As a 3-year-old child being carried from his home on Hudson Street, Frank Kowalski clung to his father’s neck as his family made the five-block trip to the Ohio Theatre on Lagrange Street.
That was 1926. Now, 87 years later, Frank said he clearly remembers those Saturday morning trips to a building jam-packed with other children excited to see a motion picture featuring Flash Gordon or Western shoot-’em-ups with Buck Jones and Tom Mix.
On May 5, Frank was just as excited, according to Delphine Kowalski, his wife of 61 years, as the couple made the trip from their home in the Polish Village to the newly renovated Ohio Theatre and Events Center (OTEC) for the 1 p.m. performance of chamber music by 14 members of the Toledo Symphony Orchestra.
“He could hardly wait to come today,” Delphine said. “He usually sleeps late, but he didn’t sleep late today.”
Although he admitted his disappointment that the orchestra’s brass and woodwind quintets and string quartet only drew 25 patrons, Frank said he was overjoyed to learn that the Toledo School for the Arts (TSA) dance performance on May 2 drew more than 450 people.
“Oh boy, that’s good news. That’s really good news,” Frank said. “These people are bursting with talent. I hope this takes hold. That’s what this neighborhood needs.”
Ohio Theatre and Events Center
Delphine said she is happy that the Polish Village she has called home for more than six decades has come to more closely resemble the close-knit community in which she and Frank raised their two sons.
“It’s nice to have a place again for entertainment and culture that we can come to so close in the neighborhood,” she said. “We don’t have to go too far away.”
The couple said much of their lives have revolved around events held at the former Ohio Theatre. Frank said he spent his childhood at Saturday matinees watching chapter plays.
As a couple, they attended hundreds of events, including their son’s musical shows, Echoes of Poland dance performances, English and Polish language films, magic shows and organ recitals. They even credit the Ohio Theatre with filling the family’s kitchen cabinets with dinnerware since patrons received plates when they attended Monday shows.
And as grandparents, they watched their granddaughter perform there in an acting troupe. On May 5, they enjoyed the second performance of what they hope will be many more shows in the renovated and renamed Ohio Theatre and Events Center, 3114 Lagrange St.
Saving the neighborhood
The Kowalskis said they credit the late Rev. George Rinkowski, a Roman Catholic priest and pastor of St. Hedwig Church from 1968-84, with the foresight to save the Ohio Theatre for the neighborhood.
According to the Rev. Paul Kwiatkowski, who replaced Rinkowski as the parish’s pastor after he retired in 1984, Rinkowski bought the Ohio Theatre in 1976 for $59,500 “to prevent a syndicate out of Detroit from purchasing it and turning it into an adult movie theater.
“In fact, Bishop Donovan didn’t want him to do it. He did not give him a loan but said, ‘If you can get a loan, I’ll let you get it.’ He went to a bank in Defiance, Ohio, and got the loan.”
The eight-year loan was for about $25,000, as Rinkowski had raised about $34,000 himself from concerned Toledoans sympathetic to his cause.
“I really do think it helped stabilize the area,” Kwiatkowski said. “The neighborhood could have gone down if the Ohio Theatre had gone triple-X. There was a theater on the East Side — the Eastwood — and the neighborhood did suffer for a while. It was showing X-rated movies, and he didn’t want that to happen in the North End. They called it the St. Hedwig Culture Center. They wanted it to be indeed that — a cultural center.”
“We had this wonderful theater, and after the painting was done on the inside of the church, Father Rinkowski had the painters go over to the theater and paint the interior there.
“And then he had that thrust stage built, which was nice, because that stage — because of the alley and the angle of the building — is very narrow at one end and then it opens up a little bit on the other end. It was not a very deep stage at all, so Father built this big thrust stage.”
‘We own it. Now let’s use it.’
Kwiatkowski said that when he became pastor of St. Hedwig in 1984, he said, “We own it. Now let’s use it.”
“We got a number of things going. Bob James, the first theater manager, brought in theater acts. At the grand reopening we had Myron Floren, the accordionist with Lawrence Welk. He gave a nice concert and brought some people with him, and we honored Father Rinkowski.”
Kwiatkowski said he had the Toledo Symphony Orchestra perform in the theater a couple of times.
“Mr. [Yuval] Zaliouk (director from 1980-89) thought of doing some recording there with the symphony because the acoustics were good,” Kwiatkowski said.
“We even had a symphony once with Ole Schmitz from Denmark. He had written the score for the orchestra for the black-and-white silent movie ‘The Passion of Joan of Arc.’ It was just lovely. But darn if the film didn’t break during the performance, but they got it back on again.”
In addition, Kwiatkowski said during his tenure, the Ohio Theatre hosted art auctions, children’s theater workshops, movie nights, political candidate forums, St. Hedwig Grade School Christmas plays, The Echoes of Poland dance troupe, the Shopper-Herald newspaper and The Toledo Area Theatre Organ Society.
“We would get things and the neighborhood wouldn’t show up,” Kwiatkowski said. “We never made any profit on any of the things we had in there, which was a shame.
“People would say, ‘Oh you have a 500-seat house.’ Well, yeah, but all those seats didn’t get filled up.”
Age takes its toll
By 1987, the 66-year-old building was showing its age, Kwiatkowski said.
“The roof leaked so bad and the worst leak was over the organ chamber,” he said. “They would have pots and visqueen (plastic sheeting) because, in a way, water is worse than fire for an organ like that with all the wooden parts.”
When he replaced the roof on the theater in 1987, the Rev. Albin Radecki, then-pastor at St. Adalbert Church, donated $1000 to the renovation.
“He saw the value of it as a neighborhood thing even though St. Hedwig was operating it,” Kwiatkowski said. “We had Ohio Building Restoration repair the decking that was rotted out over the organ chamber, and then they put a Duro-Last membrane over the whole roof, and also over the marquee because it was leaking too.
“It was a struggle. We tried to have it stand on its own. After I left, Father [Joe] Przybysz (St. Hedwig’s pastor from 1994 to 2005) was able to sell it to [Ohio Theatre, Inc., a nonprofit management board, in 2004].
Catalyst for private investment
Terry Glazer, United North’s chief executive officer, bought the theater from Ohio Theatre, Inc. five years later for $60,446.
“Its renovation is part of an overall comprehensive effort in a four- or five-block area, and I think the theater will be the catalyst to bring more private investment back to Lagrange Street,” Glazer said.
Glazer said the North Toledo community development corporation envisions OTEC serving as both a theater and a community center.
“It’s going to be very versatile,” Glazer said. “It will provide an opportunity to introduce youth to the arts.
“Some youth are interested in sports, but we need to have other activities for youth, and the arts have proven to help youth with their academics. And because of funding issues, the Toledo Public Schools cannot afford to do as much with the arts as they have in the past.
“Secondly, I think what happened after the [May 2] show is a good example of economic development. People left the OTEC and went right across the street to the restaurant that recently opened, J’Mae’s Home Cooking. There was a line of people that waited to get into that business.
“We believe that the people coming in for events at the theater will help existing businesses and encourage new businesses to come in, which in turn will provide goods and services for neighborhood residents and also provide jobs.
“The other interesting thing about the theater is that this was not done in isolation. If you look across East Central Avenue, there is a Fifth Third [Bank], built just two years ago.”
Glazer said United North’s next project will be the adaptive reuse of St. Hedwig’s School, which closed in 2005.
“We’re proposing to convert that into 41 units of senior housing. And we’ve renovated four commercial buildings called Shoppes on Lagrinka.”
That redevelopment project in the 2800 block of Lagrange Street created a 8,204-square-foot shopping plaza that opened in January 2008.
“Within those shops, we have a financial opportunity center which enables people to have long-term coaching to increase their financial wealth.
“There’s a senior center — not new — but a senior center is located there and a new restaurant that opened directly across the street from the OTEC. And then there’s a Dollar General store that’s going in on the corner of Park and Lagrange.”
Glazer said United North never lost sight of its economic development mission during the theater’s renovation.
“We started with the question, ‘Should the theater be a one-purpose kind of theater or should it be something that could be used for multiple purposes?’”
Everything from bathroom to stage design decisions were made to ensure the building’s renovations facilitated the creation of a multiple-purpose theater, Glazer said, since United North was convinced that North Toledo’s redevelopment would best be served with that type of building.
“The original plan didn’t call for the extension of the stage,” Glazer said. “But when we looked at it, we thought the extension of the stage would allow the theater to be used for multiple purposes.
“For example, with that large stage, you could do a banquet. You could also have an intimate concert by just putting chairs around a platform. You could have what we had [May 2] — 85 kids on the stage at one time.
“The expanded stage allows the building to be more multipurpose. In some ways, that was the most critical — not the most expensive, but one of the most critical — improvements that we made. Because in the final analysis, it’s great to renovate a building, but you want to make sure that building is going to be used in the long run.”
Under new management
United North turned to Northwest Ohio’s arts community to find a qualified individual with the education, skills and enthusiasm to manage the theater, Glazer said.
That’s where United North’s search committee found Jamie Leigh Sampson, 28, a Bowling Green State University graduate with master’s degrees in musical composition and bassoon performance and internship experiences with a symphony and an opera company.
Sampson’s salary as OTEC’s part-time theater manager is paid through a grant from the Toledo Community Foundation, Glazer said.
“In the 10 weeks I’ve worked here, the theater has gone from looking rather beat up to looking like a modern-day gentleman,” Sampson said.
“The biggest difference is when we put up these black [sidewall] curtains to cover up material that was pretty beat up. The change is much like someone walking into an interview in a T-shirt and jeans versus someone walking in wearing a business suit. In the last week before we opened, the theater has shown its capability to clean itself up and be ready for anything, like going from grubby clothes to a suit and tie.”
Sampson acknowledges the scaffolding in front of the theater gives the building a temporary beat-up look.
“There are so many people who are just discovering that it’s reopening, that have memories of coming here as a kid to see Santa Claus on stage or who saw their first movie or had their first kiss here.
“There’s a lot of sentimentality surrounding with this opening. And so I heard a lot of positive reactions.
“I’ve had a couple people say, ‘I’ve had no idea it was opening because the scaffolding is out front.’
“When the symphony came and toured, one of them said, ‘When you’re looking at it from the outside, you say, ‘“It’s OK. It’s a theater.’”
“Then you get into the lobby, and you feel a little bit more at home. And then you get into the theater proper itself. And you say, “Wow. It’s a theater.’””
“That’s the reaction we want,” Sampson said. “We don’t want it to get worse as they walk in. We want it to get better and better until they see the brand-new stage that’s been expanded and they say, ‘This is something no one else can offer us.’”
Sampson is in the process of moving from Bowling Green to the Polish Village.
“I found a beautiful place. I can see the river from my front yard. I grew up near the St. Lawrence River. I am very sentimental about the Maumee River. That was part of it.
“But also, I thought, ‘What would it say if I’m working for an organization whose entire goal is to revitalize this neighborhood and I live Uptown or in the Warehouse District? I have friends in those neighborhoods, and they’re beautiful and wonderful. They’ve done so much to restore them.
“I want the same thing to happen here. I want to be one of the people who says, ‘The reputation this neighborhood has is fed by fears.’ And I don’t believe that’s all that this neighborhood could be. That’s why I work for this theater. That’s why they bought the theater, and if I can be closer to it to make sure that if anything does go wrong, I’m here.
“One of the big markers for that in any community development book that you read is that people in their 20s are moving back to the urban areas, and we want that to happen.”
The Toledo Symphony Orchestra musicians who performed chamber music at OTEC’s second show praised the acoustics in the theater as some of the very best in Northwest Ohio.
“This is some of the best acoustics we’ve ever played in,” said Lauraine Carpenter, principal trumpet. “I would absolutely love to come back here.”
Merwin Siu, principal second violinist, said he was equally excited with the quality of sound in the OTEC.
“The acoustics are very bright and very present,” Siu said. “I think that one of the things that is great about this particular venue is when you’re there, the sound is not metallic, but it’s very warm and it’s very present. You don’t feel far away from the sound. The sound seems next to you, around you.”
‘A rectangular shoebox’
Garth Simmons, principal trombonist, said the OTEC owes its great acoustics to the architect who designed the building back in 1921.
“Part of it is the shape,” Simmons said. “If you look around here, essentially it’s a rectangular shoebox.
“It’s the really high ceilings. Everybody’s in the same room. We’re not behind the proscenium, which acoustically puts us in a separate space. It’s not a smaller space trying to drive a larger one, like it is on a proscenium stage, which tends to make the acoustics weird.
“We’re in the same room as the audience is. If you look around, the dimensions of the space we’re in is basically a shoebox. That’s a great proportion. That creates great acoustics.”
Marty Porter, director, at TSA, was just as enthusiastic as Toledo Symphony Orchestra musicians in his evaluation of the OTEC as a “unique space in Toledo that will be especially effective for dance and music performances.
“It was a great experience with the acoustics and lighting at a very reasonable price. They did a nice job expanding the stage, and the large rig they built for the lighting will serve them very, very well. Because there is no curtain, the theater allows for creative presentations. I’m delighted to see they’re bringing that theater back to life.”
Under the direction of Letha Ferguson, 135 sixth-, seventh- and eighth-grade students from TSA opened the newly-renovated OTEC on May 2 with a 90-minute dance production. Porter said he plans to continue to use the OTEC, along with all the other venues around Toledo.
“We work in lots of different venues around the city,” he said, “because we want our students to experience as many different professional venues as possible.
“We are committed to work in our community. TSA is a believer of supporting the community. Whenever there is a new venue, we are happy to utilize and support it.”
Tags: Albin Radecki, Bob James, Delphine Kowalski, Dollar General, Frank Kowalski, George Rinkowski, J’Mae’s Home Cooking, Lagrange Street, Lawrence Welk, Myron Floren, Ohio Theatre, Ohio Theatre and Events Center, Ole Schmitz, Paul Kwiatkowski, Polish Village, Toledo School for the Arts, Toledo Symphony Orchestra, United North