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Renovations transform old theaters

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Historic theaters throughout Indiana have gone through trying times before renovation instilled new life.

The stories behind renovations at the Buskirk-Chumley Theater in Bloomington, the Park Theatre in North Vernon and the Pixy Theatre in Edinburgh might prove as inspirations for Crump Theatre revitalization backers in Columbus.

Bloomington city government, business owners and passionate, art-loving residents have been key in keeping Buskirk-Chumley, said Danielle McClelland, the Bloomington theater’s executive director.

She said having extra money set aside for operations has been crucial in keeping her theater open.

Speaking from experience, she said Columbus should follow suit if it intends to bring the Crump back to life.

McClelland is a member of the League of Historic American Theaters, a professional group aimed at preserving historic theaters throughout the country. Additionally, she was program director of the Columbus Area Arts Council when a previous Crump study was completed in 1996.

That study, done by the architectural firm of Joyner and Marshall, estimated nearly $4 million in renovations would be needed to bring the theater up to current-day standards.

Raising as much as $4 million and completing a renovation for a theater the size of Crump could take as long as six years, McClelland said.

“They (Joyner and Marshall) highly recommended any organization attempt to raise twice the amount (they need) and to also invest the rest of the money into an endowment that would provide the theater a small amount of operational revenue inside the theater,” she said.

That’s what previous management at the Buskirk-Chumley found out the hard way after a failed business plan and empty pockets caused the theater to close less than a year after its $4.25 million renovation.

McClelland said the theater now has about $30,000 set aside to keep the operations running if it gets tough to book events.

But other theater enthusiasts say that the biggest obstacle to overcome is biting the bullet and spending big money on a project that might never become profitable.

Bill Reidenbach, who renovated and reopened the Park Theatre with his wife, Hulda, had a big decision to make when the theater’s roof began to collapse. It was time to either fix up the building, which opened in 1916, or schedule a date with a wrecking ball.

“Ours was so bad, I had three or four of what everybody would consider the best contractors in town, and all of them wouldn’t look at it,” he said. “We ended up forming a nonprofit corporation to fix it up.”

The theater was renovated from 1996 through 2003 — and it cost $1.3 million when all was complete. It now hosts community plays and musicals, concerts, family movies and other performances.

Other theaters, such as the Pixy Theatre, needed a facelift after serving the community for about 100 years.

Owner Mike Harding spent more than $500,000 fixing up the 250-seat theater because he felt Edinburgh, where his mother grew up, deserved a place for family and friends to gather and enjoy the arts.

“It’s not just a building,” he said. “These things are real precious, and it’s real sad to see them neglected.”

The Pixy Theatre was built as a Masonic lodge and was used that way until Harding acquired it in 2008. Since then, he and a group of volunteers have slowly brought the theater back to life.

Buying the venue was not a business venture, Harding said. It was something his mother, 85-year-old mother Patricia Rambo-Harding, and other lifelong Edinburgh residents, would like, he said. His mother has her own seat in the front left row of the theater, a tribute to her as the inspiration for renovating the structure.

Longtime Edinburgh residents measure the “yardstick of their lives” by memories of that theater, he said. “I take stuff that people have given up on and I try and bring it back.”

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