Kaleidoscope: Groups in several Ohio communities raise millions to restore old theaters

by KEN LAHMERS | EDITOR Published:

Famous movie theater mogul Marcus Loew once said, "People buy tickets to theaters, not movies."

In my travels around Ohio, I've encountered many old theaters. Some have been magnificently restored and some are setting abandoned and falling apart. Many have been torn down. I've written about some of the bigger ones which have been restored in Cleveland, Columbus, Akron and Canton.

One small town theater which I learned was going to be restored when I visited Marietta four years ago is the Colony. Recently, I checked the Internet to see whether any progress has been made on the project.

The answer is "yes." And from there I decided to dig into what other theater restoration projects are under way in Ohio. I learned about several, which I will talk about in this two-part column.

For people like me who are excited to see old buildings preserved, it is great to see so many theater restorations moving forward. It takes a lot of money to return these once grand structures to their former glory.

This week, I'll take a look at four restoration projects under way. A second part later will explore other ones, plus a few old theaters which didn't survive the wrecking ball.

HIPPODROME / COLONY

I visited this old theater on a ghost walk through downtown Marietta four years ago. It was at night, and since electricity had been turned off to the building, we carefully walked around the theater with flashlights. It was spooky.

It was tough to really see a lot, but we encountered debris in the aisles and a lot of wear-and-tear and dust on the seats.

The 1,200-seat theater, which includes a balcony, opened in 1919 as the Hipprodrome. It had a giant screen, orchestra pit, 50-foot fly loft and Echo theater pipe organ, and hosted vaudeville acts, Broadway plays, magical acts and silent films.

In 1949 under Shea Theaters' ownership, a contest took place to rename the theater, and Colony was the winner.

Among famous entertainers who appeared there were Boris Karloff, Jimmy Stewart, Judy Garland, Tex Ritter, Frank Sinatra, Minnie Pearl and Ernest Tubb.

In 1957, the Colony hosted the world premier of "Battle Hymn," with Rock Hudson portraying Marietta native Col. Dean Hess. Hudson was on hand.

The Cinemette and Ohio Movies chains ran the theater in the 1970s. A local resident bought it in 1981, but it was closed in 1985. Now the Hippodrome-Colony Historical Theater Association is trying to complete raising $7.5 million and has started renovation.

The theater will be called Peoples Bank Theater because of a $250,000 donation from that bank. Plans are to provide 110 days a year of entertainment and activities, including attracting national acts. When finished, the theater would be the only venue of its kind in a 10- to 12-county region.

GRAND IN STEUBENVILLE

In the city where Dean Martin and RPC Associate Sports Editor Frank Aceto grew up, there once were five ornate theaters, including the Capitol and Paramount. The only building left is the Grand on South Fourth Street, one of the main downtown streets.

I was last in Steubenville -- the City of Murals -- about three years ago, and was on that very street, but didn't know about the theater or the restoration project. The building's marquee was taken down years ago.

Plans are to restore the building to become the Grand Performing Arts Center. A new roof is in place, and the lobby was the first part of the interior to be restored. The non-profit Steubenville Historic Landmarks Foundation is spearheading the $6 million effort.

The front part of the building, where the lobby is situated, was built in 1885. The auditorium area was added in 1924 by the four owners / brothers.

The Grand originally hosted live entertainment, but later showed movies. It was the first air-conditioned theater in Ohio. It closed in 1979, then reopened, but closed for good in the early 1980s.

The project will be completed in 11 phases. Part of the building will become a museum featuring history of the arts in Steubenville. A new main staircase will be built, the decorative plaster ceiling and walls will be repaired or replaced, and new digital projectors will be installed.

Supporters hope the restoration, which will take several years, will revitalize the downtown area in a city (18,600 population) which has suffered a 30-year economic decline.

LIBERTY IN WELLSVILLE

Although a tough winter halted progress on restoration of the Liberty Theater in the 3,500-resident village of Wellsville along the Ohio River between East Liverpool and Steubenville, the project has picked up with warmer weather.

The building has been owned by Potter Players Community Theater since 2003, having previously been owned by the Liberty Theater Association. It dates to 1930. "Dances With Wolves," starring Kevin Costner, was the last movie shown there in 1991.

With the help of a $109,000 grant, a new roof and windows have been installed. When the building sat empty, the original seats, flooring and hardwood stage rotted and had to be removed. The building is now a shell, with extensive inside work scheduled to be done next.

Estimates range from $750,000 to $1 million for the project to be completed. Supporters report that finding money has been difficult since the economic plunge in 2008, but they are optimistic the project eventually will be completed.

Plans are to stage live theater events by the Potter Players, concerts and school events, thus returning the building as a major asset to the community.

VARIETY IN CLEVELAND

A once beautiful

1,900-seat theater stands wasting away in the Jefferson neighborhood of Cleveland at 11815 Lorain Ave. But that may change if the Westown Community Development Corp. is successful in its efforts to restore the structure.

It opened in November 1927 and the builders also owned the Uptown Theater. Both were reportedly built for $2 million. Warner Brothers ran the theater from 1929 to 1954, and other owners kept it open until the early 1980s.

It then became a venue for rock bands -- Metallica and Slayer were among those that played there --but was shut down by a judge because of complaints about safety, noise and loitering. During one concert, plaster fell from the ceiling onto the crowd.

During its existence, the building also housed shops on the first floor and apartments upstairs.

The Westown Corp. has established the Friends of the Historic Variety Theater to help raise funds for restoration. The apartments have been renovated and are being leased, and plans are for the building to become a multi-use venue when restoration is complete.

Email: klahmers@recordpub.com

Phone: 330-541-9400 ext. 4189

Photos of the Colony, Grand and Variety theaters courtesy of Hippodrome-Colony Historical Theater Association, Steubenville Historic Landmarks Foundation and Westown Community Development Corp.

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