ASHLAND – On March 27, 1942, Schine’s Theatre on Center Street opened its doors to the public. The theater featured live entertainment along with movies and drew throngs of Ashlanders to the 1,500-seat venue.
Over the years, many changes were made to the interior of the theater, including dividing it into three separate movie theaters – two downstairs and one upstairs. Now, a group of area residents are working to restore the theater to its opening-day condition.
“It’s kind of a streamlined, art deco look inside,” said Bill Sample, vice president of the Ashland Schine’s Theatre Organization. “To restore is a lot different than a remodel or a renovation. When you restore, you have to try and save as much of the original as possible, and we’ll do that.
"What we can’t save, we’ll have it replicated so it looks exactly like it did in 1942."
The theatre was built by the Schine family who owned a chain of movie theaters in New York, Pennsylvania and Ohio. Several are still in existence and have been restored, including one in Galion.
On opening night at what was known as The Ashland, standing-room only crowds watched two showings of “Rings on Her Fingers,” starring Henry Fonda and Gene Tierney. The cost was 10 cents for children younger than 12, 30 cents for matinees and 40 cents for evening performances for adults.
The building next to the theater was most recently home to RSVP, which was originally a laundromat.
“You come in and do your laundry. You watch a movie, you come back out, throw them in the dryer, watch another movie, and it’s done. That was pretty innovative for 1942,” Sample said.
In the early days of the theater, it continued to show movies in its single, 1,500-seat theater, but it also played home to live entertainment, including Buddy Ebsen who visited Ashland in 1943.
In 1966, the Schines sold the theater to the Nussbaum family, who continued to run the theater until it closed.
The theater was converted into a triplex in the mid-1970s and continued to show movies in the three theaters until Ashland Square Cinema closed its doors in 2011. According to the owner at the time, the cinema could no longer compete with the larger theaters and the growth of home entertainment.
From that point, the former Schine’s Theatre sat unused for four years until The Ashland Schine’s Theatre Organization purchased the building in July 2015 with the goal of having the restoration project completed by March 2019.
Sample said the timeline for completing the project depends on several factors, but the group is still hopeful it will be completed within the next several years.
“The shell of the building is in real good shape,” Sample said.
The major issue with the exterior of the building is water collecting on the roof and leaking inside the theater. Last year the Ohio Facilities Construction Commission awarded $300,000 for the restoration project, which will be used toward repairing the roof.
Sample said the roof project should be finished within 30 days after the state releases the funds.
“Once we get it weatherized, then we can go in and do a ton of demolition, further than what we have,” Sample said.
Behind the two screens downstairs lies a back room with the original stage which has served as a storage area for nearly 40 years. Sample said when the previous owner converted the theater into a triplex in the 1970s, he attempted to use the stage area as a fourth theater but was unable to due to building codes.
Many of the original ornamental lights and other items that had been removed have been stored in that area, which will allow the group to save money by not having to purchase new items.
To aid in their restoration efforts the organization was lucky enough to find one of the ushers who worked in the theater when it opened in 1942. The usher had taken several photos of the Schine’s Theatre on opening day and gave those pictures to the group.
Sample also found the original architect’s plans for the building when he was sorting through all the items left in the theater.
“You never know what you are going to find. It’s exciting, like an archaeological dig,” Sample said. “As we get it emptied out and we start seeing more and more of the theater, it just gets more exciting.”
The organization has been working to remove hundreds of items stored throughout the theater, including dozens of original seats, stage lights and other miscellaneous items. Sample said guys from the Tau Kappa Epsilon fraternity at Ashland University have spent many hours helping with the physical work.
Kandi’s Kustoms is restoring the theater’s popcorn maker, which was added in 1956.
The biggest change to the interior will be removing walls to return the theater to a single-theater site. Originally, the theater seated 1,500, but the renovated space will hold less, probably around 900, Sample said.
“It will be a wide open theater like it was in the beginning,” Sample said. “In the beginning it was a live-act venue with movies, so that is what we are returning it back to.”
The marquee is being redone, but it is one of the only modern additions to the theater. Sample said the marquee will be digital.
To help fund the effort, Leadership Ashland Alumni are sponsoring a fundraiser Thursday at 216 Center St., the former RSVP Party Rental Store. The store at one time was a restaurant connected to the theater and now is a de-facto office for the Schine’s restoration group.
Tickets are $20 and can be purchased online. Proceeds from the event will go toward operational expenses and capital improvement projects for the nonprofit. There will be snacks, drinks, trivia, a progress update and limited tours of the theater. Memorabilia from the original theater will be on display.
The group is selling the more than 2,000 movie posters they discovered in the theater on eBay to help generate funds for the restoration project.
All of the directors have given of their time and finances to get the project off the ground. Over five years, the directors have pledged $70,000 to $80,000 toward the restoration.
“A lot of people don’t understand what a nonprofit group is all about, and what we are about in this case is we facilitate the restoration of the building," Sample said. "It’s not like we have deep pockets and we can just say ‘Go for it.’ We have to get the community involved, we have to get corporations involved. It’s quite an expensive endeavor.
"But it’s worth it to save a piece of history for the community and to bring the theatre back to the young people in town. Now they have some place to go."
Sample has researched other towns where theaters have been restored and he’s seen the projects help make the downtown a destination people want to go to again.
“Most of the towns like the size of Ashland have lost their theaters and people go to the bigger cities. But by doing the restorations, it brings life back to these small towns,” Sample said. “Shortly after we announced that we were going to restore, we started seeing buildings downtown being bought up, and little businesses moving in.
"Because they know eventually, depending on how long it takes us … eventually it will be an entertainment type venue destination for the town, so it’s going to draw people back downtown.”
The nonprofit organization has big dreams for the future of the theater, including live music, dramatic performances, movies and even dinner theater.
Sample said estimates range between $2 million and $3 million to complete the project. Other similar size theaters have cost more than $10 million to restore, Sample said, because of the amount of work that needed to be done to make the buildings safe.
“It sounds ridiculous to restore something at that amount when you can probably tear it down and rebuild it at half price, but it’s a nostalgic thing," Sample said. "It’s history for the city so you want to try and save it."
The group plans to use state-of-the-art materials instead of used items, which adds to the initial cost but will be better in the long run.
“If you’re going to spend $2 to $3 million, you want the best. I don’t want to come back in a year later and say, ‘This is broken. We should have replaced it,’” Sample said. “So that’s what we’re doing with everything inside. Even the electrical, the heating, the cooling, it’s all going to be state-of-the-art.
"We’re basically almost gutting the building and then installing new mechanicals and audio-visual.”
The Schine’s Theatre organization is working with the Ashland Regional Ballet and a newly formed theatre troupe – the Uniontown Players – to create the environment they need to perform.
“What do you need? What’s the best thing to do? What’s the coolest stuff out there? Because I’m not a performer. I don’t know this stuff,” Sample said.
The stage is going to be enlarged to allow for larger productions and an orchestra pit is planned.
Sample said the group is on the verge of launching its capital campaign, which will help them better gauge the timeline to complete the project and community interest.
"It's going to be an amazing venue. I'm so excited for this to be completed," Sample said.
For updates on the Schine’s Theatre restoration, follow the group’s Facebook page.