It took four minutes for three Columbus North officials to put out a school auditorium fire using hand-held extinguishers.

But it’s taken a professional cleaning service 11 weeks and $1.6 million dollars to return the auditorium into a condition where it can again be used.

The Judson Erne auditorium has reopened, just in time for the school’s upcoming musical of “Kiss Me Kate.”

Shuttered after a Dec. 5 fire damaged about 35 of the auditorium’s 1,067 seats, extensive smoke and soot damage also contributed to the repair time and cost.

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A month ago, scaffolding covered the auditorium floor, allowing cleanup crews from Servpro — a water and fire damage cleanup and restoration company — to reach the highest portions of the facility, where they worked to clear away smoke damage from the decking and supported ceiling.

Auditorium seats not touched by the brief fire were removed and placed into storage to clear a path for workers to move freely inside the theater. But with the cleanup done and the scaffolding removed, all of the undamaged auditorium seats have again been secured in place.

Also gone are the filtration units and fans used in the auditorium and surrounding hallways as part of the cleanup effort.

About 2,000 costume pieces and 2,000 damaged props had to be thrown out, some of which had been around before the auditorium was built in 1985, North High School theater manager and drama coach John Johnson said.

The school also had to rent sets for the March 3-5 musical, and new props were ordered, Johnson said.

In addition, stage curtains and other items inside the auditorium were cleaned, while most of the auditorium lights were replaced with LED lighting, Johnson said.

The district’s insurance carrier has picked up costs tied to the cleanup, said Jim Roberts, superintendent of the Bartholomew Consolidated School Corp., with the district responsible for paying a $50,000 deductible.

Students were allowed back inside the auditorium Feb. 17, giving them time to build some sets for the upcoming production.

Reopening of the theater has been a relief for them, not to mention planners for other upcoming events including a high school choir concert, a Columbus Indiana Philharmonic concert, dance recitals and other events.

North students were chomping at the bit to get back inside the auditorium, with more than 100 of them involved in “Kiss Me Kate,” a musical production of Shakespeare’s “Taming of the Shrew” set in 1948.

Until getting the all-clear sign, 55 cast members rehearsed in a large group-instruction room, Johnson said.

Emily Sipes, a junior who takes on the dual role of Lilli Vanessi in “Kiss Me Kate” and Katherine in “Taming of the Shrew,” said it has been difficult for performers to move from one space to another.

However, the lack of sets, backdrops and side stages during practices gave students such as sophomore Lydia Hammons a chance to adapt to a new working atmosphere. Overall, she said she was able to manage well, despite some frustration at times.

Heather Sturgill, a senior who is in the dance ensemble part of the show, said her biggest challenge was not being with other cast members while rehearsing.

“Once we’re finally in there, I think we’ll feel very good about the show and everything,” Sturgill said.

Johnson said the closure of the auditorium also made it more difficult for him to direct “Kiss Me Kate,” referring to a lack of control over visual elements tied to the show. However, Johnson said he is happy to get back into the auditorium, which won’t look much different to audience members who attend the opening production — except for a gap that now exists where damaged seating was removed.

Work completed for reopening of Erne Auditorium is just the first phase of a facility overhaul, however, Johnson said.

Five complete rows of seats — with either 13 or 14 to a row — on the right side of the theater, as seen from the stage, were removed and will not be filled in for now, leaving a large gap in theater seating.

The back few rows of chairs could not be moved up because all of the seating is designed at a particular pitch — and the bolts match only those spots, Johnson said.

Despite initial optimism, matching replacement seats could not be found. Five entire rows of seats were removed because the seats are constructed together, he said. For safety reasons, partial rows could not be put back into place, he said.

Bartholomew Consolidated School Corp. plans to replace all of the North auditorium seats with new ones — which had a 12-week delivery date — this summer.

Seat replacement will cost $145,000, with new light fixtures costing $35,000, both covered by the district’s insurance, Superintendent Jim Roberts said.

North Principal David Clark went with assistant principal John Green and Columbus Police Department resource officer Eric Stevens, assigned to the high school, to grab fire extinguishers before they entered the auditorium the morning of Dec. 5.

Clark said the three walked into a lot of smoke, using three fire extinguishers to put out the fire, about three-fourths of the way into the audience.

The three were walking out of the auditorium as Columbus firefighters arrived at the school within four minutes of the alarm.

By the numbers

1985: Year Judson Erne Auditorium opened.

70: Numbers of seats in 1,067-capacity auditorium removed after Dec. 5 fire.

2,000: Number of costume pieces and damaged props that were ruined by the fire and had to be thrown out.

11: Number of weeks required to make auditorium repairs and complete project.

1.6 million: Dollars required to repair auditorium from impacts of fire.

50,000: Cost in dollars of school district insurance deductible.

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Matt Kent is a reporter for The Republic. He can be reached at 812-379-5712 or