Saving Indiana's Theaters

Indiana DNR launches effort
to save old theaters

Many have already been lost to demolition

By Ruth Wright
Contributing Writer

(November 2003) – On Main Street in the center of downtown Madison, Ind., is the historic Ohio Theater. The theater’s marquee advertises the current movie offerings, most of which are family-oriented. No rated “R” films are shown there.
Tony and Laura Ratcliff, the owners, purchased the theater from John Galvin in July 1996. Built in 1938, it had been closed since 1993 and needed some work, but the Ratcliffs were determined.

Ohio Theater

Photo by Don Ward

Madison's historic Ohio Theater.

Tony Ratcliff had worked for Showcase Cinemas National Amusements, and he knew what was needed to operate a movie theater. After a few months of renovation, which included a new roof, ceilings, sound equipment, bathrooms, carpet and concession stand, the two-screen theater once again was open to the public.
Despite all the work and money the Ratcliffs have put into the theater, “It’s a never-ending struggle to keep it going,” said Laura Ratcliff. Repair, maintenance and the competition – modern, multi-screen cinemas with digital surround sound and plush stadium seating – have made owning and operating historic theaters difficult. And unlike the Ohio, many have become mere relics of a by-gone era.
What can be done to preserve these historic structures is the question that the Indiana Department of Natural Resources, Division of Historic Preservation and Archaeology, hopes to answer with its Historic Theater Initiative.
Launched last year at the Cornelius O’Brien Conference on Historic Preservation in Terre Haute, Ind., the goal of the initiative is to offer resources to theater owners, including non-profit and for-profit corporations, that will help them keep the theaters going.
“We’re not going to be the cure-all, but we may be able to offer some assistance,” said DNR-DHPA special projects coordinator Jeannie Regan-Dinius.
One of the first steps of the initiative has been to create a list of historic theaters in the state. Local historians and historical societies, tourism experts and preservationists were among those surveyed. From the survey, a preliminary list was formed. The list includes 566 existing and demolished theaters, renovated theaters, opera houses and drive-in theaters.
The second step in the initiative will include contacting theater owners and operators to see what is needed to keep the theaters going, said Regan-Dinius. To aid this process, the DNR-DHPA on Dec. 11 will play host to a roundtable discussion with theater owners and operators from around the state to determine the collective issues and needs of the group. “We’re going to listen to what’s going on, and from there we’re going to start putting together the program,” Regan-Dinius said.
Because program specifics will be determined by the roundtable discussions, the DHPA hopes to involve as many theater owners and organizations as possible. A couple of organizations, the Theater Owners Association of Indiana and the League of Historic American Theaters, are already on board, according to Regan-Dinius. She hopes the action will spur others to become involved.
The DHPA also hopes that the initiative will create a network of theater owners who can share ideas and resources. Many groups, such as the Park Theatre Civic Centre Inc. of Jennings County, have already organized successful campaigns to bring old theaters back to life and may be able to share their strategies with others.
The non-profit organization purchased and restored the historic Park Theatre in North Vernon. Built in 1916 and closed in 1962, the historic theater re-opened in September after nearly seven years of fundraising and volunteer work by area residents. It is now open to performing arts groups such as the Jennings County Players, a local community theater group.

• The DHPA is still accepting additions to its list of theaters. To find out if the theaters in your area are on the list, or for more information about the December roundtable contact Regan-Dinius at (317) 232-1646. More information is available online at: www.in.gov/dnr.



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