You are invited to tour historic theatres in Indiana

posted by Andy Pierce on May 1, 2010 at 7:00 am

Those of us who advocate for the renovation and reuse of historic theatres always learn something when we look at successfully operating vintage theatres. Sometimes, you can find them in what you think are unlikely places.

In that spirit, I would like to invite you to consider joining us June 22-27, 2010, for the Theatre Historical Society of America’s statewide tour of Indiana. (THSA tours a different area in the U.S. each year for its annual “conclave.”)

Among the 33 historic venues we will see are at least three “movie palaces.” You can see how the INDIANA (Indianapolis), EMBASSY (Fort Wayne) and PALACE (Louisville) survived the decades and have been renovated for contemporary entertainment. We will travel daily in buses as far north as South Bend, as far south as Lexington, Ky., as far west as Danville, Ill., and as far east as Richmond. You are free to roam on your own in the evenings. Indy has much to offer in the way of theatre, movies, bowling and other amusements.

In addition to the movie palaces, there are a wide variety of opera houses, cinemas, fraternal halls, ballrooms and other unique venues on the tour that really don’t fit into one category. Their diverse stories of survival and endurance are encouraging and inspiring to those of us who are working to preserve great theatres.

You may read the full conclave brochure and contemplate the registration form on the THSA web site:

What follows after the jump is the complete introduction I wrote for the current edition of Marquee magazine that covers all of the Indiana theatres we will tour. It includes a lot of personal history that explains how I came to have this interest. I’m including it here because space limitations and good editing have appropriately truncated it for Marquee.

Thank you for considering this invitation. If these kinds of thing sounds like fun to you, then I hope to see you on the bus plowing through the corn and bean fields of Indiana!

The 2010 Indiana Hoosier Heartland Conclave:


From Indy to the Sticks

Known for Boilermakers, Hoosiers, Colts, Pacers, Indy Cars and corn, the majority of the landscape of my home state is a blank spot for most tourists and TV watchers worldwide. The computer message “file not found” or “data not available” blinks in my mind when I try to picture the collective image of Indiana. It is, for many, a place in-between places that one has come from or is going to. A “flyover.”

The land of Larry Bird, Hoagy Carmichael, Johnny Cougar, James Dean, Eugene V. Debs, John Dillinger, “Garfield,” Gus Grissom, Presidents Harrison, Michael Jackson, Jim Jones, David Letterman, Carole Lombard, Eli Lilly, John T. McCutcheon, Bill Monroe, Wes Montgomery, Jane Pauley, Gennet Records, Florence Henderson, Cole Porter, Ernie Pyle, Dan Quayle, Orville Redenbacher, James Whitcomb Riley, the Studebakers, Billy Sunday, Kurt Vonnegut Jr., Madame Walker and Wilbur Wright is not necessarily known for its theatres and designers. However, notable architects here include Alvin M. Strauss (1895 —– 1958), of Kendallville, Ind., who designed many important buildings, including the EMBASSY, PARAMOUNT and Indiana Hotel in Fort Wayne and the Auburn Cord Duesenberg Automobile Facility in Auburn. Strauss collaborated with John Eberson in the design of the PARAMOUNT, Anderson, an impressive survivor.

Born 40 years earlier in Indianapolis, architect Bernard Vonnegut (1855 to 1908), grandfather of the famous writer, partnered with Arthur Bohn to design several commissions, including the ATHENAEUM. Kurt Vonnegut Sr. (1884-1956) continued the firm’s work, including the 1916 Fletcher Savings and Trust bank building that was converted to hotel use in 1996 and is our conclave headquarters. An interesting footnote, Kurt Vonnegut Sr. oversaw the moving of the 11,000-ton, 8-story Central Union Telephone Company Building in downtown Indianapolis over a period of 30 days in late 1930, without interrupting service or relocating staff. This lost, 1907 building is said to have been the biggest building ever moved.

You may ask: Why Indiana? The answer is that in its entire 41 years, Theatre Historical Society of America has not yet covered Indiana in a conclave. That is not to say that we do not have strong Hoosier ties. There have been many leading members from Indiana and occasional tours of a handful of theatres. Also, our late co-founder, editor and archive creator Bro. Andrew Corsini Fowler lived and worked in South Bend for many years. When the idea was discussed by the board, Beth Eckerty and I agreed to help host if veteran conclave planner Tom Du Buque was onboard. Our assignment is bittersweet, I feel, because we all miss and feel the absence of Chicago-area director and interior designer Joe DuciBella, with whom we executed the 2003 Chicago conclave and who died too young from cancer in 2007. I like to think that Joe would have enjoyed this presentation even if he didn’t like being in the sticks.

Indiana, much like the 2004 conclave of Kansas, Missouri and Oklahoma, is lucky to have so many surviving and operating theatres in its small towns. Victorian opera houses, small purpose-built movie houses, movie palaces and art deco cinemas can be found all along the way. At the same time, the capital city Indianapolis has not looked better in my lifetime. Its historic venues have been renovated and preserved, modern shopping centers and sports facilities are in the heart of downtown and its choices for hospitality are affordable and friendly.

As a native Hoosier, I cannot honestly say that all of the venues I knew as a kid were remarkable, had interesting names or can be made memorable by my prose. We saw many of our movies in the first generation of multiplexes that sprouted in the parking lots of shopping centers and malls. It’s those less remarkable boxes made of concrete blocks and drapes that make the great historic theatres that we’ve charted for this tour and other conclaves stand out so brightly for me.

Famous only for twice covering the 1993 murder trial of Susan Grund for the Peru (Ind.) Daily Tribune, I was born to loving parents, who met at the SKYDROME, where my soon to be dad was a manager. It was a drive-in on the edge of New Castle that closed and was replaced by a grocery store and K-Mart long before my memory started. We saw our cartoons and movies uptown on Main Street (really) at the CASTLE, a modest, modern 810-seat cinema with a façade that was a small work of swirly Vitrolite art when it opened in 1935. While it long outlived the earlier PRINCESS across the street, it was closed suddenly this January, leaving my hometown without a cinema for the first time since movies first came to the prairie. Dave Battas, a veteran Indiana cinema operator and the owner of a concessions supply company, reopened the CASTLE on Friday, March 26, 2010, with “How to Train Your Dragon.”

My younger sister and I helped sell concessions and clean up at the now lost ALHAMBRA, Knightstown, an imposing Odd Fellows Hall on the town square turned cinema that my grandparents Jay and Ida Mae Farmer bought, renovated and opened in 1980. It was just blocks away from the Victorian high school gymnasium made famous five years later in the movie “Hoosiers.” There were occasional trips to the SKY-VUE with grocery sacks full of buttered popcorn from home. My second theatre volunteer job was hauling wet, rotten piles of debris to the alley out of the GUYER OPERA HOUSE in Lewisville under the spell of literature teacher and thespian Dick Willis. Now, wasn’t that a proper baptism?

Our birthdays were celebrated at a Farrell’s Ice Cream Parlor or at the Paramount Music Palace in Indianapolis, where the 4-manual, 42-rank Oakland, Calif. PARAMOUNT WurilTzer organ was accompanied by pizza and ice cream. Little did I know how many pieces of my puzzle where coming together there. (That pizza palace was displaced by a national chain Mexican restaurant but the organ survives at the Roaring `20s Pizza and Pipes in Ellenton, Fla.) In Chrysler High, I played alto and baritone saxophones in the Trojan Band to entertain basketball fans in “The World’s Largest and Finest High School Gymnasium,” which according to Wikipedia still reigns at 9,325 seats.

The first movie palace I entered was the INDIANA in Indianapolis for live stage plays. Though I knew there was something different about it, I didn’t know enough to say what. The big stores and tall buildings were always a thrill for the Pierce family when they went to the big city. “Naptown,” mom called it. We lived only 30 miles from the PARAMOUNT, Anderson, but never went. The first restored Hoosier theatre for me was the MADAME WALKER in Indianapolis. The exotic interior replete with monkeys perched atop the proscenium hypnotized me during a New Year’s Eve rock concert. I couldn’t believe they let people party in such a beautiful place.

There is something about “Hoosier Hospitality” that is rooted more in the south. Maybe it is the Appalachian heritage of many Indiana residents that makes their friendliness more remarkable than that of other Midwesterners. I do hope you join us for the 2010 Hoosier Heartland Conclave and see what you and THSA have been missing all of these years. And, keep our archives in mind as you wander Indiana. THSA could really benefit from having more historical information on and photographs of these great theatres.

By Andy Pierce, volunteer

Comments (13)

terrywade on May 1, 2010 at 8:56 pm

This is looking like a great week for theatre touring. Just a note for Cinerama® fans the Indiana Theatre in Indianapolis that we will be going into was a Cinerama® Theatre for many years. The large curved screen long gone must have looked super in this huge palace. Thanks THS for doing this tour for the first time in the state of Indiana. All you movie theatre fans need to join up and see some of the best classic cinemas this June. I look forward to seeing my many Big Screen 70mm friends from the THS Theatre World in Indiana. New members are welcome. Visit us and join the fun. A great way to start your Summer vacation!

Andy Pierce
Andy Pierce on May 2, 2010 at 5:18 pm

In my own writing in Marquee magazine, I also tagged the INDIANA, Terre Haute, Ind., as a movie palace. (But I left it out in this writing!) Would you agree that it can be called a palace?

JohnMLauter on May 2, 2010 at 7:13 pm

Terry, I don’t know if you knew this, but the Indiana was gutted and turned into two black-box nothingness auditoriums by a community thee-ahhh-tah group about 30 years ago. The exterior of the building still is impressive, and the ballroom is still nice, but the auditorium is history, gone.

soybean on May 3, 2010 at 6:05 am

Uptown Adviser, I definately would say that the Indiana Theater @ Terre Haute, Indiana is a palace. Though very little, unless private functions is taking place at this grand theater now. It’s too bad some person or group doesn’t buy this theater & restore it. So it can be once again be the great theater that it once was.

Andy Pierce
Andy Pierce on May 3, 2010 at 10:30 am

I would like to inject a little positivity. THSA “conclave” theatre tours are about appreciating the best remaining historic theatres as they are and supporting efforts that are underway. Two busloads of historians from around the world showing up to look at your theatre can draw positive attention if it is needed.

The INDIANA, Indianapolis, does have a radically altered auditorium. Renovated in 1979 and 1986, the current configuration seats 600, 300 and 100 (Originally 3,133), depending on the needs/demands of a given show. Its flexibility has been its key to survival. Otherwise, it would most likely be gone entirely.

The INDIANA, Terre Haute, is a worn but intact survivor that we are glad to be touring. While I am sure that everyone would love to see a museum-quality restoration, we have to appreciate that the theatre is loved by its owner and is kept as best as the market conditions allow. It eatures many early John Eberson (architect) trademarks that would serve his designs for years to come. The INDIANA includes a rotunda vestibule, a vaulted lobby, an antiqued Spanish theme and some atmospheric effects such as windows.

terrywade on May 4, 2010 at 8:38 am

John thanks for your up date on the ex Cinerama® Indiana in downtown Indianapolis. I do remember seeing a photo many years ago of the front with the Cinerama® sign. Looks like when I go in for the first time this June I’ll just have to imagine how the large curved screen looked before they did the chop up thing. Thanks again for the warning. I’ll be touring the many Drive In Theatres in Indiana while I am in the area also. They have one still open and a few closed ones still in Indianapolis. Our group will just pass them up on the bus tour and not even mention them. How sad as Drive In’s are movie theatres also. Any one else going on the movie tour that wants to see Drive In’s? Lets do a short mini car share/photo tour. Indianna has many outdoor Drive In’s still open and many standing closed just wanting to be saved and re opened for a future generation to enjoy. Santa Barbara CA just opened a Drive In Theatre that has been closed for 15 years. Iron Man#2 on the 88 foot wide Santa Barbara outdoor screen beats any little multiplex tiny shoe box showing. Does anyone have any photos to share on the inside of the Indiana Cinerama® Theatre before the carve up happened?

Andy Pierce
Andy Pierce on May 4, 2010 at 10:05 am

If my memory serves correctly, THSA archives has a photo of the INDIANA auditorium altered and outfitted for Cinerama.

We will certainly mention drive-ins that are along the way in Indiana. A struggling survivor that comes to mind is the SKY-VUE, mentioned in the writing above. It is along Highway 3 between New Castle and Spiceland, just north of I-70.

We will not be touring Santa Barbara, Calif.

terrywade on May 4, 2010 at 9:16 pm

Thanks for any Drive In notes along the way in Indiana. Just pull over the bus for a quick photo op please. I know it’s rough just covering all the indoor movie theatres on this conclave with traffic weather ect. Any little extra Indiana outdoor movie things will be greatly appreciated by the out of town bus people with their cameras. If your not a member yet of THS this is a good time to join up and see what you are missing. Meet new friends that share your interest in movie theatres. Some Cinemas may not be around much more longer, see them now while you can.

CSWalczak on May 4, 2010 at 11:09 pm

This page has a number of pictures of the Indiana as a Cinerama house, including one of the auditorium:

terrywade on May 5, 2010 at 8:12 am

Thank You!!!!!CW for the photos of the Cinerama Indiana. How great that big screen must have looked with three projectors on.

Andy Pierce
Andy Pierce on May 5, 2010 at 10:09 am

Terry, we cannot do photo ops of drive-ins. Even the SKY-VUE owned by some branch of the Pierce family will be a drive-by at top highway speed. If you look at our daily schedule and see the miles we are covering, there is not a moment to lose. And we do not want to be rolling back into Indy at midnight. The conclave is set up as a theatre tour and not a tour of drive-ins. If we were doing drive-ins, it would probably be best at night — and a completely different dynamic overall.

rsalters (Ron Salters)
rsalters (Ron Salters) on May 5, 2010 at 10:41 am

I participated in many THSA conclaves from the early 1980s into the 2000s. In all that span of time I can recall stopping at a Drive-in theater just once, a 2-screener somewhere in Mississipi on a tour out of New Orleans. There may have been other drive-in stops, but I can’t recall any. We had 2, 3 or 4 busses and the schedules are very tight. It’s a constant battle to stay on-time. So you can’t make quick stops for photo-ops. The THSA conclaves are somewhat expensive, but great fun for those who love theaters.

Andy Pierce
Andy Pierce on May 5, 2010 at 10:09 pm

I appreciate the interest in drive-ins. This conclave, however, is a tour of 33 (thirty-three) historic theatres throughout Indiana, and Louisville and Lexington, Ky. If we make all of those theatres on time and without a change in plans, it will be an act of vision and daring. Come see!

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