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Historic Theater Case Study - Huntington Theater

Huntington Theater
Huntington Theater
Huntington, IN
Image: Gene Gladsen Collection

The community of Huntington, located 25 miles southwest of Fort Wayne, was once a nucleus of canal activity. The number of boats passing through the town each day, and the number of people associated with these boats, offered a large clientele base interested in evening entertainment, causing the construction of The Old Opera House in 1880. This facility had no competition until 1904, when The Huntington was built for use by the vaudeville circuit. This three-story brick building was a masterpiece for the day, built for a cost of $40,000. The auditorium could seat 1098; 400 guests in the balcony alone. There was a large stage, dressing rooms, and an orchestra circle. Business offices occupied the street front. The second and third floors housed non-theater activities; the Elks’ club occupied the second floor and the third floor was a spacious dance hall. While not designed to show movies, the building owners soon adapted the facility to allow for this new form of entertainment. The first silent-movie was shown in 1911. At this time a temporary projection room was added in the balcony and a large, removable screen was added. Early movies were usually shown at the end of a live performance as a way to get patrons to leave and this was no different at The Huntington. With the invention of “talkies” The Huntington adapted its venue from the vaudeville site to one that showed more movies. The nearby opera house did not accept the changes and closed.

Another remodeling occurred in 1939; this time, the changes were major. The interior was gutted and the front wall was removed, changing the front wall to an Art Deco façade. Two store fronts were put in, a ticket booth was added outside the main entrance, a second floor apartment was added, a state of the art projection booth, and additional seats were added. The lobby was decorated with an elaborate “Hall of Stars.” This hand painted foyer donned the likenesses of the leading movie stars. The stage was removed and replaced with a small platform. The interior of the auditorium was decorated with a neo-baroque theme. No concession stand existed at this time.

Since then, the theater has changed ownership several times and during this period of ownership hopping the theater received many extensive modifications. The “Hall of Stars” was painted over with a solid color, a concession stand was added – tearing up the lobby and closing the center isle to the auditorium, and all of the Art Deco interior details were are removed or modified. In 1998, a multiplex theater opened in Huntington. The multiplex owners purchased The Huntington with the explicit purpose of closing the downtown theater; the theater showed its last movie in 1999 and the property went on the real estate market. Rumors began to circulate that the building was was going to be razed. In 1999, a Huntington couple (Mike Dinius and Jeannie Regan-Dinius) decided to purchase the theater to prevent this from happening.

The couple created a sole proprietor business, Retroview, Inc., to serve as the holding company. Goodrich Theaters, the company which sold the building, placed a covenant on the structure, as a condition to the sale of the theater, stating that first-run movies could not be shown in the theater for 25 years. This prevented any competition to the seven-screen complex on the north end of town. The business plan was to show classic movies, allow for not-for-profits to conduct fundraisers in the building, and to preserve the structure. Before reopening could happen, several maintenance issues needed to be addressed. The roof had started to leak and required patching, the concession stand floor had rotted so a new stand was built), the projection equipment needed to be repaired, the upholstered seats and carpet needed to be cleaned, and the center isle was opened back up. When funds were acquired, thanks to a bank loan on the equipment, the couple and their family performed the remodeling and maintenance. The theater reopened in October of 1999 and with the help of a former manager of the theater the owners learned how to run the theater's projection equipment and conduct themselves in the movie industry. They also hired two part-time employees to help them with the theater.

For 2 years, the two operated the theater but the business was not profitable enough to pay the bills and the mortgage. Since then, several groups have rented the theater for various uses, including a newly organized church. The church liked the large space and the theater’s downtown location which allowed people to walk to church for services. The church agreed on a 15 year triple-net, rent to buy lease. The lease stipulated that the church cannot do any remodeling that will damage the character defining spaces of the theater; this will help protect the integrity of the interior. If the church does not purchase the building, future plans for the site include donating the property to the local theater guild or preservation organization so that they have a permanent home.