The last legacy to a family empire that once dominated all movie theaters and radio stations in Columbus has died.
Michael J. “Mike” Rembusch, 71, of Franklin lost his battle with cancer on Nov. 11 at a hospice facility in Indianapolis.
The Rembusch family’s extensive show business holdings go back well over a century and three generations.
It was in Shelbyville that Mike Rembusch’s grandfather, Frank Rembusch, opened Indiana’s first theater built exclusively for motion pictures in 1912. In 1919, he came to Columbus to lease the Knights of Pythian Hall on Fifth Street, between Washington and Franklin streets. After acquiring the Crystal Theatre that was within the hall, Frank Rembusch remodeled the facility and renamed it the American Theatre.
In 1923, Rembusch signed the first lease with the heirs of John S. Crump that allowed his organization to operate the newly-renovated Crump Theatre on Third St. While the Crump heirs sold the theatre to a Madison, Indiana resident, Frank Rembusch’s son would eventually buy the facility.
By the time of Frank Rembusch’s death in 1936, the family had acquired 31 theaters. These properties went to his son, Trueman Rembusch, who created a corporation called Syndicate Theaters.
In the same year that his father died, Trueman Rembusch purchased what was then known as the Wolf Building at 317 Washington St. in Columbus. After interior and exterior renovations, he opened the Mode Theater in 1936. It was near the end of the 1930s when the American was renamed the Rio Theatre.
Trueman Rembusch’s next local business venture was in broadcasting. It was his Syndicate Theatres that launched radio station WCSI in 1947, with studios located above the Mode.
The Mode Theatre was closed in 1957 and remodeled to house several businesses. Since the sale also included the upstairs studios, WCSI was sold to Findlay Publishing Company, which now owns four radio stations in Columbus operating as White River Broadcasting.
In the 1960s, the Rio was a popular nightlife destination, showcasing epic films and providing live community theatre via the Columbus Arts Guild during the 1960s. However, the building was purchased by neighboring Home Federal Savings Bank in 1973 and demolished to make room for a parking lot and drive-thru.
Mike Rembusch was only four months old when his father, Trueman, opened the Columbus Drive-in Theater north of the city on Aug. 3, 1950.
In a 1992 interview with The Republic, Mike Rembusch said the drive-in, located off what is now called Old Indianapolis Road, always had a special place in his heart.
“It was where I got started,” he said. “One of my first jobs (at age 17) was to run the little children’s train before the movies started.”
He told reporters he became an expert on the proper height of car trunks, which allowed him to catch those hiding under the back hood to avoid paying admission.
“I think the single-screens and the drive-ins were always where Mike’s heart was,” said Keri Hart, who spent 12 years serving as Mike Rembusch’s assistant.
Her boss was only 23 when he was named vice-president of Syndicate Theatres. After acquiring a home near 15th and Lawton streets, he took over management of the Crump, Rio and Columbus Drive-In theaters.
The Rembusch family was so well known that former Indiana Gov. Robert Orr appointed Mike Rembusch to the Indiana Film Commission in the 1980s. He was among the commissioners that voted to support Hemdale Film Corp. — a little-known production company founded by British actor David Hemmings and English producer John Daley.
Hemdale was requesting the state’s assistance in producing a film loosely based on the 1954 Milan, Indiana High School basketball team, resulting in the 1986 film, “Hoosiers.”
It was on Sept 22, 1993 that the Columbus Drive-in, which found itself next to an emerging industrial park off Old Indianapolis Road and north of Arcadia Drive, showed its last movie. While a number of proposals ranging from storage units to a warehouse were proposed, the site of the former Drive-in remains vacant to this day – 28 years after the theater closed.
In April, 1987, Syndicate Theatres reported declining profits and took bids on the demolition of the Crump Theatre. Immediately, the Driftwood Valley Arts Council expressed strong interest in preserving the building, and the historic theatre went through a number of ownership changes.
One of the Crump’s most serious problems was when engineers found the truss in the middle of the ceiling had been weakened from water leaks, which prompted roof repairs to begin in late 1998. As time went on, other mechanical problems were discovered.
Finally, the Crump was closed for good in January, 2014 because the building was considered a fire hazard in it’s current state. Two different studies have pegged the price of complete renovation, depending upon the building’s future use, at $11 million or more.
But Rembusch had always hoped the Crump could be restored to its former glory. He took a 2019 tour of the historic building with Rob Schiltz, director of Franklin’s historic Artcraft Theatre, to assess whether it could be restored, Hart said.
Local support for renovating the Crump has been strong since the building was named one of Indiana Landmarks 10 Most Endangered structures in 2019.
“Whoever was giving the tour was talking extensively about the Rembusch family,” Hart said. “Mike waited until all the remarks were finished before he raised his hand and said ‘Excuse me. I’m Mike Rembusch’.”
Although he always maintained a strong interest in the Crump Theatre and wanted to see it succeed, Mike Rembusch kept his focus on the city that he eventually called home: Franklin.
His major holding in Johnson County was the Artcraft Theater, which Frank Rembusch built in 1922. Mike Rembusch would later open Canary Creek Cinemas, an 8-screen multiplex in Franklin, and add a single-screen drive-in theatre to the complex, Hart said.
But it was too much for Rembusch, a recovering cancer patient, to run both Canary Creek and Artcraft, so he sold the Artcraft in 2000 to Franklin Heritage Inc., a historical preservation organization.
“The Artcraft was the last theatre to operate under Syndicate Theatres,” Hart said. “The multiplex was just a business venture to him. But the historic single-screens and the drive-ins were always where his heart was.”
It was shortly after Rembusch sold the Canary Creek complex that the cancer returned, Hart said.
During the final years of his life, Rembusch donated to several charities and causes, according to Hart. His obituary stated he also loved boating, playing card games, bicycle riding and spending time with his grandchildren.