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Image: Hendricks County Historical Alliance
On April 1 1824, the Indiana legislature created Hendricks County. A new town, Danville, was founded to serve as its county seat. Danville’s status as a county seat made it a prominent town, eventually attracting new commercial development and a host of other services necessary to the county and its government. Consequently, many professionals moved to Danville, opening their offices, shops, and even schools. These professionals included doctors, lawyers, newspaper publishers, and especially teachers, since Danville was home to the Central Normal College and Commercial Institute, a teacher’s college, from 1878 until 1946.
This growing population of professionals needed new forms of entertainment, so Danville resident Edward Caldwell opened the Royal Theater in 1914. Caldwell had operated a picture show earlier on another site on Danville’s town square, but this new theater was the first structure created solely for the purpose of showing films. The first film offered at the Royal was “The Million Dollar Mystery” a 1914 Thanhouser serial movie featuring Florence Labadie and James Cruze. The new Royal Theater was located within the northern space of the present structure that now houses the chocolate shop. In 1926, Caldwell sold the Royal to Thomas J. Barnett of New Albany, Indiana. Barnett, who was born in England but grew up southern Indiana, had been working in the new motion picture industry. He bought the Royal and the adjoining lot to the south in order to expand the theater. Barnett set to work and in the end created the new Royal Theater, a two-story structure decorated in a Tudor Revival style that was twice the size of Caldwell’s Royal and housing an amazing 600 seats. The remodeled Royal offered staggered seating, rich red velour draperies, a wooden stage area in front of the screen, and a five-horsepower organ used to provide musical accompaniment to the films. The Royal Beautiful, as it was called at the time, opened to the public in 1927 offering the film “Rookies” starring Dane Nash and George Arthurs.
The Royal continued to serve the Danville community for the next several decades, however, at some point, the building was reconfigured and the theater contracted to only use the southern portion of the building. Consequently, the number of seats dropped to about 250 or so. In the late 1970’s and early 1980’s, the Royal suffered through several years of difficulty – opening and closing frequently and even suffering damage from a fire in 1982. In 1998, the Royal closed its doors to the public, as the management company then running the theater quit, blaming the building’s poor condition for the move. Finally, in 2001, local attorney Lee Comer stepped in and bought the building with his own funds. After the purchase, Comer hired Tracie Shearer, the current manager of the Royal, to research and conduct necessary renovations on the structure and then to run the day-to-day affairs of the Royal. Tracie had no real experience running or renovating a theater, however she had often dreamed of owning the historic theater and at one point asked Comer to contact her if he needed help with it. Comer took her up on her offer and hired her to oversee the Royal. Shearer went to work immediately, contacting contractors, film distributors and booking agents, and researching the necessary improvements. To cut costs, she and her husband did much of the work, only relying on professionals when absolutely necessary. According to Shearer, the theater was in poor condition when it was purchased, suffering from some water damage, electrical problems, plumbing issues, inadequate heating, and a complete lack of air conditioning. There was a lot of trash and other debris which needed removed as well.
After a general clean up, Shearer’s first priority was to upgrade the restrooms and lobby facilities and to construct a modern concession stand to serve the patrons. After these projects were completed, they began painting and redecorating the interior of the theater. Shearer and her family painted the more accessible sections of the theater, but hired professionals to do the high walls and roof of the auditorium. She also created and hung the hanging fabric within the auditorium, minimizing costs by seeking out a local fabric store and negotiating a special price for the material. By 2001, the Royal was ready for their grand reopening. More recently, the Royal has been outfitted with a new heating and air conditioning system. Additionally, the wooden terraced floor of the auditorium was torn up and replaced with poured concrete, preparing it to receive modern, high-quality seats. Due to the larger size of the new seats, the Royal was forced to drop its total number of seats to 228. For the future, Mrs. Shearer would like to renovate the marquee and improve the stage area.
Today, the Royal stays true to its original 1927 roots, focusing on showing films. However, the stage in the auditorium of the Royal allows the theater to do more. They offer special concerts on a recurring basis during the year and in the recent past have even allowed local theater groups to perform stage productions. Unfortunately, Shearer says that the special issues raised by stage productions – set creation and storage, rehearsal time, etc – would cut into to the theater’s movie showings so they are hesitant to sponsor them any longer. At this point, all of the Royal’s repairs and renovations have been paid for by owner Lee Comer out of his own pocket. According to Tracie Shearer, Comer, a lifelong resident of Danville and Hendricks County, wants to save the theater for the local community, insuring that it continues to cater to families as it has in the past – an idea that Shearer wholeheartedly agrees with. In fact, Comer’s dedication to the theater and his generous funding is the only reason that the theater is open and operating today. Comer only asks that the Royal produce enough money to cover its general expenses and overhead, something that Shearer says they have been able to do on a consistent basis.
The Royal also enjoys a special relationship with the community in Danville. One example offered was the movie club that the local school system sponsors. The school brings a large group of elementary school children to the Royal for after school showings of films once a month, generating revenue for the theater which charges admission and in turn remits a dollar to the school per child. The school provides transportation and teachers to supervise the children; in fact the principal attends the events as well. The local Parent Teacher Organization also chips in by providing volunteers to help theater staff with the concession stand. More recently, Danville High School has begun to offer a free movie day to students maintaining perfect attendance during the school year. They pay for the movie and the student's admissions as well as provide pizza and drinks for the kids.
Overall, the Royal Theater in Danville is a wonderful story of personal dedication. First, dedication by the owner, Lee Comer, who bought the theater with his own funds and single handedly paid for all of the restoration and renovation. Secondly, dedication from the theater's manager, Tracie Shearer, and her family, who have devoted countless hours and energy to repair, upgrade, and run the theater during her tenure.