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Every downtown had one. It was the grand old opera house or the movie palace built in the bustle of the city center. In the late 1800s and the early 1900s, these venues served as the heart of entertainment in most communities. Such theaters were great places for first dates or for catching the newest flick. Sadly, these historic treasures have begun to fade away. The creation of “talkies” signaled the demise of opera houses. Single screen theaters, unable to compete with the multi-screen, big box theaters have ceased their cinemagraphic functions, becoming venues for other uses. In many cases, owners have stripped the equipment, leaving just the shell of a building. Despite our fascination with cars, even the drive-in theaters have largely been unable to survive. Consequently, the last quarter of the twentieth century has witnessed the endangerment of these theaters that were once a staple of our society.
What can be done to preserve these historic structures? This is the question the DHPA hopes to answer through its Historic Theater Initiative. The DHPA announced the new initiative at the 2002 Cornelius O’Brien Conference on Historic Preservation in Terre Haute. The goal of the Historic Theater Initiative is to offer a resource to main street organizations, not-for-profits, and for-profit corporations that own historic theaters, opera houses, and drive-ins.
Preservationists, theater owners, film collectors, arts and culture promoters, and tourism experts have been convening to advance the Initiative. The committee has determined that the first objective is to determine the scope of the problem. Everyone is familiar with one or two endangered theaters in their hometowns. But exactly how many were there? How many are left? What is their condition? Once the survey is completed, we will bring together owners of these structures for round-tables, conferences, and workshops to determine what is needed in order for these structures to survive. Staff and members of the committee will also create resource guides and preservation pamphlets for the owners to use.
We hope that through this project leaders in the preservation community will partner with owners of these historic resources to help preserve the heart and culture of our downtowns. If you are interested in participating in the Historic Theater Initiative, or to make sure we have your favorite venue on our list, contact the DHPA at 317-232-1646.