When Trustus Theater was just beginning in 1984, Marvin Chernoff, then the head of the Chernoff Silver public relations firm, decided to help out.
He wasn’t much of a theater buff, but loved the little venue and the people who ran it, Jim and Kay Thigpen. So he often would buy all 50 bleacher seats in the tiny theater - which was then renting space at a punk rock club called The Beat on Assembly Street - and hand them out to friends.
When the theater was ready to move to its present location on Lady Street near Huger Street in the Vista - then a nearly deserted warehouse district - Chernoff also stepped in to help.
“He brought Kay and Jim down here and said, ‘That’s what you want,’” said Trustus managing director Larry Hembree. “Then he signed for the loan.”
On Wednesday, the theater held its first fundraiser for a new space in the theater. The concession and box office area will be reconfigured into a cabaret and piano bar named Marv’s in Chernoff’s honor.
“I love it,” Chernoff said. “What a great legacy.”
But it is somewhat of an irony that a bar would be named after Chernoff, a life-long teetotaler.
“The reason people go to bars is to be sociable,” said Chernoff, a prolific dinner host who would rather conduct business over lunch than in a board room. “What I love about this bar is it will bring people together in an artistic environment.”
Marv’s will serve as both a performance space for small musicals and individual talents, and as a late-night gathering place, Hembree said. It will be open before and after Trustus productions and on evenings when the theater is not being used for rehearsals.
Hembree hopes that it will also be a gathering place for patrons and performers from other venues in Columbia’s vibrant theater scene.
“When the Koger Center lets out, I hope (patrons) can come here and enjoy the rest of the evening in an arts environment,” he said. “It’s for like-minded people who really like the arts.”
Tim McLendon Design is designing the new space. James McGrew Cabinetmakers is in charge of construction.
The space will have a piano, sound system and an art gallery area as well as a bar that will serve beer, wine and other concessions.
“We’ve already started the fund-raising process,” said Hembree, adding that his goal is to get the venue operating as soon as possible. “This is the perfect way to celebrate Trustus’ 30th anniversary season, which begins in September.”
Chernoff, who is battling stage IV throat cancer, said he would like to have a quick turnaround on the space, as well.
“I hope it’s not a memorial,” he joked.
Chernoff published a memoir early this year called “Unlikely Success: How a Guy Without a Clue Built One Hell of a Business.” It is available at amazon.com and at www.unlikelysuccess.com
He said finishing the book and receiving honors, such as the city of Columbia proclaiming March 4 Marvin Chernoff Day, have been a blessing.
“Both events made me think about what’s important in my life and what I want to leave behind,” he said.
Among other perks, donors to the new piano bar will have their signatures etched on a plaque that will be displayed in the venue. The plaque will read, “It’s Happening Now!” -- a slogan Marvin suggested for the city in 1998. The idea was turned down by City Council in favor of “Where Friendliness Flows,” conceived at a high price by an out-of-state consultant. It was eventually replaced by “Famously Hot.”
“I guess they can’t reject it this time,” Chernoff said.
Hembree noted that the cabaret bar is not the first tribute Trustus has offered to Chernoff. It has given an annual Marvin Chernoff Award for 25 years to the outstanding volunteer of the year.
“He has embraced the community in so many different ways,” Hembree said. “He’s the generation that made this (arts) culture happen so people like me can have a job.”