Group works to keep Ohio Theatre openWritten by Sue Van Fleet | | firstname.lastname@example.org
When she was a little girl, Doris Tylinski would walk with her friends to the Ohio Theatre to see the latest movie.
She took a quarter with her — enough for admission with some left over for popcorn and ice cream.
"We all went together and sat in the same seats we always sat in, like they were ours," she said.
Back then, in the late ’40s and early ’50s, the theater was always packed, Tylinski said. "It was the place to go."
Located on Lagrange Street in Toledo’s Polish Village neighborhood, the theater remains largely unchanged from when it was built in 1921. Anyone attending a performance there can sit in its original seats, for example, and perhaps marvel at how much smaller butts must have been back then. (The theater has since added some wider seats for those who want them.)
But the years have had their way with the old theater, and the nonprofit group running it is hoping to restore some of its past glory. The Ohio Theatre Inc. purchased the building from the St. Hedwig parish in 2004.
Michael Nelson, president of the board of trustees for the organization, said he’s trying to make sure the doors never close. The board is putting in new sidewalks, lighting for security, a new marquee at the side and new doors and ramps. Nelson estimates about $3 million is needed for the work.
The biggest problem is the front wall, which is leaning out into Lagrange Street by 6 to 8 inches and is structurally unsound. The front marquee was lost in 2004 when lightning struck one of the chains supporting it and it went tumbling down.
"The marquee was wide enough that she scraped the sidewalk," Nelson said. "Otherwise it would have blown out the front of the theater."
The front of the building is closed to pedestrian traffic and the offices have been moved to the inner lobby and women’s lounge area.
"I run the place from the women’s bathroom," Nelson quipped. He volunteers on a full-time basis at the theater.
Because Ohio Theatre is on the state and national registries of historic places, once the wall comes down, the original bricks have to be used to replace it, Nelson said. He estimates it will take two years to get funding for the project.
Money comes from fundraising events, theater rental, member dues and profits from LaGrange St. News, a monthly publication produced at the theater. U.S. Rep. Marcy Kaptur helped secure $151,000 in federal funding for the theater in 2004.
Nelson has other things on his wish list, including replacing the navy blue stage curtain with a maroon one and going back to the theater’s colors from the 1950s: maroon, black, yellow and white. The color scheme changed to turquoise and gold after St. Hedwig’s purchased the building in the 1970s.
"It all depends on what the historical society will let us do," Nelson said. "To change a light bulb around here you almost have to get approval."
The Ohio Theatre boasts a 1921 Marr & Colton theater pipe organ owned by the Toledo Area Theatre Organ Society. Evan Chase, a board member and past president of the society, said he’s been fascinated with old movie theaters for the last 30 years and thinks Ohio Theatre "deserves to survive."
Today’s cinema multiplexes can’t be a center of activity for a neighborhood the way the older theaters can, he said, and don’t lend themselves to stage presentations.
"On top of the community aspect, they are historic and a part of our architectural heritage and have a lot of ambience you can’t get in modern buildings," Chase said. "And once these buildings are gone, they’re gone forever."
Tylinski, who serves on the board of Ohio Theatre Inc., had lived in the neighborhood all her life until her husband died five years ago, she said.
"All of us on the board are working to see if we can bring it back again," she said. "I think if you were born and raised in that area, you would hate to see it come to a decline."
With a seating capacity of 962, the theater annually shows 15-20 public domain, foreign and religious movies, and is also used for performances and children’s programs. Nelson said he would like to increase the number of movies to between 20-30 a year, have an in-house production crew and do at least three children’s Arts in Education programs — two residencies and one summer camp — a year.
His fantasy is that the Ohio Theatre will become "a cultural arts center where children will be able to come and learn theatrics, music, drama and voice, and get hands-on experience on some of the equipment."
"We’re working on making sure the kids get the education they need so the place will go on once we’re gone," he said. "We’re preserving a part of their history."
When the Lagrange Street Amusement Park built the theater in 1921, it was the third-largest theater in Toledo and considered one of the most glamorous at that time, Nelson said.
The doors opened at 3:30 p.m. on Feb. 28, 1921, and the audience saw "The Mark of Zorro," featuring Douglas Fairbanks. The film was accompanied by an orchestra and a theater organ. Including the war tax, admission was 25 cents for adults and 15 cents for children. The two old "Mighty 90s" projectors made in Toledo by Stone Electric Corp. are still used to show movies.
"When you walk in here, it’s like walking into the ’50s," Nelson said. "It’s like walking into a time warp, and you’re transformed from the 21st century to the 20th century."
He and other volunteers are working to protect Ohio Theatre from the fate of other neighborhood theaters: being torn down or used for pornography.
"We love the theater and we love what this place stands for, and we realize the importance of keeping this place open," Nelson said. "It’s a treasure from our past."
Those who would like to volunteer are welcome to contact the theater at (419) 241-6785.
"It needs a lot of work; it needs a lot of volunteers," Nelson said. "We just need people to get behind it to help support it."