Indiana Theater begins new chapter with familiar fare of movies and music
A new but familiar act has begun for the Indiana Theater, a longtime center for entertainment on downtown Indiana's Philadelphia Street.
Sean Howard and Brian Hemmick have leased the property and have reopened it to offer the same types of programs — live acts and, most recently, movies — that were presented when the building was constructed 89 years ago.
“We are going to approach it as an opportunity to be completely available to the community, and we want to try to offer and be what they need from us,” said Howard of the team's mission. “We also want to be diverse in the artists and acts that we bring to town, whether they are local, regional or national.
“Though it may sound impossible, we want to offer something for everyone. If we do that, we will be adding to the culture of the area.”
Bands that have performed recently on the Indiana Theater stage represent an eclectic blend of genres — including Baltimore-based Telesma, which describes its format as “psychedelic tribal modern world dance music,” and Wisaal, a Michigan-based ensemble that presents Arabic-influenced world music and includes Indiana Area Senior High School alumnus Will Cicola on clarinet.
Scheduled May 3 is a concert by the Bernie Worrell Orchestra with guest artist Jazzam. A keyboardist, composer and Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee, Worrell was a founding member of the 1970s Parliament/Funkadelic groups and performed with the Talking Heads in the 1980s.
Following it's nationwide release last fall, the Steven Spielberg film “Lincoln” recently was screened for local audiences in a one-day engagement at the Indiana Theater.
The timing appears right for the theater's revival as Indiana's downtown district is in the midst of a renaissance.
In addition to restaurants featuring traditional Italian, Mexican, Indian, Chinese and Thai cuisines, there are multiple cafés, an art gallery and a long-running community theater group — the Indiana Players, with its own performance space at the Philadelphia Street Playhouse.
Also, ground recently was broken for the latest phase of downtown Indiana's streetscaping improvements — creation of a space on North Seventh Street for social gatherings, festivals and other events.
And now downtown has its “big” theater back at 637 Philadelphia St. — with new lighting and sound systems, a new projection unit, updated seating and some fresh paint.
Before committing to a lease and sinking about $80,000 into the movie equipment alone, Howard and Hemmick piloted some events and fundraisers last year to test the marketability of the site and to generate some funding for the enterprise.
The reception was great, with a cross-section of patrons attending from the local community, Indiana University of Pennsylvania and surrounding areas.
Howard and Hemmick already had experience and connections in the entertainment industry through their work with Grey Area Productions, an event promotions and production company. The favorable response to their initial events at the Indiana Theater gave the pair confidence to proceed with plans for the Indiana venue.
“Downtown Indiana needs a theater, and it's a shame we've been without one for so long. Theaters have always played a big part in town. That theater in particular has a long history, and thanks to Tom Harley, it was saved and made available to lease,” said Mike Reig, a history teacher at Indiana Area Senior High School.
Old newspaper articles archived by the Indiana County Genealogical and Historical Society cite the debut of film in Indiana in 1896 with the presentation of “scenic views representing railway journeys” at Library Hall (later called the Auditorium), at the corner of Church Street and Carpenter Avenue.
By 1913, there were four Indiana theaters serving up live vaudeville acts and moving-picture presentations: the Palace Skating Rink (transformed into a movie house, dance hall or basketball arena when needed), at Nixon and Carpenter avenues; the Dreamland Theater, at Philadelphia and Carpenter; Wonderland, at Philadelphia and Eighth streets; and the Globe Family Theatre, in the 700 block of Philadelphia Street.
The Globe was a nickelodeon theater, and it wasn't long before it was joined by a rival nickelodeon, the Star Theater, which advertised 30-minute programs of pictures taken at major sporting events.
Hit hard by the Depression, theaters found existence difficult. Eventually, Indiana theaters waned to the point that top entertainers and national vaudeville acts took the town off their circuit.
That's where the Indiana Theater and the Ritz (built in the 1920s but renamed the Manos and revamped in 1937) picked up the slack.
According to clippings and materials compiled by Clarence Stephenson at the historical society, the Indiana Theater originally opened on July 18, 1924. It seated 1,100 in the balcony, in theater boxes and on the main floor, which featured an orchestra pit and a large pipe organ for silent films.
The theater was modified in 1928 with the elimination of the balcony, boxes and pipe organ making way for three floors of office space. The theater's owner, Adda Elkin, died, in 1934, and the following year the venue was sold to a Greensburg amusement company.
The theater was altered again in 1936, when 747 larger seats were installed for more comfortable and longer viewing. The old projectors that were prone to fire during extended use were replaced with the latest technology. The theater reflected the new wave of “big” movie houses that ran major motion pictures while continuing to host live acts.
The updated Indiana Theater attracted big name comedy acts such as ventriloquist Edgar Bergen with Charlie McCarthy.
As the “golden age” of cinema and the star-making studio system peaked in the 1940s, business boomed for movie theaters, and the Indiana Theater was no different.
Among the stars was Indiana native Jimmy Stewart, who returned home in 1945 a decorated World War II pilot and hero. Life magazine featured Stewart, with the Indiana Theater in full view, signing autographs for a flock of swooning teenage girls.
Cornering the Philadelphia Street movie theater market in the 1960s, the Manos chain acquired the Indiana Theater. Then, by the mid-1970s, multiplex theaters in malls were beginning to emerge. The last first-run movie was shown before the Indiana Theater faded to black in 1980.
Randy Rapach bought the building in 1983. With the first-floor theater sitting idle for about a quarter of a century and time withering it away, Rapach had plans of converting the first floor to a parking area.
Indiana architect Tom Harley intervened in 2000 and purchased the theater. He and his partners at VRB Associates invested $625,000 in the property.
At about the time theater renovations began in 2001, Sean Howard was just graduating from Indiana Area Senior High. Howard said he was aware of the theater's long history and that he is proud he is now helping to write a new chapter in that legacy.
“The community has been very supportive, and I wouldn't have come this far without their help,” said Howard. “I also wouldn't have been able to pull any of this off without the help of my associates and those close to me.”
With the new tenants have come additional updates, including 320 reupholstered seats. Professional-grade L.E.D. lighting (executed by Howard's company, Cosmic Colors) and sound equipment was installed for live acts and shows. A high-definition multimedia projector has been added to stream movies on the big screen.
“The only movies we won't show are first-run movies,” said Howard.
As the partners build the business in phases, concessions are planned, “but we will not serve or allow for incoming alcohol,” stressed Howard. Otherwise, the theater welcomes community events, parties, recitals and conferences.
A listing of shows and show times can be found on the theater's Facebook page at www.facebook.com/TheIndianaTheater. For booking information, call 724-467-2065.
Spencer Sadler is a freelance writer.