Von Lee Cinema

517 E. Kirkwood Avenue,
Bloomington, IN 47401

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Von Lee Cinema

Viewing: Photo | Street View

Built in 1928 as the Ritz Theatre by local investors, the Von Lee was renamed and reopened in 1948 by the Vonderschmitts.

A spacious single-screen cinema now converted into three smaller auditoriums, the theater rests on the border between historic downtown Bloomington and the Indiana University campus.

Purchased in 1976 by Kerasotes Theaters, operations were suspended in 2000 as the company built two multiplexes in the city, making the historic cinema expendable to their operations.

Now owned by the City of Bloomington, the Von Lee has been the center of various community efforts to reopen or otherwise "Save The Von Lee", and it has also since been designated a historic site.

However, it has remained dark since October of 2000.

Contributed by Toby Carter

Recent comments (view all 12 comments)

galoux on August 6, 2006 at 2:25 pm

The second IDS story above is now at http://tinyurl.com/rrp59

You can read the latest on plans for the Von Lee building at http://tinyurl.com/frqj6 The gutting of the building to enact this plan recently began (or was going to, anyway). I’m sad that the Von Lee will no longer be a theatre. Many people worked hard to save it, and in the end, only slightly more than the facade was saved, despite the theatre’s historical status.

I’ve good memories of the place—watching Bergman and Fellini films there, and the AFI’s series there in the 1970s, for example. The last film I saw there was, I believe, either Brain Candy or Trainspotting.

As a sidenote, I heard but do not know if it is true that the owners of the Von Lee (the Vonderschmitts, that is) also owned the Y&W Drive-In at the northern edge of town. I also wonder if the Y&W was related to the 3-screen Y&W in Merrillville, IN.

Lost Memory
Lost Memory on November 14, 2006 at 2:58 pm

This is a recent photo of the Von Lee Cinema receiving a “facelift”?

Lost Memory
Lost Memory on February 12, 2007 at 2:29 pm

Herald-Times (Bloomington, IN)
Byline: Sarah Morin 02/07/2007

“Theater to reopen next month as home to offices, restaurant.

Feb. 7—When the historic Von Lee Theater reopens next month as office and restaurant space, pieces of its past as a 1920s-era movie house will be seen again.

Two large plaster pieces depicting Greek gods Zeus and Hera.

Three ornate light fixtures from the lobby.

Four theater masks depicting comedy and tragedy.

The items from the 1929-built theater that closed in 2000 are being blended in with the new redevelopment at 517 E. Kirkwood Ave.

“These are absolutely gorgeous pieces,” Bloomington real estate developer Eric Stolberg said.

Stolberg is involved with one of the theater’s new uses as a restaurant that offers “quick cuisine.” He is a partner with the group that is the franchise area operator for Boulder, Colo.-based Noodles & Company in Indiana.

“Through the help with the historic preservation commission and (city councilman and preservationist) Chris Sturbaum, we’ve been able to add some of the historical artifacts that were part of the old Von Lee Theater,” Stolberg said.

Construction started last summer at the site — near one of the most popular corners where the city and campus intersect.

Until then, it sat vacant but always drew attention.

A community effort to overturn a restriction by theater-chain Kerasotes Inc. barring the future owner from showing movies wasn’t successful. And proposals to turn the old theater into a bar and restaurant never took off, either.

Then came along Tartan Realty, who should complete the project March 15 for its new tenants — Indiana University creative services and Noodles & Company. There is also room for another first-floor commercial tenant.

Because of its historic designation, the brick shell of the theater has been preserved. And the city’s historic preservation commission suggested a natural wood entryway and a special two-toned brick exterior so the new look would work.

Preservationist Chris Sturbaum thinks it does.

“I’m liking how the building is starting to look,” he said. “You’ll know it was an old historic theater front from the faade there.”

And the layers of construction can be seen like the layers of an onion. The wire-cut brick front faade is visible now that the scaffolding is down. A replica of the original Von Lee sign is also up, above the entryway.

On a recent a tour inside the building, local architect Doug Bruce pointed out the old brick wall facing east toward campus that was saved. It is now supported with steel columns.

“We’ll have some old and new in here,” Bruce said.

Under the new category is color. Bright, bright color on the walls of the upper floors. Tangerine, canary yellow, burnt red, lime green.

And since windows can’t be cut into the old brick wall, skylights are being installed.

The top floors, which IU will occupy, offer a panoramic view of Kirkwood Avenue and the iconic limestone Sample Gates across the street.

“It’s really an eye on Bloomington,” Bruce said looking out onto Indiana Avenue and the gates.

Bruce, who grew up in Bloomington and remembers going to the Von Lee to watch movies with his girlfriend, said he’s never worked on a project that drew so much interest.

Doug Bruce, the head architect of the Von Lee project, explains during a tour of the building last week how aspects of the original building were retained in the new development".

Lost Memory
Lost Memory on August 2, 2007 at 4:51 pm

Here is another photo of the former Von Lee Cinema building. Function is office space and restaurant.

kencmcintyre on August 29, 2007 at 2:03 pm

According to the 1963 motion picture almanac, Nova Vonderschmitt was the owner of the Vonderschmitt chain. The chain’s theaters at that time were the Von Lee, the Von Ritz in Bedford, the Indiana in Bloomington, the Von Castle in Greencastle and the Strand and Varsity in Crawfordsville.

kencmcintyre on January 24, 2008 at 6:15 am

Here is a photo from the 1960s. The theater was being used for zoology lectures given by a local professor:

Coate on January 24, 2008 at 8:23 am

The VON LEE was among a group of about 100 theaters that installed Dolby Stereo for their engagement of Close Encounters Of The Third Kind.

pyronexus on May 7, 2008 at 4:44 am

I miss the Von Lee. It was the perfect place to see art films. Oh what the heck, I even liked watching the occasional blockbuster type movies there. I was very disappointed when Kerasotes closed it and I was extremely peeved when they gave it to the city with the condition that they never show film there. I never knew all of the details behind that. At first I was thinking they didn’t want any first run movies to play there as it would be competition but I ended up hearing that they didn’t want ANY films to play there, even art films or archive films. Too bad.

kencmcintyre on August 3, 2009 at 10:48 am

There is a view of the remodeled Von Lee on this site:

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