Among the first theaters to fascinate Justin Wells was the Rohs Opera House. This was long before the Americana/country/rock stylist called Lexington home. It also preceded the kind of touring activity that took him to halls and clubs around the country. When he was growing up in Cynthiana, the Rohs served a simpler role: It was part of Wells’ youth.
“I started dating my now-wife when she was 14 and I was 15,” he said. “I’m serious. I think our first 50 dates were going to movies at this Opera House. So in the spirit of that, I proposed to her using their marquee a few years ago.”
In early April, the Rohs suffered considerable wall, floor and roof damage from a storm. Wells wasted no time in offering assistance.
“I was actually at my parents’ house at the time the storm hit,” Wells said. “They live on the Georgetown side of Cynthiana. When I saw the news and learned how the theater had been damaged, I immediately got a hold of the chamber of commerce to get the number for one of the owners. We started getting the ball rolling on the day the storm happened, not knowing what insurance was going to cover. We wanted to soften whatever blow they were taking.”
On Saturday, Wells and his band will perform a benefit concert to help offset the repair costs. Keyboardist, solo artist and Wells band member Ryan Allen will open the show. Wells performed at the Rohs once in 2008 with his former band, Fifth on the Floor. But he has never played there on his own.
“I’ve been seeing the sales, and we’ve got folks coming in from seven states,” Wells said. “Folks are even traveling from Canada for this thing. I’m as excited about that, about having these people come to my little town, as anything. Most of them are just fans of my music that don’t know a thing about Cynthiana. To me, that’s wonderful.”
The Rohs (pronounced “Ross”) was built in 1871. Its considerable history includes a storied but supposed standing as the third most haunted building in Kentucky. That distinction led to a featured 2011 segment on the building for the Biography/Lifetime Movie Network series “My Ghost Story.”
Cynthiana native Robert Kirkman, creator of “The Walking Dead,” also has proved a high-profile pal of the Rohs. When the opera house had to stop showing films in 2014 after it became unable to present newly released digital films, Kirkman and his wife stepped in and donated the money needed to buy a digital projector, a new sound system and a retractable screen.
But Wells’ reasons for helping the Rohs exceed simple hometown ties or even personal nostalgia. He hopes to emphasize the importance that arts centers have in the cultural development and sustainability of smaller communities.
“This is something that’s been going on a lot longer than I’ve been alive,” he said. “As cities grow, some of these smaller towns shrink. I’m not trying to make this into some large political thing, but as jobs move away, the first things that get cut, as we all well know, are entertainment and the arts. They’ll have a McDonald’s and a Walmart everywhere, but heaven forbid we keep a theater open.
“I would be happy to do something like this even if there hadn’t been storm damage. The Rohs has gone from putting on films to doing plays and other live performances. I can’t imagine this is a great threat to any economic side.
“It’s something vital for the arts of a small town, and I feel pretty strongly about that.”