Kaleidoscope: More restorations eyed at old Ohio theaters; some were razed

by KEN LAHMERS | EDITOR Published:

Editor's note: This is Part II of a look at some of Ohio's old theaters which are being restored, or may possibly be restored, plus a look at four old theaters which did not survive the wrecking ball.

THE SORG - MIDDLETOWN

When I lived in Middletown -- between Dayton and Cincinnati -- from 1979-81, I remember driving by the Sorg Opera House several times, but I never watched a movie there.

The four-story stone building was erected in 1891 by Sorg Paper Co.'s Paul J. Sorg, a former Ohio congressman. It's a beautiful building, but much work is needed to fix it up because of massive water damage from a leaky roof and a water main break in recent years.

The Sorg Opera House Revitalization Group -- SORG for short -- bought the building in 2012. Silent movies were shown there starting in 1915, and it was remodeled and renamed the Colonial Theater in 1947. Movies were shown off and on in the 1970s and 1980s -- the period when I lived in the city.

After the Sorg Opera Company was founded in 1990, stage shows took place for 15 years, then Road Apple Music occupied the building until the water main break severely damaged it in 2010, and it had to be vacated.

SORG wants to develop the first floor into a social gathering spot, possibly housing a restaurant and / or coffee shop, lease space -- including the theater and ballroom -- and possibly stage its own productions.

SHEA'S IN ASHTABULA

After he saw the first part of this column about theater restorations, Ashtabula resident Jim Giannell called to tell me about a possible project there. He is the father of Aurora resident Andrea Pollack.

He's on the Ashtabula Downtown Development Association's committee looking into whether the old Shea's Theater on Main Avenue can be restored and reopened for live performances and movie viewing.

The Shea, which once contained about 1,530 seats (600 in the blacony), opened Feb. 2, 1949. It cost $850,000 to build, closed in the early 1970s, reopened for a while and closed for good in the late 1970s.

The building is now owned by the Ashtabula County Council on Aging and its lobby is used as a senior center. Seats are gone from the auditorium, which has sustained considerable damage, partly because of a leaky roof and vandalism.

The stage measures 78 by 70 feet, and the screen measured 24 by 24 feet. Its lobby it 100 feet long and contains a lot of pink marble.

Giannell said an expert has put a pricetag of about $5 million for restoration. A decision has not been reached as to the building's future.

The Shea Theater Corp. also once owned the Midway Drive-In Theater in North Kingsville, Shea's West and the State in Conneaut.

THE WOODWARD

IN MOUNT VERNON

The Woodward Opera House in Mount Vernon (Knox County) is said to be America's oldest authentic 19th century theater still standing. I saw it -- only from the outside -- on a road trip there in 2012. It dates to 1851 and is on the National Register of Historic Places.

Vaudeville and minstral shows were first produced there. In 1883, two buildings were added, one which contained a unique horseshoe-shaped balcony. It was the site of the first motion pictures shown in Knox County in 1897-98.

The theater closed in the mid-1920s, but commercial ventures and offices continued to operate on the first and second floors. The small theater, which contains about 500 seats, occupies the third and fourth floors.

Restoration efforts started in the mid-1970s, and the building and annex were bought by the Woodward Development Corp. in 1998 and 2000, respectively. The project has received two federal Save America's Treasures grants worth $1 million and an Ohio grant worth $1.2 million.

Second floor restoration was 50 percent complete in 2012 to accommodate offices of the WDC and Knox County Convention & Visitors Bureau. The interior of the theater is next to be restored.

THE ROBINS IN WARREN

The fate of the Robins Theater in downtown Warren (Trumbull County) is uncertain, but organizers of the Robins Project are studying the possibility of reopening it for cultural events or some other purpose.

The Italian Renaissance style theater was opened in 1923 by the three Robins brothers at a cost of $300,000. It has Vermont marble columns, grand staircases, a ceiling resembling the night sky and large window-shaped grilles which once housed the organ's pipes.

There are 1,500 seats in the building (1,100 on the main floor and 400 in the mezzanine). It was used for vaudeville productions and movies, operated until 1974 and has been mostly vacant since, with peeling paint and crumbling plaster.

THE MEDINA THEATER

Last year, a venue built in 1937 and formerly called the Rose and the Rock theaters reopened in downtown Medina under the guise of non-profit Medina Community Theater.

The 8,200-square-foot building was added to the 15,000-square-foot Masonic Temple, built in 1924. In 2002, the Masonic Temple and theater annex were placed on the National Register of Historic Places. Notable architectural features include ionic columns, pilasters and facade symmetry, plus a stone entry stairway.

The small theater, which now boasts about 200 seats -- it once contained about 800 -- was divided into the Medina Twin in 1972, and operated until 2000. In 2007, it was reincarnated as the Rock Theater, but closed a year later.

LASALLE IN CLEVELAND

Northeast Shores Community Development Corp. hopes to someday restore and reopen the LaSalle Theater in the Collinwood neighborhood of Cleveland, but a specific project has not started. The previous owner had intended to raze it.

Northeast Shores bought the building in 2009. It dates to 1927, when it was built by the International Savings & Loan Association. It included a bank branch, retail stores and apartments. The theater operated until about 1990.

The neo-classical building is said to be in pretty good shape inside, although the seating -- there once were about 1,300 seats -- and organ have been removed. The original marquee remains.

SOME DIDN'T SURVIVE

Unfortunately, efforts to save the Liberty-Paramount Theater in downtown Youngstown were not so successful, and it was demolished last summer.

The beaux arts style building opened in 1918 as the Liberty Theater. It boasted extensive terra cotta ornamentation with swags and pilasters, and originally was a vaudeville house. Paramount Pictures took ownership in 1929 and modernized it for "talkies."

With the decline of Youngstown in the 1960s, the theater began its own decline, and the last movie shown was Bill Cosby's "Let's Do It Again" in 1976. The property was listed on the National Reigster of Historic Places in 1984.

Plans to restore the building for theater and music events, movies, a restaurant and cabaret fell through, and the city bought the site and tore it down with an $803,000 grant. The site is now a parking lot.

The Commodore Theater in the Collinwood neighborhood of Cleveland fell to the wrecking ball in late 2008. It had been there since the 1920s and was closed in 1971.

Before its demise, it became a haven for vandals and junkies, and decorative pieces of stone facade were falling off onto the sidewalk. Windows were smashed, copper pipes were stripped, holes were kicked in the walls and the basement was filled with water.

Two old opera houses that I've read about were razed years ago.

In my native New Philadelphia, the 1897 Union Opera House was razed in 1957. John Phillip Sousa once directed his famous band there. I know where the site is, but don't remember the building since I was only 4 years old when it was demolished.

The Kent Opera House, built in 1889 on North Water Street, hosted vaudeville, touring shows and movies. W.C. Fields performed there. He stayed at the hotel in the building now occupied by Ray's Place when performing in Kent.

Schine Theaters acquired the opera house in 1940, and it was closed in the early 1950s and razed in 1963 after becoming a pigeon roost and health / safety nuisance.

When it opened, the opera house was billed as "the handsomest building in town."

Email: klahmers@recordpub.com

Phone: 330-541-9400 ext. 4189

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