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Staging a Comeback

New owners of Ohio Theatre get much support in renovation plan

Volunteers help with events;
grant money funds feasibility study


 
(November 2017)
Read previous Don Ward columns!

Don Ward

In the past 1½ years since the Ohio Theatre ownership changed hands from Tony and Laura Ratcliff to the nonprofit group, Friends of the Ohio Theatre, much has been said and done to rally support for renovating the historic building at 105 E. Main St. in Madison, Ind.
A number of grants have been awarded, and several local residents have volunteered their time to work at the theatre during its occasional events, which are designed to help pay the monthly utility bills, according to Charles Requet III and Elizabeth Auxier. The husband-and-wife team has spearheaded the effort to form the nonprofit group and take over paying the monthly mortgage of the building in March 2016 to owner Donn Vecchie-Campbell. The Ratcliffs were forced to relinquish the property in March 2016 due to threat of a mortgage foreclosure.

A Short History of the Ohio Theatre

The Ohio Theatre first opened in 1907 as The Little Grand Theatre, according to accounts written in the Madison Courier newspaper at the time. It was built by Herbert H. Johnson and first operated by Louis E. Holwager and seated 400 people. In 1913, Holwager wrecked the building and rebuilt the theatre to include a balcony and stage and to seat 700 people. A fire damaged the building on Dec. 27, 1928.
In 1930, Holwager leased the theatre to H.H. Johnson, who redecorated it with a new lobby, carpeted aisles and new exits. Holwager closed the theatre in 1936 for a complete renovation, which included new equipment, new seats, upgraded restrooms, draperies, lights and acoustics. It re-opened on Oct. 4, 1938 to a packed house, according to the Courier reports of the time.
The theatre showed the Marx Brothers’ “Room Service” that night, along with “The March of Time” and “Mickey’s Parrot,” a Mickey Mouse cartoon in Technicolor. Also shown was “Queen of the Air,” a musical short with Vincent Lopez.
A new owner by the name of Baker operated the theatre in the 1950s. It had a long run but then was closed in 1993. During that span, John Galvin took over as manager in 1960 for his father-in-law, who owned it at the time. Galvin bought the theatre from him in 1963. He operated it and the Skyline Drive-In on the Madison hilltop simultaneously for many years. In 1978, a second, smaller theatre was created in the upstairs balcony of the building. Galvin closed the theatre in 1993 then sold it in 1996 to Tony and Laura Ratcliff. In 1992 Galvin closed the Skyline drive-in.
The Ratcliffs, originally from northern Kentucky and previously the owners of a theatre there, re-opened the Ohio Theatre in 1996 and ran it until March 2016 when they were forced to relinquish the property due to threat of a mortgage foreclosure.

Upcoming events at the Ohio Theatre

• Nov. 4 at 7 p.m.: “Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?”
• Nov. 25 at 7 p.m.: “Planes, Trains and Automobiles”
• Tickets for all shows are $5, except for “Prancer,” which is only $3.
• Information or to donate: (812) 624-1938 or visit Facebook and “like” Friends of the Ohio Theatre or e-mail: friendsoftheohiotheatre@gmail.com

After closing the theatre in early 2016, the Friends group briefly re-opened it in April to show the movie “Charade.” It was then closed for the summer partly due to lack of air conditioning in the building. The group re-opened it for Halloween and Christmas holiday events. The Friends’ group five-member board of directors includes Auxier as president, Requet as vice president, Matt Marshall, Allison Ouellet and Mark Wynn.
Fueled by a recent $40,000 grant from the Community Foundation of Madison and Jefferson County, the Friends group has commissioned a New York City consultant firm to conduct a $65,000 feasibility study on the theatre, including its renovation and marketability to the region. Of the $40,000 grant, $30,000 was to be designated toward the feasibility study, Auxier said. The group also received a $2,500 grant from Indiana Landmarks and $5,000 from the National Trust for Historic Preservation. To help raise the necessary funds to receive the matching grants, the group is selling T-shirts and generating money from concessions and beer and wine sales in the lobby during its events.
A presentation of the preliminary findings of the study was presented to the community Oct. 16 at the theatre. The firm is now working on a second phase, which it hopes to complete by spring 2018, according to Christina Kruise of the firm, Webb Management Services, which specializes in entertainment venues.
“We were not surprised at many of the findings, but the statistics they came up with helped back up our data and plans going forward,” said Auxier, 36.
Requet, 40, added, “It is a very exhaustive study. They did a couple of walk-throughs. And they conducted surveys of several residents 30 miles out. They now plan to survey people 50 miles out to see the viability and demand for an entertainment venue like this in this region.”
The group has patched the leaky roof, repaired a projector and worked to bring the fire extinguisher system, smoke detectors and exit lighting up to code. The roof and exterior brick tuck pointing needs work to the tune of more than $100,000, Auxier said.

Photo provided

The historic Ohio Theatre will mark 80 years in 2018 of its last renovation, completed back in 1938.

When a sound system processer broke down last summer, the local Tri-Kappa Sorority provided $1,500 to replace it.
When the marquee out front needed repair, the Madison Main Street Program provided $1,100 in July 2016 to fix it. As a result, the Friends group began renting both sides of the marquee for all sorts of messages – wedding and birth announcements, birthdays, retirements, well wishes to grads and the like. The $50 per day per side fee has helped pay the monthly expenses, Requet said.
Tony Steinhardt, owner of Steinhardt Heating & Cooling, in September announced he would provide for free a new roof-mounted heating and air conditioning system for the building. The Friends group will be responsible for paying the installation, which will involve bringing a crane onto Main Street.

Community support

Auxier and Requet give credit to the community for enabling them to take on such a lofty project. They point to such donations as examples of that support.
“At first, we considered just buying the building outright and doing the renovation ourselves,” Requet said. “But after we looked at it, we realized there would be no way anyone could afford to renovate this place and operate it as a theatre and make any profit. So we went this route instead.”
Theatre volunteer Kelley Hoagland, who works at the Community Foundation, says the nonprofit route is great for Madison because it allows others to get involved, both as an active participant or donor. “Our town is built on nostalgia, and working at the Community Foundation I see how donors want to fund what they care about. The Ohio Theatre is something that touches people of all generations.”
Hoagland is active in local theatre and has portrayed several characters – such as Beetlejuice and The Grinch – as part of the theatre’s interactive experience. “People love it,” she says. “They see the character out on the sidewalk and they come in and take pictures even if they’re not going to the movie. And with social media, people love posting their photos online.”
Phil and Joanne Spiller of Madison have worked every event, both as characters and working the concession stand. “They’re doing great and really positive things,” Joanne said. “They’re involving a lot of people from the community and working hard to make it accessible, and the response has been great.”
She said that by being open up to the community about their needs, they have received positive feedback. And she likes the goal of making the theatre a multi-purpose venue. “People have memories of their time there but were not connected like they are now. It will take that community involvement to make this work.”

Hometown roots

Both Auxier and Requet are Madison natives. Auxier graduated from Madison Consolidated High School and later earned a journalism degree at Indiana University. Requet graduated from Shawe Memorial High School and earned an engineering degree at Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology. He now works for LG&E-KU in Louisville. Auxier is self employed with Auxier Marketing.
The two have been married nine years. They have renovated and now rent several small homes in Madison and one commercial building at 135 E. Main St. where Ditto’s on Main retail store is now located.

File photo by Don Ward

Mark Shinnick (far right), grandson of famed actress Irene Dunne, and a group of Madison residents on May 19, 2006, unveil a state historical marker in front of the Ohio Theatre dedicated to the Hollywood actress. Born in Louisville, Ky., Dunne spent her teenage years in Madison and graduated from Madison High School in 1916.

“Being self-employed has been an ideal situation for me to be able to do this (theatre) project,” she said. “And I think our experience in renovating buildings helped gain the trust of the owner to follow through with our plan to renovate the theatre.”
Requet’s experience in construction comes from
Requet said the study also inventories existing entertainment venues in the region, and with Hanover College’s temporary closure for renovation of Parker Auditorium, found there is no 500-seat entertainment venue in the region. Parker Auditorium seats 750, college officials said. With the right setup, the college’s Collier Arena can seat up to 2,500.
“If we were to open the upstairs theatre, that would get us to 500 seats,” Requet said.
Previous Ohio Theatre owner John Galvin closed off the upstairs in the 1970s to create a second, smaller movie theatre there to compete with the multiplex cinemas at the time. One option is to open that upstairs area as a balcony to the main downstairs theatre, Requet said.
Since taking over the building, the Friends group has faced several building challenges. The boiler is unsafe and was shut down, so there is currently no heat or air conditioning.
his family’s long history in the business. His father, grandfather and great-grandfather – all named Charles Requet – operated family owned construction companies. His father spent many years working in historic restoration for Historic Madison Inc., so renovation is in his blood.
“I have a fourth-generation degree in construction,” he joked.
The transfer of ownership brought to an end a 20-year commitment by the Ratcliffs to keep the aging theatre open for movies and community events. Originally built to house a nickelodeon in the early 1900s, the building was converted to a movie theatre called Little Grand Theatre, which burned in 1938. It was rebuilt in 1938 as the Ohio Theatre and ran first-run movies until it closed in 1993. Renovated and re-opened in 1996, the now-twinned Ohio Theatre continued to show mid-run films and also operated as a venue for various live events throughout the year.
The art deco style architecture and location in the heart of downtown Madison has given the theatre a beloved place in the hearts of many local residents who grew up in Madison. “Everyone has stories about this theatre,” Auxier said. “We hear them all the time.”
Perhaps the biggest event held in recent time there was the premiere showing in 2005 of the movie “Madison,” which included appearances by many of its stars, such as actor Jim Caviezel, Chelcie Ross and Jake Lloyd.
In 2006, a historical marker was erected in front of the theatre to commemorate 1930s-era actress Irene Dunne, who spent much of her childhood years in Madison.
The theatre also had a cameo in the 1959 film, “Some Came Running,” which was filmed in Madison and starred Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and Shirley MacLaine. It earned five Academy Awards. In September 1999, a bronze and granite Hollywood-type star was created in front of the theatre to honor the movie.
Next year will be the 80th anniversary of the existing structure, and the Friends group hopes to mark the occasion with a celebratory event, just before the theatre will be closed for renovation, Auxier said.
“If everything goes according to plan, we hope to have the feasibility study done in the next four months,” Auxier said. At that point they hope to have the feasibility study recommendations in hand and launch a capital campaign in 2018 to raise the money to fund the renovation.
“We hope to be able to have our Halloween and Christmas events next year and then shut down at the end of the year for construction in 2019,” she said. She hopes the renovation will be complete by Halloween 2019.
“The Ohio Theatre is one of the projects mentioned in the Stellar Designation program, so hopefully we will receive money that we can use to match future grants,” she said.
The city of Madison in October was named this year’s winner of the state’s Stellar Designation program, making it eligible for up to $6 million in funding for various economic development and community projects.
“This is a community project. We are just the faces of the effort and the ones who are shepherding it,” Requet said. “We have had broad support, with about 80 volunteers pitching in and helping us.”
He added that the recent weekly movie nights have been averaging 100-200 people. Many of the events held there are designed to be interactive, complete with costumed characters and Auxier snapping photos of families enjoying themselves. The group plans to again offer visits with Santa Claus and holiday themed family events this year during the Christmas holidays.
“It takes about 10-12 people to work here when we have events, with five people working concessions, so it is a group effort,” Requet said.
Requet, who has interest in craft beer, works the bar and offers draft beer and several craft beer options, plus wine.
Despite their limitations now due to the building’s current condition, the Friends group is enjoying lots of community support and moving forward with its renovation plans. Once complete, group members hope to use the facility for movies, concerts, plays, art exhibits, special events and more.
“The feasibility study said there are enough arts-related opportunities that it could be used almost every day of the year,” Requet said.

Auxier added: “We want it to be more accessible to the community because it truly is a part of this community.”

• Don Ward is the editor, publisher and owner of RoundAbout. Call him at (812) 273-2259 or email him at: info@RoundAbout.bz.

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