to-dust fate. “If I at least possess the property so it doesn’t fall down, I’ll figure out how to make it work,” Colonas thought. She’s been making it work for nearly a decade now.
Roger Stolle owns Clarksdale’s Cat Head Delta Blues and Folk Art, just a few blocks away from the New Roxy on Delta Avenue. He was one of Colonas’ early supporters. A self-described suburban white guy from Ohio, Stolle left a career in corporate advertising for a life as a Mississippi Delta shopkeeper, blues promoter and cultural champion. He landed in Clarksdale in 2002, opened Cat Head, and co-founded the Juke Joint Festival. Like Colonas, he came to find the blues ground zero.
“The beautiful thing about the 'Clarksdale comeback' is that fresh outside ideas are mixing with living local history to create something that is both new and old — the best of both worlds,” says Stolle. “I usually tell visiting tourists that Clarksdale already had more Delta 'characters' than any other town, and then characters from as far away as Seattle and Florida, The Netherlands and Australia, started moving here. I may have visited here for the blues, but I stayed for the people.”
The New Roxy won’t ever be that movie theater of the '60s and '70s with a steady lineup of Westerns and Blaxploitation flicks. It has been renovated for a new era, not arbitrarily restored as carbon copy of the original. The new paradigm of the New Roxy is one of possibility and diversification. Colonas intends it as a mixed-use venue for music and film, dance and food, as well as a setting for weddings, private events and festivals. There is little danger of Colonas getting rich off the endeavor; gentrification is about as likely now as it was when the Delta was but wilderness and panther. Colonas’ business model is to simply keep the New Roxy viable so that it might help sustain Clarksdale. “I wanted to space to be utilized by and present in the community again,” she says.
When the New Roxy found Colonas, it was a concrete slab, a darkened marquee and four brick walls with pockmarked plaster. The roof was hanging by a nail – it had to go. It stayed gone. What began as a budget consideration became part of the building’s new identity. Out-of-town patrons who come in at night don’t notice right away that the heavens are peering in. What was the main auditorium of the movie theater is completely exposed to the elements, a gamble on any given night. But then again, resurrection is always a crap shoot.
The footprint of the New Roxy is roughly 100 feet deep. Forty feet wide. Thirty feet tall. The capacity inside is 422 (not counting the ones who linger and visit out front). Visitors enter through what would have been the old movie theater lobby, which has been enclosed as a bar and lounge area. This interior structure-within-a-structure is three stories high, stacked up like a blues traveler’s observation deck. There’s no A/C. The interior windows open to and look down on the dance floor. The main stage, canopied, sits at the opposite end. The bathrooms are outside in a reclaimed shipping container. All in all, it’s a straightforward anatomy. “I didn’t try to make it look new,” says Colonas. “It’s a balance of functionality and economic usability, with a raw gritty edge.”
The New Roxy will never be finished. Its complete-incompleteness reflects a Delta truth; compelling because it is rough-hewn, self-taught, humble, real. If you’re planning a visit, take note of the mild months before and after the dog days when festivals kick off and the New Roxy beefs up its schedule. It’s a central venue for the Juke Joint Festival, as it is with the lesser-known but equally memorable Goat Fest (the motto of which is “Sin, Repent, Repeat”).
The list of performers who have graced the stage reads like a roster of genre-crossing cool: blues veterans like Robert “Bilbo” Walker, L.C. Ulmer, and Mark “Porkchop” Holder; acts from states away like The Rev. Peyton’s Big Damn Band hailing from Indiana and Alex “Crankshaft” Larson from Minnesota; and young and vibrant Mississippi musicians for whom a New Roxy gig is validation of their creative energies. That list doesn’t even touch on the many photographers, filmmakers, and visual artists who continue to make the space their own throughout the year.
“The New Roxy is quite possibly the coolest music venue in the South,” says Roger Stolle. “The mix of history, atmosphere, sound and feel are really unparalleled. Owner Robin Colonas' 'alternative renovation' is exactly the kind of thinking that today's Clarksdale needs.”
Big-bulbed Christmas lights flicker in red and blue and orange like slow-burning coals, strung up along the corrugated tin of the stage façade. The band plugs in. The lead man taps his boot and unleashes his song into the crowd and past them, up through the open roof and into the night. Dancers of every sort and stature grind and sway en masse. Their movement awakens the building and it breathes again. The dancers retrace the paces that Colonas and the demolition crew took those years before to clear the place of detritus. Hauling out fallen brick and discarded wood. Securing beams and installing the requisite bar and, finally, sweeping the floors and opening the doors. On a humid Delta night, sweat beads up on the faces of the crowd and falls from the forehead of the bluesman, hammering away at his guitar. It’s taken a lot of perspiration to get here, Colonas testifies. “It’s been a physical labor of love.”
Clarksdale visual artist Michael Mabry recalls the bustle of those good years. “Clubs on this side. Clubs over here. Everybody running from one store to the next. All day long. It was fun. You’ve got a theater and your girlfriend on your arm.” Mabry wishes Clarksdale’s younger generations could have seen it. “Kids today aren’t having the fun we had.”