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Restored Theaters Take a Bow

Citizens work together to put the gleam back in US auditoriums built before World War II. HISTORIC PRESERVATION

CURTAIN going up! That is the triumphant cry today in hundreds of restored historic theaters - quaint village opera houses, opulent music halls, and sumptuous movie palaces across the United States. Lights dim and the show goes on, thanks to thousands of dedicated preservationists. During Historic Preservation Week, May 13 to 19, American communities will celebrate in numerous ways this year's theme: ``Keeping America's Heritage Alive.''

Many historic theaters, an important part of the history and character of the country, have already been proudly restored. But thousands have been destroyed, doomed to demolition by disuse and dilapidation, as the result of entertainment competition from television, shopping malls, and multiplex cinemas.

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Still, many have survived and stand today as testaments to enormous outlays of energy and effort by thousands of volunteers, as well as the investment of professional expertise, years of work, and lots of money.

Many restorations of theaters that escaped the wrecking ball represent coalitions of concerned citizens, businesses, organizations, and government agencies.

Take, for instance, Wilmington's Grand Opera House, which has become Delaware's center for the performing arts. Built in 1871, it was one of the most popular variety halls on the East Coast, hosting such performers as Edwin Booth, Ethel Barrymore, George M. Cohan, and John Philip Sousa.

When movies replaced the rich variety of live performances, it declined into a second-rate movie theater and was marked for demolition in the late 1960s. A citizens' committee arose to save it, and eventually $6.5 million was raised by businesses, individuals, and government to restore the Grand as a world-class performing arts center. Today it is in constant use and sponsors a diverse mix of as many as 60 programs a year.

Or consider the Sarasota Opera House, which was built during the Florida building boom of the mid 1920s to be used for vaudeville, silent films, opera, and musicals.

Stripped over the years of many of its Art Deco artifacts, this theatrical grande dame was purchased in 1979 by the Sarasota Opera Association, which began its restoration in 1982 on a pay-as-you-go basis. The Opera House complex is now a $6.3 million investment that includes the restored 1,033-seat auditorium and a three-story building with loggia and garden.

Or consider the tenacity of local citizens in Oshkosh, Wis. They helped pump new life into the Grand Opera House, which was built in 1883 and known locally as the ``Grand Old Lady.'' Its reopening was celebrated in 1986, and the renovation was complete in every sumptuous detail.

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In Arizona, the Junior League of Phoenix Inc. has joined hands with the city of Phoenix to restore the distinctive 60-year-old Palace West/Orpheum Theater, a project still in progress.

In Sheridan, Wyo., where for years the Wyo Theater was the cultural and entertainment center of the northeastern part of the state, a group of citizens formed a nonprofit corporation needed to save the derelict, abandoned building. The group won support from the City Council and the Peter Kiewit Foundation, and its restoration is now under way. ``The Wyo is not just a building, but an experience, a living tradition of entertainment and culture,'' says Susan Cannon, who is involved in its revival.

The Chicago Theater, built in the Second Empire style and embellished inside and out with rich plaster ornamentation, sculpture, murals, and elaborate metal work, first opened its doors in 1921. An observer at the time termed it ``a spectacle to behold.'' Restoration has now returned the opulent Chicago Theater to its original beauty and grandeur.

These are but a few of the remarkable success stories of many that exist, though some efforts have faltered or failed because of changing local economies or flagging enthusiasm.

For years the National Trust encouraged and furnished guidelines to restorers of historic theaters. But in 1977, the League of Historic American Theatres was formed as the only organization in North America to actively promote the preservation, maintenance, and use of historic performing arts and cinematic architecture. Its membership includes theaters and a mix of presenters, managers, professionals, and individual theater lovers.

The league defines a historic theater as one built in 1940 or earlier. It must be an architecturally significant structure or one that has played an important role in the history of the American stage and can be now used as a performing arts facility.

The impact of restored theaters in communities across America is phenomenal, says Deborah E. Mikula, executive director of the league. Efforts to restore, she says, are heroic, but results yield important architectural, cultural, and economic assets at each locale.

Restoration, she warns, is a long process, taking in most cases from five to 10 years. So patience is a necessity. Costs can run from $100,000 for a small-town theater to the $50 million that went into the restoration of Carnegie Hall in New York.

Many theaters never reach a final restoration cost figure, she says, because the work is ongoing. As money is raised, it is spent on new improvements. Success also depends, she adds, on a leadership team that can keep the restoration vision strong and clear, and nevers lag in enthusiasm.

At one time, Ms. Mikula says, sentiment and nostalgia went a long way in promoting theater restoration. Now the economic boost a restored historic theater will provide to the community is first and foremost in the minds of city leaders, she says.

Convincing arguments can always be made for the fact that restorations employ architects, designers, local construction companies, and advertising agencies, and provide jobs for theater staffs and profits to local businesses from which supplies are purchased.

Once the theater is opened, audiences spend money on meals, hotels, transportation, and retail purchases in the community. In the case of the Goodspeed Opera House in East Haddam, Conn., a complex of shops and restaurants has blossomed around the old theater.

``Historic theaters are valuable not only for their exemplary 19th- and early 20th-century architectural design,'' Mikula says, ``but also for the integral roles they played in towns and cities. They were woven deeply into the fabric of daily life and activity, serving not only for entertainment but for social events, educational lectures, political conventions, commencements, and town meetings. They were built as focal points, as special places. Today they transport audiences into another world, another place, another time.''

The League of Historic American Theatres is located at 1511 K Street, N.W., Suite 923, Washington, DC, 20005. It publishes monthly bulletins, an annual magazine called Theatre Classics, and provides ongoing networking possibilities and information.

Currently, there are 500 members, including 250 theaters. The league offers a no-fee consulting program to members, and sponsors an annual conference. The latter activity involves a tour of historic theaters in a different region each year as well as useful seminars on restoration and operation. This year the conference begins June 19 in Burlington, Vt., and winds its way to Boston, ending on June 23.

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