What it takes to restore a historic theater: Two area venues provide examples

LIMA —Restoring historic theaters is a massive undertaking.

No one knows that better than the people who took it upon themselves to renovate and reopen Lima’s Ohio Theatre and St. Marys’ Grand Opera House.

“This was the heartbeat of downtown,” said Doug Spencer, the St. Marys man who is part of the volunteer group spearheading the revival of the Grand Opera House. “So many stories of the past started here involving first dates that grew into marriages. It’s so neat when we bring people in and they can point to their seats.”

“A lot of historical people have come through this place through the years and so we just feel like it’s our responsibility if we have the power because if we don’t restore the Ohio Theatre, who’s going to do it?” said Michael Bouson, co-owner of the Ohio Theatre. “What happens if it’s lost?”

For Spencer’s Friends of the St. Marys Theater and Grand Opera House and Bouson and co-owner Joe Correll’s endeavors, things have not been easy, especially with the pandemic, and nothing is finished just yet.

The Friends of the St. Marys Theater and Grand Opera House purchased the venue, which opened originally in 1895, in 2021 and is still overseeing construction for the second phase of a four-phase, estimated $3 mil. project.

“Our completion date is going to extend into 2024, but phase one was to get the auditorium to where it is operational and so there, we’ve been able to do things,” Spencer said. “We’re over two-thirds of the way to collecting and expending on the project, but that last third is what we will need to get for phase three, which will cover getting the upstairs ballroom finished and phase four will cover everything above the stage, including lighting, sound, curtains and the new grid we will need to hold all of that. So we were able to do things, but we’re not near where it really needs to be to completely satisfy the project estimate.”

Bouson and Correll are in a similar struggle.

Although their charity, Friends of the Ohio Theatre, has helped with the restoration efforts, they have spent almost $400,000 of their own money since purchasing the theater in 2020.

That and the work of volunteers, as well as themselves, has enabled them to at least make enough progress that the bar area, inner and outer lobbies, kitchen and bakery are at or near completely restored. And that, plus the basic renovations to electricity, plumbing and roofing, have enabled the theater, which was built in 1927, to host shows since September of 2022.

“We’ve been at it for nearly three years and we’ve managed to completely replace the roof and stop all of the water leaking into the building,” Bouson said. “We’ve actually put ourselves in a precarious financial position. We’re ready and willing to keep doing the grunt work, but we just need the charity to catch up with the fundraising.”

The good news is that, although the shows that have taken the stage since September have been confined to the Stage Door Canteen section of the venue, the work that Correll and other workers have completed on restoring the plaster and repainting is going to allow the theatre to start premiering shows in the main auditorium.

To Herb Stratford, a veteran of the film industry who has dedicated over 20 years to preserving historic theaters across America with his firm Historic Theatre Consultants, keeping these places alive is of utmost importance.

“This may be a blasphemous thing to say, but the movie theater was sort of the church of the 20th century and it was a place where communities would gather, specifically in a time before television and in the infancy of radio,” he said. “It was where you could go for that communal experience and see cooking shows, touring acts and just gather to have an experience in a way much different than today where we are all sort of living in our own separate worlds with the internet and home theater and our phones bringing the world to our fingertips. Having these spaces is really critical to communities to sort of come together again and celebrate our heritage.”

“It really is the pulse of the community, anchored right in the middle of downtown,” Spencer said of the opera house. “And we’re hoping to increase the vibrancy of our downtown, not just for 2023, but well in the future by having these doors open and people being able to come in and see a movie or live music or stage production. I really think the opera house means everything because if somebody didn’t step up to take care of the issues, the building was going to be nothing more than a memory.”

“We had a theatre class from Lima Senior in here and they were just blown away,” Bouson said. “They had never seen anything like it. They were all way too young to have ever been in here when it was open, but some of them cried and we got thank-you notes from all of them about it. We know it’s important when the next generations feel it is. That’s when you know you’re doing the right thing.”

And doing the right thing means more than just fixing the problems of a theater. It means peeling back the wear that has covered up the art of the buildings, as has been done literally with the murals lining the walls in both the opera house and the Ohio Theatre. It means letting the venues stand as their own unique structures, with their specific purposes.

“These theaters were a little bit more intimate and even with the bigger spaces with 1000 seats, there is still a sense of intimacy,” Stratford said. “If you go to a new construction, there’s really no art in the construction. It’s all very utilitarian and there are no decorative elements —it’s solely about commerce and I think that cinema is an art form that deserves to be seen in a place that is built for that.”

“As theatremakers and former television producers, we’re always creating things that feel like they’re temporary, but could have a lasting history,” Bouson said. “We’ve always been interested in things from the past. We’ve been blessed to travel all over the world and visit places that are ancient, not just historical, but ancient and so we have a genuine appreciation for preserving the past particularly as it applies to the performing arts.”

“Being able to bring the opera house back to life has been a very rewarding and special aspect of my life,” Spencer, who grew up attending events at the theater, said. “It’s really about giving this place back to the community as they once knew and loved it. They’ll say they haven’t been in here forever and nobody has so it’s very special to see them really brighten up when they walk in here and see the changes that have been made and that there is activity in this 1895 building.”

A passion for restoring the theaters and preserving their history is not the only thing that each of these people has in common.

They all want to see the downtown areas re-emerge economically.

And it is no coincidence that they think the theaters are the key to that.

“I think it was Richard Moe, who was the head of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, who said that every successful downtown restoration has a theater as part of it because it’s such a unique way to get people back into their urban core,” Stratford said. “My first theater was the Fox Theatre in Tucson, Arizona and it closed in the early ’70s, but when we reopened in 2005, there were 40,000 more people coming downtown over the course of the year. So you look at the impact of those bodies, but it’s not just the ones at your venue, it’s the parking, it’s the restaurants and it’s the retail.”

For the Grand Opera House, the community has been consistently supportive.

“From the onset, it was an aggressive timeline,” Spencer said. “There have been great partnerships to make this work with the city, businesses, people who haven’t lived in this community for a long time and even students from the local schools doing fundraisers. We pitched this as a community project and by and large, they have really bought into it.”

Although the Lima community has similarly bought into backing the Ohio Theatre, the pandemic made things much tougher than Bouson and Correll expected.

A material shortage and inaccurate inspections handicapped them from the start.

“Joe and I are still not getting paid and we haven’t been paid since we started the project,” Bouson said. “But we’re hanging in there.”

And they were not alone in facing that uncertainty in the arena of historic theater restoration.

“At any one time, there are probably 20 to 30 historic theaters being worked on around the country as communities start to take back their cultural assets,” Stratford said. “All of these historic properties rely on an amount of volunteer labor and the buildings don’t operate solely on earned revenue. The pandemic certainly made things harder because the theaters were already operating on a slim margin.”

But important things are on the horizon for both venues.

The city of St. Marys is celebrating its 200th anniversary this year and it was this that motivated Spencer to get involved in the first place.

“I was driving by the marquee in February of 2021 and said out loud to myself that the doors to the theater can’t be chained shut when St. Marys celebrates its bicentennial in 2023 and we just got motivated to get an A-plus team organized to make it happen in a very aggressive timeline,” he said.

The city is celebrating its anniversary all year long and the theater has been having several events to meet the occasion, but the real celebration at the Opera House will take place in August when the play “A Long Journey Home: The Charles Kruse Story” premiers to tell the story of a St. Marys native who fought in the civil war.

In Lima, the next Ohio Theatre show, “One Night in Fantasia”, will be the first performance to take place in the main auditorium of the venue since it reopened. And Bouson and Correll expect the size of the audience to be doubled by the developments, giving them more operating capital and breathing room.

“It’s a tribute to the nightclub era of the Ohio Theatre, in both a loving and mocking way,” Bouson said. “And opening down there is a huge milestone, probably the second biggest one to the first being actually opening last September. We may not be ready, but that’s how we do things because if we waited until that was done, we would never finish.”

Much work on the Ohio Theatre and the Grand Opera House remains to be done before all facets of the venues can be fully operational for events like weddings, banquets and continuing shows, but the dedication of their owners is undeniable.

And it is things like that, as well as the slate of various shows featuring music, movies and plays that have Stratford hopeful for the future.

“I think that it’s interesting to see a younger generation sort of rally around that experiential opportunity,” he said. “But I think it’s all about versatility and trying to figure out what people want to see and not being lockstep like how we’ve always done it. Everyone said vinyl is dead, but vinyl has come roaring back and we’ve lost a lot of theaters, but I think the ones that we have are a testament to our architectural and cultural legacy and every one we can get back is a win.”

For more information on the St. Marys Grand Opera House or to donate to Friends of the St. Marys Theater and Grand Opera House, visit its website grandoperahouselive.com.

For more information on the Ohio Theatre and its resident theatre troupe, the Avant Garage, or to donate to Friends of the Ohio Theatre, visit the website ohiotheatrelima.com.

Reach Jacob Espinosa at 567-242-0399.