By John Schaffner

In the late 1930s, young R. Charles Loudermilk sold Coca-Cola for 5 cents a bottle to raise enough money to go to the Saturday matinee at what was then the Buckhead Theater at 3110 Roswell Road. Coincidentally, admission to the movies was 5 cents.

Today, Charlie, as he is affectionately known in Buckhead and Atlanta business, civic and social circles, is investing $6 million in that theater — now known as the Roxy — to turn it into a showcase multipurpose entertainment and meeting venue for the Buckhead he loves. It is expected to reopen in 2010.

The 81-year-old founder and chairman of Buckhead-based Aaron Rents has owned the theater building for about a year and owns the parking lot that stretches from the theater north to Irby Street.

“George Rohrig and I bought this block, and he had no interest in the theater,” Loudermilk said. “He is not from around here.”

Loudermilk swapped Rohrig the half of the block closest to Peachtree and West Paces Ferry roads for the half further up Roswell Road where the theater is located.

“I always wanted this block,” he said. “It means something to me.”

He had his 80th birthday party last year with dinner at the Atlanta History Center before a concert at the Roxy by the Charlie Daniels Band. “It was great.”

But Loudermilk’s feelings about the block go back seven decades. He recalled that when he was about 10 years old, “on Saturday afternoon we would come here. They had a candy counter near the entranceway where you could buy Milk Duds for a nickel and you could buy a Coke for a nickel. We would come in here and have a good time. It would be boys and girls. We came by ourselves.”

Blue-collar roots

He lived in a blue-collar neighborhood off Howell Mill Road north of the Atlanta Waterworks. He took the streetcar from Howell Mill Road to Buckhead to go to the movies. “I would ride the streetcar to town and come back out,” he said. “Sometimes I could catch a ride to Peachtree at Peachtree Creek. A guy in my neighborhood owned a grocery store over there.” He would catch a ride in the morning with the grocer and take a streetcar up to the theater.

“We didn’t have a car in my family. It wasn’t easy, particularly when we practiced football at North Fulton High School,” now the Atlanta International School, he said. “It would be late, and I would walk up to Peachtree, catch the streetcar, go into town and then back up to Howell Mill Road.”

Loudermilk’s dad was a lineman with Georgia Power. “He had a fourth-grade education and could barely read or write. But he was a fine, upstanding man.

“My mother is the one who was really a saint. She was the hardest-working person I’ve ever known. Her goal in life was to have me and my brother, who was four years older, go to college and make something of ourselves — not particularly dollars, but just upstanding citizens. She died at 96 in 1996 a very happy woman because she had accomplished her goal.”

Loudermilk’s brother ended up as a senior officer in the Naval Reserve. He was a pilot and died in an air crash near Pensacola, Fla., where he lived.

A week before she died, his mother said to him, “Charlie, are you sure you are not going broke?”

“I could not tell her the success that I had had in the business world. She would not believe any of that,” Loudermilk said.

Starting with Coke

But he had indeed been successful in the business world and as a civic leader. His is a rags-to-riches story that started out selling Cokes to make enough money to go to the movies.

“My uncle had a dry-cleaning plant right across the street (from the theater). His son and I had a little Coca-Cola stand over there. A case of 24 Coca-Colas cost 80 cents. You could sell them for a nickel apiece, and it would be $1.20. That’s how we got the money to get to the theater.” At that time his mother would come on Saturdays and help his uncle in the dry-cleaning plant.

“One of the interesting things was that the clothes we wore were what the rich people left in the dry-cleaning place.” His mother was allowed to go through everything that was a year old on the racks and take it for the family.

He used to play at the park near his home on White Street. One day he went to his house to ask his mother for a nickel to buy a soft drink. His mother said, “Charlie, right now we don’t have an extra nickel.” Loudermilk said, “That really made an impression on me. I said, ‘I am not going to be in this position the rest of my life.’ That gave me a little inspiration.”

He went to Georgia Tech for a year, the Navy for a year and then to the University of North Carolina. He has supported Carolina to the tune of $10 million and has a building on campus named after him.

300 chairs

After college, he went with Phizer Pharmaceuticals and lived in Greensboro, N.C. The son-in-law of the lady he was rooming with had a little company that rented tables and chairs and some wheelchairs.

“When I came back to Atlanta, I started thinking about the rental business. I thought that I would start renting tables and chairs,” he said. “The first order came in for 300 chairs. We didn’t have anything. We had zero.”

He got $1,000 — $500 of his money and $500 from a friend and partner. “I bought 300 metal Army surplus chairs, green, rented an old stake-body truck, and we delivered them and rented them for 10 cents a day per chair.”

His partner said he didn’t like the rental business, “which meant I had to get up another $500, which back then was about $5,000 today.”

That is how Aaron Rents got started. “My first slogan was ‘Aaron Rents almost everything.’ If somebody wanted a rollaway bed, I would run out to Sears and buy one and rent it. I had no idea what to charge for it,” he said. “We ended up with about 300 rollaway beds, 20,000 chairs. Now we have 1,700 stores,” and the business does more than $1 billion a year.

“We are in the real estate business pretty good,” Loudermilk said. “It has been a lot of fun. It is like birthing a child, growing the child and watching its success.”

Reimagined Roxy

Renovations of the theater building have been under way for a few months. Demolition of some of the building is the first order of business.

Loudermilk said the theater’s façade is going to be kept as it is, except for some repair work and new paint. “The marquee will be the same at the bottom, but upright we hope to have a video display,” he said.

“We are going to lower the floor of the theater in front of the stage and have it like an orchestra pit, where there will be tables and chairs or just chairs.”

Before the remodeling, the theater would seat 1,100, he said. “We will end up with (space for) about 1,000 standing. But it is going to be multipurpose. There will be about 300 seats on the main level behind the lowered orchestra pit area. So if you only have 300, it looks like it is full. If I put seats all the way, it would be about 500. But if you only had 200 to 300, it would look like it was half-empty.”

Loudermilk sees having corporate events at the venue. “We will have movies like we used to have. Of course, the big things are the live shows,” he said. Last year, the Roxy had more than 70 events. “There is a big demand for it.”

He said the lobby area will pretty much stay the same. The stores on either side of the lobby will be open. “I am seeing if they want to have bars or restaurants in there.”

The top floor on the street side is a big area, 7,500 square feet. “We are going to have meeting rooms up there for community use. We are going to build what you call the green room on the outside for the performers “to meet people and with dressing rooms and showers.” There was a plan to have a hotel on the parking lot property, but the credit crunch may have delayed that plan.

He and his son Robin, who is CEO of Aaron Rents and president of the Buckhead Alliance, own considerable property along Peachtree north from Paces Ferry and also along East Paces Ferry. He owns real estate elsewhere in the Atlanta area, but he said, “Buckhead is it. The Roxy Theater is my current project. I think about it a lot, about what I am going to do in there.

“I just love Buckhead. We can do so much. We have just scratched the surface.”