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Comedic congregation: Burned by housing crash, builders flip historic church to comedy club, tavern

BUFORD - Three years ago, the old Presbyterian church on Buford's Main Street was a stiff wind from collapse. Its stage had been chainsawed off, the brick leaned, the walls screamed a repugnant yellow and the roof was a moonscape of disrepair.

Then along came Richard McMahan and Cheryl Bowlin.

The married co-owners of McLin Construction have flipped century-old cottages, covered bridges and log cabins in their building careers, but their bread-and-butter was upscale new homes from Alpharetta to Winder.

With the residential building industry in shambles, the couple - like so many other working Americans - had to step outside their comfort zone and adapt to other endeavors. They hung their hopes on the creaky downtown stalwart, aiming at consumers' funny bones.

Opened in late April, the Buford Variety Theater juxtaposes stained glass with side-splitting punchlines.

A comedy club, the couple says, addresses a niche long unfilled in Gwinnett and should help bolster downtown Buford as an entertainment destination. The venue will also host a murder mystery dinner and musical acts in coming months.

"I really think that being entertained and laughing now is something people need," Bowlin says. "This hasn't been a well-used part of town. We're trying to be the anchor for the four-star restaurants down the street."

The restorers' enthusiasm is welcome.

"(The theater) kind of gives us that missing piece that we need," says Brent Rippy, vice president of the Buford Business Alliance. "We have the (art galleries) but we needed some live arts ... It helps put us on the map."

The circa-1920 church has survived various incarnations - a metal shop, a supply store, a fine dress shop and a Pentecostal church. "It's had a checkered life," deadpans Bowlin.

The "show room" theme is old-world Tuscan with a hint of Morocco. A renovated balcony affords patrons a bird's-eye-view, while the sloping ceiling - a huge expanse of polished rich pine - is doted with professional stage lights.

Downstairs is a different story.

Uncle Pearle's Tavern plays host to the quaint, bricky charm of a Dublin corner pub. The men's room is the church's old coal shoot. Tables are propped by salvaged barrels and Russian tea room bases. The bar itself is two antique doors, flipped lengthwise and fused with dark, lacquered wood.

The couple won't divulge how much they've poured into the building. "Big bucks," hints a tight-lipped McMahan.

General admission to the comedy club is $15, which includes a slate of three different comedians. Pub grub, bottled beers and other libations are available for order. Between the theater and the tavern, the venue fits 217, a number McMahan hopes to meet on weekends once word spreads.

The talent, he says, is on par with any club in metro Atlanta. Many are Comedy Central vets or - in the case of Jerry Farber, performing on the 4th of July - Atlanta legends looking to stoke the old flame.

Joe Satterfield, of TS Talent agency, said performers have been complimentary of the theater. The pin-drop acoustics are good for driving punchlines home, he said.

"They really like the room," Satterfield says. "It has a big-theater feel, yet it's small and intimate."

An added bonus: patrons get to hobnob with comedians in the tavern after shows.

"At other places," McMahan notes, "there's no mingling."

Though energized by the theater's prospects, like true builders the couple is itching to dig into the next project, provided the economy awakens from its unfunny slumber.

"I've got my eyes on another big old building," Bowlin says. "We're nuts."

For more info on upcoming acts, visit the theater's Web site at www.bufordvarietytheater.com. The Theater's address is 170 West Main Street.

SideBar: Tavern legend

The legend of Uncle Pearle:

Richard McMahan's great uncle Pearle, whose namesake tavern is below the Buford Variety Theater, was an Ohio saloon owner with a renown thirst for suds. Making a beer delivery about a century ago, Pearle "napped" while driving over railroad tracks and was plowed by a locomotive. These days, when trains roar down the line across Main Street, custom has it that tavern patrons raise their glasses in a toast to Uncle Pearle.