When Emma Corfield stepped back into the old Clay Theatre, she no longer recognized it.
The place where her parents held her third grade birthday party looked nothing like the movie goer’s paradise it once was.
The floor was ripped out, the seats torn out from their holdings. The upstairs section was nearly gone.
This was where Corfield wanted her wedding ceremony.
“I mean, it looked awful,” Corfield said. “But I really, really trusted them. And they did a really good job of sharing the vision with my mom and I.”
In April of 2019 – more than eight months after she walked into the facility in disarray - Emma and Ty Corfield became the first couple married at the historic Clay Theatre.
“The theatre was just like everything we could have imagined,” Emma Corfield said. “It was perfect.”
Local residents flocked to the Clay Theatre regularly in the 20th century. The upstairs section was for African Americans only, with a side entrance only accessible from the outside. Later on, the upstairs was closed as seating was reduced.
A lack of modernization and the opening of newer mega-cinemas in the area led to a dwindling fan base at the turn of the century. Throughout the 2000s, various owners attempted to bring the theatre back to its former glory, but nothing tried was sustainable.
“In this modern time with all the streaming services and all the other different competition for a family’s money and time, it’s difficult to take a family to the theatre,” said Green Cove Springs Mayor Steven Kelley. “We have a family of five to take out there. You’re spending nearly 100 bucks to go watch a movie.”
The venue remained largely dormant the past decade.
Daniel and Andrea Vallencourt purchased the theatre in 2017, soon after they had gotten married themselves. They wanted to create an event facility that maintained the character of a building from the 1930s.
“We’re unique,” Daniel Vallencourt said. “There’s never going to be another 80-year-old movie theatre in town that you can have your wedding at. So the history of it is what makes it important.”
After the purchase, the couple spent a hefty amount of time and money making repairs to the theatre.
“Once we started getting into the bones of it and pulling off the first layer of it, we did see a lot of things that just had to be changed and weren’t safe,” Daniel Vallencourt said. “The way the upstairs was constructed was very unsafe. If you were to step in the wrong spot, you could have fallen through the ceiling.”
Apart from the indoor renovations, the couple needed to make outdoor improvements. They decided to keep the outside looking largely the same, with a few minor fixes made.
They also decided to stick with the name.
“We’ve had people say ‘I married my husband 56 years ago and our first date was at the Clay Theatre’”, Vallencourt said. “We couldn’t change the name. Our brand is the Clay Theatre, and the history behind it.”
When they announced that the theatre wouldn’t be used for movies anymore, some local residents criticized the change.
Others believed changes were imminent.
“The reality is that it was tough to compete with the digital screens and the IMAX and those kinds of things,” said Green Cove Springs Vice-Mayor Van Royal. “It just wasn’t set up for that.”
City officials see the theatre as the initial starting point for the small city’s growth.
“There was certainly a lull and a bit of a struggle to find our way,” Royal said. “We knew that growth was going to come but we couldn’t seem to get that spark. And that theatre has been a huge spark for our entire community.”
Daniel Vallencourt said the theatre is already bringing in people who had no prior knowledge of Green Cove Springs.
“We have a bride in July that lives in Miami,” Vallencourt said. “We have a bride that lives in Austin, Texas. So what’s happening is you have people who aren’t just passing through Green Cove anymore - who otherwise would. They’re coming to Green Cove and seeing the Spring Park.”
And with extra eyes comes extra business.
“That draw of the theatre, I mean, it’s going to bring in 180 people and possibly their families and other vendors and things like that,” Kelley said. “It’ll really expose them to the changes and everything that is happening in Green Cove Springs.”
By the theatre’s grand opening on April 18, the venue had already booked 55 weddings.
“To start with that, that was probably five times more than I even could’ve hoped for,” Daniel Vallencourt said. “That was really, really awesome.”
Patti Millican, who is Emma’s mom, worked as a school teacher in Clay County for 26 years. For field trips, the students would go to the Clay Theatre and she would enjoy a day at the movies with the kids.
She also held Emma’s third grade birthday party at the theatre. Earlier this year, she watched her daughter become the first bride married at the Clay Theatre.
“To me, it was just the connection to the community,” Millican said. “You know, choosing something that she was connected to that had been a part of her childhood…it wasn’t just a pretty place to get married.”
After being married in the place that Emma and her fiancé went on movie dates, the newlyweds went to Spring Park across the street to take pictures at the spot where they took their prom pictures in high school.
“It was like a fairy tale,” Millican said.