John Grindrod: For St. Marys, reconnecting with the past

In 1986, the musical group Timbuk3 scored its biggest hit with the song “The Future’s So Bright, I Gotta Wear Shades.” If an historic building can be personified, it could be said that the St. Marys Theater and Opera House not only has a venerable past but also a future bright enough to require sunglasses.

Through the years, the theater that began in 1895 earned a reputation as one of the premier venues for live performances and first-run movies. John Philip Sousa conducted concerts there in 1904 and, later, the likes of Jimmy Durante, Fanny Rice and Gene Autry performed there.

When talkies replaced silent movies into what has been described as Hollywood’s Golden Era, the theater flourished, for many years under the watchful eye of Connie Mandross. One generation replaced another as people regularly made the only theater in town the place for entertainment, that is, until the operation fell on some hard times and was shuttered in 2015.

It was in February of 2021 when Doug Spencer, the now five-term Auglaize Country Commissioner and former student of mine at Memorial High School, was driving past the old theater as he often did as a lifelong St. Marys resident.

Recalls Spencer, “I just finally decided, especially with the town’s bicentennial year coming up a couple years later in 2023, that such a huge part of my town’s history would be forgotten unless we could get the theater reopened and used again.”

Spencer’s first call was to long-time St. Marys small businessman Rich Fowler. Spencer credits the nonagenarian as having more indefatigability than men half of his 90-plus years.

“Rich is just a tireless worker and, because of his age, had one of the longest histories with the theater than anyone in this town, including, years ago, being a judge when WLIO used the theater for a local talent show series called ‘Dream Big.’ So, he immediately pitched in to help with organizing a group to get the theater open again.”

Before long, there were dozens of both donors and volunteers to assist in unchaining those doors, doing what renovating could be done without requiring assistance from contractors and developing fundraising ideas. The walkup to the front doors features a Hollywood Walk of Fame theme, with stars inlaid for major donors. Inside, the lobby, complete with nostalgic wallpaper, the work of Gayle Masonbrink, who created the wallpaper from old photos of the theater in its heyday, is also completed with a concession stand as is the theater with both lower-level and balcony seating as well as the stage and screen. However, as Spencer points out, there are still important phases to be completed.

“We’ll eventually have the ballroom done on the top floor, which will be a showcase room for rentals for all sorts of events, and there’ll also be construction of extensions off the stage to the east and west for prop storage and a green room. Also, in the plans is an outdoor stage facing south, behind the building, for outdoor concerts. Rather than wait to open until all phases were complete, we felt it was important to be functioning on the main floor with movies and live performances by ’23, since we wanted the theater to be a part of the bicentennial.”

Since the reopening midway through 2022, there have been musical concerts, comedy shows, historical presentations and plenty of movies, from silent to classic to second-run, based on what can be purchased from licensing companies at a reasonable price.

Without question, last year’s top show was in July when Fox News personality and standup comic Jimmy Failla performed a benefit comedy show to a sold-out house.

Indeed that chain through the front door handles that Doug Spencer drove by on that February day three years ago is but a distant memory of the building’s half dozen years of vacancy. By all accounts, with more phases to be completed, the St. Marys Theater and Opera House indeed has a future bright enough for shades.

John Grindrod is a regular columnist for The Lima News, a freelance writer and editor and the author of two books. Reach him at [email protected].