MANSFIELD’S $500,000 THEATRE: THE OHIO
In the 1920’s, Hollywood was booming. Movies were immensely popular, and motion picture studios were building magnificent theatres all across the country. With a population of about 30,000 in 1927, Mansfield, Ohio, located in the heart of north central Ohio, seemed an ideal spot for a majestic movie house. And so Variety Amusement, Inc., a theatre management company owned by Ike and Jacob Silverman from Altoona, PA, spent $500,000 to build the Ohio Theater; the company already owned and operated Mansfield’s Majestic Theater. The theater was designed by architect Nicola Petti, who also designed Cleveland’s LaSalle, Variety, Sun, Cedar-Lee, Imperial and Kinsman Theaters.
Despite near blizzard-like conditions, the Mansfield News reported that thousands thronged to the theatre for the initial performance on January 19, 1928. Billed as “a temple of amusement for the benefit of the people of Mansfield,” first-nighters marveled at the beauty of the new theatre. There were marble floors and stairways, lead crystal chandeliers, and a $40,000 Kimball Organ.
The opening night show was typical of many offerings at theatres of the day with an organ concert before the show. After the organ music, there was a newsreel, followed by a two-reel comedy and three acts of vaudeville. Finally, the featured picture: Clara Bow in Get Your Man.
Variety Amusement, Inc., the Silverman’s chain of theatres throughout Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Maryland, sold to Warner Brothers in June 1929. During the first two decades of The Ohio’s life, the theatre occupied center stage in the unfolding drama of the city’s life. Films such as The Wizard of Oz, the Marx Brothers’ classic comedy A Night at the Opera, and Casablanca made their Mansfield debuts at the Ohio Theatre. Live performers such as Will Rogers, Harry Blackstone, Sr. and Fanny Brice also appeared here in the 1930’s.
In 1939, The Rains Came, a movie based on Mansfield native Louis Bromfield’s novel, received its world premiere simultaneously at the Ohio and Madison theatres. In the early 1960’s, Broadway stars Dorothy Lamour, Imogene Coca, and Hans Conreid are among the stars that appeared in touring performances sponsored by the then newly formed Broadway Theatre League of Mansfield.
The theatre was profitable for its first 20 years, but it wasn’t long before television’s impact was felt by movie palaces across the country. For the next 20 years, the building was barely maintained. The Kimball theatre organ was removed and sold in 1968. Finally, it reached an all-time low in 1979 when it was turned into an X-rated movie house. When it featured the porno film, Deep Throat, protesters and community activists forced the current owners to cease operations. It looked like the show was over at the Ohio. The theatre was dark, silent and waiting.
Meanwhile, a small group of people had been working to revive another old movie house – the old Madison Theater, just down the street from the Ohio. Attempts were being made to get the Madison operating again. Surprisingly, it was a high profile event held at our theatre in the spring of 1980 that turned all eyes to the Ohio. The Miss Ohio Scholarship Pageant rented the theatre, spruced up the building, and broadcast the competition across the State of Ohio. Everyone who watched saw that the Ohio was still a beautiful theatre.
That set the wheels in motion. On August 18, 1980, through the generosity of local philanthropists Fran and Warren Rupp, the Ohio Theatre was purchased from its out-of-town owners and presented to the non-profit Renaissance Theatre, Inc. (formerly Madison Cultural Arts, Inc. – the group which had originally been formed to save the Madison Theater). The first order of business, in addition to the massive clean-up efforts and the relighting of the chandelier, was to change the name of the old theatre. And, because the revival represented a resurgence of interest in theatre arts, the name was changed to The Renaissance Theatre.
In 1984, a $2.25 million capital campaign was launched to restore the Renaissance. The seats were refurbished; new lighting, sound, and stage rigging equipment was purchased; a glass enclosed skywalk was built connecting the theatre to the new Holiday Inn next door; water damaged plaster work in the main auditorium was repaired; a new orchestra pit was constructed; and the Renaissance Theatre purchased and restored the former Kearns “Mighty WurliTzer” theatre organ.
The Renaissance Theatre, located halfway between Cleveland and Columbus, earned its place on the National Register of Historic Landmarks. Planners had taken painstaking care to preserve the historic appointments throughout the facility including the seats, which were completely refurbished, rather than replaced. In December, 1991, the Board of Directors of the Renaissance Theatre received a memorable and generous Christmas gift: the deed to the property of the theatre from The Fran and Warren Rupp Foundation.
In January 1, 1997, the Renaissance Theatre merged with the Mansfield Symphony under a new umbrella organization now known as simply The Renaissance. This not-for-profit organization has a mission of serving north central Ohio with diverse, quality programming and enhanced community service, and to providing the region with a strong educational, cultural, entertainment and civic center. The only large theatre in north central Ohio, the Renaissance remains the home of the Miss Ohio Scholarship Program.
Restoration: 1985 – Present
In 1985 the Renaissance Theatre went through a major restoration to bring it back to its original grand state both inside and outside. A capital funds campaign was launched in 1984, ultimately raising $2.25 million for the restoration of the theatre. Most of the work was done in early 1985, including some of the most dramatic changes brought about by community-wide efforts.
The Outer Lobby
Most of the painting in the theatre was completed by some of the more than 350 active volunteers. The original center chandelier here was stolen, and was replaced with a gift from the M. O’Neil Company. A private estate donated the crystal sconces, and the entrance doors were a gift from the Mansfield Glass Company.
The main ticket office is now behind the window cutout in the lobby, but he old ticket booth was used in the past to sell movie tickets and was restored by volunteers. A scene from the famous movie The Shawshank Redemption was shot outside and featured the ticket booth.
The Inner Lobby
The inner lobby was originally standing room for sold-out performances. Stairways lead to a 460-seat balcony and down to the lower lobby which includes restrooms and a large lounge area. The two chandeliers flanking the inner lobby are original, but the center one was missing when Renaissance acquired the building. A brand new chandelier and a drinking fountain were donated by a private citizen. The marble steps had been covered by black paint, which was removed by the Boy Scouts and our volunteers.
Concession stands were new in 1985 and are run completely by volunteers, who also usher, take tickets, provide security for the entire house, and also take care of catering needs of touring performers. The theatre sells over one ton of popcorn annually.
At one time this theatre was full of art work, sculpture, and antiques. The only original piece is the antique table that was found spray-painted blue in the backstage basement. A board member recognized its value so volunteers took it apart and took pieces home to work on. It was refinished and reassembled by Royalwood, and is valued in excess of $2,500.
The architectural style of the theatre is “Grand Baroque”, which dates from the 18th century. Emphasis is on objects in nature including vines, leaves, shells, sea horses, cornucopias, and can be seen in the ceiling work and especially on the walls of the balcony.
The floors in the lower lobby are terrazzo. Years ago, ladies used this room for card parties. This room is now used for meetings and special pre-and post show receptions. The furniture was donated from the old Madison Theatre, an art deco house just up Park Avenue toward Central Park, which was demolished in 1986 and became a parking lot. The fountain, which was sealed up, was uncovered by volunteers in 1986 and its restoration was completed in 1988. The statue in the fountain was donated by an Akron theatre organist.
Here, the “Grand Baroque” architecture is at its best. Original work was done by American-born Italian craftsmen, painted by hand. Richland Renovation completed the new plaster work, taking molds from unharmed sections, then processing and replacing sections that had been damaged or destroyed.
The seats are original and have been completely refurbished. It took the craftsmen two days to remove the seats, several weeks to refurbish them, and then three weeks to re-install them. On the main floor, two inches were added between all rows for more “leg room”, but this couldn’t be done in the balcony as the seats are on risers.
The lead crystal chandelier was made in 1925 in Austria-Hungary. It contains 105 bulbs, is 9 feet high, 10 feet in diameter, and weighs 3,000 pounds or 1.5 tons. To clean each crystal and change all the bulbs, it must be swung out to clear the balcony and lowered onto the main floor by a hand crank located in the cove of the theatre. This major project is completed just once every year.
The projection booth is completely fireproof and houses projectors from the old Madison Theatre.
The balcony is called a “slung” balcony. There are no pillars or visible means of support beyond the inner lobby wall. It is flexible, like a suspension bridge, and is considered sturdier than a balcony with conventional supports. It can sink up to one foot in the middle when fully loaded, so lights hung here are aimed higher than needed when empty so they are in line when it is full. There are two small concession stands in the rear although they are not used at the present time.
The upper loges house the organ pipes; the lower left loge houses the player piano for the organ; the lower right loge houses a concession stand that is only used for certain occasions. It is mostly used for storage. The sound booth was installed during the 1985 renovation at a cost of $10,000.
The light control board was $6,000, and the lighting equipment in total cost nearly $200,000. As further improvements and upgrades have been made, the technical equipment inventory now in the Renaissance is valued at nearly $400,000.
Orchestra Pit & Organ Lift
The orchestra pit and organ lift were excavated during restoration in late 1984. A backhoe was brought in to dig out the area, and dirt was hauled out by hand in wheelbarrows and buckets. The new pit has acoustic walls and ceiling panels. The organ lift is hydraulic and behind it is a “garage” where the organ is placed when not in use.
Wurlitzer Theatre Pipe Organ
When it first opened, the theatre boasted a three manual, ten rank Kimball Organ at a cost of $40,000, standard equipment in those days. For many years, the instrument was enjoyed by patrons before shows, during intermissions and after shows. In the 1950’s, repairs were desperately needed but the theatre’s owners would not appropriate funds. Eventually, the organ was used very sporadically.
Finally, the pipes and console were sold to a girls’ school in Michigan. The school never installed them and they were eventually sold as junk. However, the blower system and hydraulic lift were still intact, and the space for the pipes had not been altered. From the beginning of the rebirth, the replacement of the theatre organ was a high priority. A search committee was formed and spent countless hours in locating a suitable instrument. Leads were checked in Chicago, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, and Michigan. Finally, In October 1983, the “Kearns” theatre organ was purchased, one of only three of its kind, and one of the top-of-the-line instruments manufactured by the Wurlitzer Company.
The organ was originally built for Warner Brothers Vitaphone Company and installed in its Sunset Boulevard Studio in 1929. From here, it was moved to Radio Station KMX, a CBS unit, where it was used daily to play the “Amos ‘n’ Andy Show” theme song. In 1955, the late Hollywood actor Joseph Kearns (best known as Mr. Wilson on TV’s “Dennis the Menace”) bought it and actually built his entire home around it. An avid organist and enthusiast, Kearns upgraded the original three manual, 18-rank configurations to include 26 ranks (since reduced to 20).
After Kearn’s death, his house was leased by Robert Carson, who founded a recording firm and produced a number of record albums featuring the instrument. When he died, the residence changed hands and the instrument was offered for sale. Several legal tangles ensued and finally, Russ Nelson, a wealthy Santa Anna contractor, bought it. He in turn sold it to Ron Walls, a well-known organ enthusiast and pizza parlor owner. Following business reversals, Walls lost ownership and the organ was purchased by the Renaissance Theatre.
The Mighty Wurlitzer was installed here in early 1985 with the help of Ken Crome, one of America’s foremost theatre organ authorities. Restoration work on the instrument took him a full year. It cost $9,000 just to ship it to Ohio from California and three weeks to install it. It is valued at nearly $250,000. The first “official” concert on the instrument was performed by Lyn Larsen on May 17, 1985.
Pictures along the “Wall of Fame” are all artists who have appeared here since late 1980 when the theatre became the “Renaissance”. This area was renovated at the same time as the rest. Originally, furniture in the dressing rooms was donated by volunteers but now the theatre has its own.
There are three suites of dressing rooms complete with bathroom and shower.
There is potential for ten dressing rooms when the “big room” downstairs is used and temporary dressing booths are constructed in the offstage wings.
Here are the storage areas and the kitchen where hospitality volunteers prepare meals for the stars and their road crews. Up to 30 people can be served in the “bib room”. This is also used for dressing space, especially during the Miss Ohio Pageant. Hospitality volunteers may also provide transportation, iron costumes and other things – whatever entertainers may need backstage. The room in the southwest corner used to house the “air conditioner”, which was just a room full of block ice. Air was blown over the ice, which cooled the building – the first public building in Mansfield to have “air conditioning”. The far west room now holds compressors for the modern system, which includes a large cooling tower over the dressing room area.
Sturges Staircase & Renaissance Ballrooms
The Sturges Staircase area, Renaissance Ballrooms, and glass-covered “skywalk” were all created with funds raised during the 1984 capital improvements drive. Plaques in the Sturges area and through the dressing rooms name the donors who made the renovation possible. The staircase itself, and woodwork surrounding it, was saved from the old Sturges House by Mansfield architect Dan Seckel before it was raised. The Ballroom was once home to the radio studios of WMAN and was completely gutted and remodeled.
This area is now used for meetings, symphony concert receptions, wedding receptions, and Renaissance board meetings. The skywalk was a gift from First Buckeye Bank (now KeyBank) and connects the Ballroom to the third floor of the Holiday Inn.
In 1985 the drab, modern marquee was removed from the Renaissance Theatre making way for the beautiful vintage iron marquee from the old Madison Theatre. After the marquee was removed from the Madison, it was renovated and then installed at the Renaissance in the summer of 1985.
Improvements Since 1985
Renovations, replacements and repairs are ongoing at the Renaissance.
Furniture has been recovered, walls painted, Assistive Listening Devices for the hearing impaired have been added and major plumbing problems have been repaired.
In July of 2003, through the generosity of the Fran and Warren Rupp Foundation, a Hydraulic Tandem Stage Lift was installed in the stage extension/orchestra pit area. Before the lift was installed the pit area was raised via scaffolding and plywood, a very arduous and labor-intensive task requiring many hours of contract labor weekly, resulting in a significant annual labor expense for RPA. It now moves in a matter of seconds to three levels, pit, house and stage by pressing two buttons. The lift alleviates the dangers surrounding this area of the stage as well as the labor costs. It is also used to move heavy items to and from different levels.
In 2010, a 5.4 million capital campaign expansion allowed the Renaissance to add an elevator, concession, bar, restroom, staff and patron amenities that are all ADA accessible. Also in 2010 a New Digital Marquee, sponsored by the Hire Family Foundation, replaced the failing Madison Marquee and brought a 24hr preview of events to come.
The Madison Marquee is in the process of being restored and digitized to be installed on our new Theatre 166 black box theatre (see below). It will be a shining beacon on Park Ave to not only announce upcoming events for the Renaissance but will be an introduction to the Imagination District.
In October 2018, a second theatre of the Renaissance was officially opened with the production of The Light in the Piazza. The venue is a Black Box Theatre and is called Theatre 166 after its location, 166 Park Avenue West.
Theatre 166 is the brain-child of CEO Mike Miller who envisioned a space where a collective of actors, artists, musicians, directors and arts advocates could expand and explore their artistic vision while celebrating the craft and passion of the arts through the cultivation and promotion of original works, new interpretations of overlooked masterpieces and the reexamination and validation of seldom-seen classics.
The renovation of a condemned building into a performance space which includes a black box theatre, a scene shop, a state-of-the-art recording studio, rehearsal space, and classrooms, took a little over two years and with generous support from our sponsors. Theatre 166 not only fosters artistic development but also broadens our audience base while offering greater outreach by providing a wider range of theatrical experiences for our community.
The Future and the Imagination District
For a number of years, the Renaissance Performing Arts Association and the Little Buckeye Children’s Museum have had a collaboration in the form of the popular Little Ren exhibit at the Museum. In 2015, the Renaissance and Little Buckeye began discussions regarding a shared concern: the lack of space to meet the educational and cultural needs of Mansfield and the surrounding communities.
The opportunity to resolve this issue occurred in 2016 when the Renaissance purchased the future home of Theatre 166 and the former Rainbow Mortgage building. Subsequently, the Museum purchased the adjacent building at 174 Park Avenue West in December 2018.
Currently, the two organizations are seeking to raise $6 million to establish the Imagination District, a joint venture that will provide multiple arts and education experiences and drive economic growth in Mansfield.