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Fresh eyes see vintage potential in historic downtown theater

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Andy Heidt The Republic Benny Baxter of Repp and Mundt looks over the first message on the recently completed Crump marquee -
Andy Heidt The Republic Benny Baxter of Repp and Mundt looks over the first message on the recently completed Crump marquee - "God Bless America."

The once-majestic Crump Theatre has lost its luster after roughly 140 years, but there are angels in the balcony ready to leap to its rescue.

Built in the early 1870s, The Crump has staged vaudeville and opera performances, rock concerts — even paranormal investigations.

In its deteriorating condition, however, some would consider it an albatross for the city.

But Mayor Kristen Brown has a different vision.

“I see The Crump as an anchor tenant in the Arts District,” she said, noting that there are others who also want to see the theater returned to grandeur.

The Crump could be a great spot for arts and community events, Brown said, and would have an effect on a diverse group of residents.

The Crump’s recent history has included mostly small-theater productions and local rock bands. A highlight came in 2008 when singer John Mellencamp, a native of nearby Seymour, staged a concert recorded for A&E’s Biography Channel.

An Arts District Coalition subcommittee completed an analysis of The Crump in December to determine what role the renovated facility could play downtown.

The coalition also hopes to begin a comprehensive feasibility study this summer if the cost — $80,000 to $120,000 — is approved by the Redevelopment Commission.

Mayor Kristen Brown believes now is the time to act.

The marquees and large, lighted Crump sign have been a familiar downtown landmark for generations, from its glory days as the main theater in Columbus to recent years when the marquee message might just as well have been “What should I be used for?”

Years of study

Ed Sullivan of Columbus remembers an in-depth study of The Crump being conducted in the early 1980s when he was executive director of the Heritage Fund.

Consultants were called in from Indiana University and New Jersey to study the possibility of restoring what was then a movie theater into a performing arts center.

“We came to the conclusion that it was just too shallow in back and there wasn’t room to expand,” Sullivan said.

Although many people want to renovate the theater, the challenges of space constraints and high costs often stand in the way, he said.

“It’s a shame. It’s such a landmark,” Sullivan said.

The most-recent analysis of The Crump was completed by the Arts District Coalition’s subcommittee using Six Sigma, a business model that applies quality and data-driven study methods.

The objective was to assess options for renovation and determine if the theater could promote the arts in Columbus while being self-sustaining. Also studied was its role in supporting economic vitality and tourism development.

The evaluation looked at the different types of programs and events conducted downtown to gauge what types of facilities are needed.

The study looked at other entertainment, event and meeting space downtown to see what options currently exist, although each has its advantages and limitations. The areas include:

  • The Commons
  • YES Cinema
  • Mill Race Park
  • Library and the plaza
  • Hotel Indigo
  • IU Center for Art+Design
  • City Hall and lawn
  • Downtown restaurants

The Arts District Coalition is looking at this latest study and past ones as it tries to determine reasons why plans for The Crump never caught fire. They also are connecting with groups that might use a renovated theater.

Potential uses

David Bowden, music director for the Columbus Indiana Philharmonic, said he would love for the philharmonic to be able to perform at The Crump, but it would need seating for about 1,000.

Current seating is around 600. The number after renovation would depend on the extent of renovations, how close rows of seats are placed and the number of aisles.

The group currently performs at Columbus North High School auditorium, which has seating for about 1,100. The stage area at The Commons cannot accommodate the full orchestra, Bowden said.

To perform at The Crump, it would need a larger stage, improvements to the acoustics, more restrooms, renovations to the dressing room/backstage area and a loading dock area in back.

“It has a ton of potential if some changes were made. And it could be a regional draw for other groups,” Bowden said.

On a smaller scale, local musician and actor Robert Hay-Smith said The Crump in its current configuration really is too big for small-theater productions.

“The place is so huge,” Hay-Smith said. “When you have a play with an audience of 100 people, people say, ‘What a shame’ about the turnout. They like a more cozy, intimate setting.”

Hay-Smith opened Harlequin Theater in FairOaks Mall to provide that type of space for plays, music, comedy and other small-entertainment events.

Still, he understands the desire to want to renovate The Crump, but believes it needs the right type of activity for the space.

“It’s a wonderful, old theater,” Hay-Smith said.

Following the progression of The Crump talks for years has been Hutch Schumaker, a member of the Arts District Coalition and president of the Columbus Capital Foundation, which owns The Crump.

“It all comes down to programming,” Schumaker said. “If you redo The Crump, you have to talk about what you want to do in there.”

He said the theater also has to make money, so it must find a way to have a variety of options and maybe a small café or restaurant to sell alcohol during performances or to cater meals at events.

“You can’t make it by just having movies and bands and plays. You have to have all different kinds of programming,” Schumaker said.

He cites as an example the Buskirk-Chumley Theater in Bloomington, which offers a range of entertainment and activities. Theater managers even rent space for church services as another way to meet its budget.

Schumaker explains that the Columbus Capital Foundation bought The Crump to save and secure it.

The public foundation, which also owns the old portion of The Commons Mall that houses Sears, never planned to invest the funds to fully renovate it.

Schumaker said money has been spent to keep the theater from deteriorating, including putting on a new roof and repairing the boiler, but the basic foundation of the building is strong.

He joked that even the hard-rocking Mellencamp concert and full house upstairs and down didn’t rattle the rock-solid theater.

A Columbus classic

Columbus architect Louis Joyner, a member of the Arts District Coalition, has been part of The Crump studies in the past and has listened to the many ideas and naysayers over the years.

He supports some type of renovation to the classic piece of Columbus architectural history.

“I’ve been in most of the nooks and crannies of that building,” Joyner said. “I would hate to see it go. We are trying to find the appropriate and best use of the building.”

He rejects one school of thought: Tearing it down.

“To say it’s too far gone is definitely not the case,” Joyner said. “It has really great details. There’s no reason why it can’t be restored properly.”

Eye-catching details include terrazzo tile in the entry, an old-fashioned ticket booth, art deco-inspired lobby and towering pillars that stretch from the basement to the upper level.

The theater also has decades-old murals, mirrored ceiling panels, sweeping staircases, hidden passages in the basement, once glamorous restrooms/sitting and dressing rooms and side panels near the stage that used to house upper-level seating.

Few would remember The Crump without its current façade, but the Third Street face people know today was added in the early 1940s. A vastly different façade was part of the original structure in the 1890s, with another façade constructed around the 1920s.

Joyner realizes much work needs to be done, including making the theater accessible to the disabled, but he is hopeful renovation of the theater can some day happen.

The mayor said the Arts District Coalition is looking at various options for renovations and has had three architectural firms that specialize in restoring historic theaters tour the building and submit proposals to complete the feasibility study.

Brown said the project would be extensive, taking about six months to look at all aspects, and would include public input.

A request for the city to pay for the feasibility study will be on the agenda of the May 20 Redevelopment Commission meeting.

The next work would be to look at options for public-private funding by spring 2014.

Brown said she would to use Tax Increment Financing from the Central TIF District to pay a portion of the costs for renovations of The Crump.

Using TIF funds would require approval from City Council.

Head volunteer

The Crump has been chugging along for the past 10 years with the dedicated volunteer leadership of 85-year-old Rovene Quigley.

The Columbus resident helps arrange local theater productions and band performances. She also coordinates the growing interest from paranormal groups who travel from around the Midwest to spend an evening looking for ghosts in the dark and scary corners of the three-story building.

She also has scrounged for volunteer help and donations, such as the stage curtains that once hung in Columbus East High School auditorium.

During the past 15 years, the roof was replaced, electric upgraded and an assortment of minor repairs to doors, toilets, lights and seating.

“We did the basics of what we had to do to keep using it,” Quigley said.

Cosmetic repairs are needed, but Quigley believes the theater has plenty of character and space to accommodate certain types of events, including local arts activities, until a decision is made for the theater’s future.

She gives one simple reason why she’s volunteered her time for the past decade: “I just love The Crump.”

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