HIGHLAND | Generations of Northwest Indiana movie-goers knew the familiar routine at Highland's Town Theatre, where the red velvet curtains closed and the picture faded halfway through the film.
The first reel was over. The house lights came on, bringing movie-goers out of their cinematic reveries and back into an old-fashioned room lined with Medieval shields and suits of armor.
Time for intermission. Movie-goers filed out into the red-carpeted lobby, where free sheet cake and coffee awaited them.
The Town Theatre's vintage marquee has been dim for years now. But the movies will come back and so will the intermissions and cake, said Cecile Petro, Highland's redevelopment director. Exactly when the theater will reopen and how much renovations will cost won't be known until after an architect and engineer can assess how much work the 68-year-old building needs.
Petro said the town might even extend the stage to allow the 425-seat venue to also host acoustic concerts or smaller theatrical productions, such as of "Our Town." Highland will try to maximize revenue since a single-screen movie theater, however beloved, now has to compete with multiplexes and movies that can be streamed on iPhones or other mobile devices.
Highland's redevelopment commission recently bought the historic arthouse theater on Kennedy Avenue, which first opened in 1946, and may keep it permanently. The town likely would lease the movie theater, hire someone to run it or set up a nonprofit that would be entrusted with its care, Petro said.
Hammond has a similar arrangement with the Towle Theater, a downtown playhouse which is owned and operated by the Hammond Development Corp. The city board hired managing director Jeff Casey, a Hammond resident, to run the place and pick which plays will be staged.
Such an arrangement can work well if the government appoints a manager who is local, knows the venue and has business acumen and administrative prowess, Casey said. Expectations should be clear from the start, and officials should decide if they want to venue to provide a community service or be a self-sustaining business venture.
The Towle, which stages productions such as "A Fabulous '50s Christmas," has been successful because the board does not micromanage and try to govern by committee, Casey said. The only major downside to being government-owned is the venue does not qualify for grants from Indiana Arts Commission and other agencies that only award money to arts groups.
Highland is working with its Main Street committee to come up with a plan and vision for the the Town Theatre's future. Town officials do not want to sell off the old movie house because it will require extensive renovations and a new owner could give up when the costs start to mount, Petro said. The town does not want to end up buying the property back out of another tax sale in a few years.
The goal is to ensure the Town Theatre shows movies again, so it can draw more people downtown, Petro said. One possibility is that downtown Highland restaurants could serve Italian dinners if the theater showed an Italian film.
The cost of renovations is expected to be significant, but won't be known until after architects and engineers come in. Korellis Roofing patched the roof free of charge, Guardian Pest Control made sure it was not infested and United Auto Workers Local 551 tradesmen assessed what shape the building was in.
Public works employees had to haul out a lot of trash, apparently from parties that were thrown in the theater after it closed. The building will need a lot of work, because a leaky roof caused mold, Petro said. The seats were designed for slimmer bodies in 1946, and may need to be replaced.
"It's much more than a turnkey operation," she said. "It's in bad shape, and may need to be completely gutted."
The knights and shields are going in storage, and will be back when the theater reopens, Petro said. Intermissions and free treats also will return because they have been so widely requested, she said.
Mark Noller, who was the organist at the Music Box Theatre in Chicago for 10 years, has been assisting with the efforts to get the Town reopened. He said similar restorations of historic movie theaters have been successful in Momence, Ill., and Fowler, Ind.
The seating capacity of the Town Theatre will limit the amount of revenue it can bring in, and the venue may need to rely on fundraising, said Alec Stoll, a board member for the League of Historic American Theatres and a co-founder of Stages Consultants.
"The real trick with the historic theatres – whether film, theater or opera – is that you can forget about making all your money just with ticket sales," he said. "That's why the federal government created 501c3s, so you can raise money privately and solicit donations."
Other historic theaters have thrived by finding niches, such as showing historic films like "A Clockwork Orange" or "2001: A Space Odyssey," Stoll said.
A significant amount of money likely would need to be raised, such as to buy digital projectors that cost at least $60,000. Stoll said it would be critical to reach out to the community, and stress what a special and different experience the Town Theatre offers.
"Nobody thinks about these buildings until they're about to be torn down," he said. "Then they say, 'oh my gosh, I had my first kiss there' or 'oh my gosh, I saw "E.T." there.' But they still don't want to throw a pile of money at it, so you have to find a competent business person who can also go out and raise some money."