Written by Tom Konecny: Toledo Free Press
When its 1,000 seats opened in Toledo’s Polish Village in 1921, the Ohio Theatre was the largest neighborhood movie theater in the nation.
The theater was a prime gathering place for those in the neighborhood, the area’s largest concentration of people of Polish descent. At the time, it was one of 41 indoor movie houses in Toledo; now only two remain.
Roy Rogers, Dale Evans, Mickey Rooney, William Christopher and Toledo’s own Jamie Farr are just a few of the entertainers who have performed there over the years.
The neighborhood has changed over the years, and the theater has certainly had its share of ups and downs — including lightning destroying its marquee — but throughout it all, neighbors have believed in its potential. With a passion for preserving history and keeping the arts alive in the Polish Village, its operators are giving nearby residents reason for hope.
United North is in the midst of a multiyear renovation project that’s breathing new life into the Ohio Theatre and its surrounding Lagrange Street neighborhood.
“We’re looking at it not just as a neighborhood opportunity, but it’s an opportunity for Toledo,” said Nikki Morey, United North’s senior manager of community programming. United North, a community development corporation aimed at improving North Toledo neighborhoods, has operated the theater since purchasing it in 2009.
“We’re reaching out to schools where art has almost been stripped out of the curriculum, but also [aim] to be a catalyst for economic development,” Morey said.
While originally a movie house, the Ohio Theatre was also a place to remain connected to the world. Neighborhood residents got news and information at the theater and revered it as a center of the community.
“We’ve had a lot of conversations about it in this age: How do you build a theater around a sense of community without having that same need?” said Ryan Bunch, performing and literary arts coordinator for The Arts Commission, a local group contracted to keep the theater humming with events.
It took about four years for United North to reopen the theater as the Ohio Theatre and Event Center in July 2013, and some questioned that length of time. Operators maintain that time was well spent on fundraising and developing an action plan, not easy tasks since the theater is on the National Register of Historic Places.
Those efforts paid off as United North unveiled a three-phase plan to re-energize this Lagrange Street landmark. Phase one’s $1.2 million investment involved much behind-the-scenes work: new lighting, air conditioning and restroom upgrades. Improvements were paid through Better Buildings Initiative funds, private investment and donations, but the theater is operating at a deficit while funds are being paid back.
Phase two has started, and includes new dressing rooms, concession areas and continued electrical and lighting work. United North also hopes to add new furniture and sound system upgrades. Further work on a new façade and marquee is dependent on grants, but could be completed in late 2015 or early 2016.
“We’ve already gotten some good response from the trade union that they would be willing to work with us to utilize the trades and have this as one of their donations in kind,” Morey said. “But we still need to buy the supplies and the marquee.”
The final and largest phase will likely cost around $7 million and encompass a full-scale renovation with new seats and a stage overhaul, though it’s uncertain when that might take place.
Despite all the work still underway, the show must go on, and the theater is now in its second consecutive season.
“Last year, we did a handful of programs to figure out what worked and didn’t,” Bunch said. “This season it was a little more put together.”
Morey believes many people in the region recognize the good that’s coming from a reborn Ohio Theatre.
“They do recognize that this is important,” she said.
Its neighbors do, too.
“I don’t know what you’d do with the thing if someone didn’t restore it,” said Tom Jesionowski, a local resident who serves on the United North board. “Basically, it’s the last operating neighborhood movie theater in Toledo.”
In addition to serving on the board, Jesionowski volunteers his time working around the theater, doing painting and other fix-it-up jobs, as well as some theater promotion. He knows the Ohio Theatre is a critical part of North Toledo.
“It’s kind of like an anchor,” Jesionowski said. “We have a new library in the neighborhood. We have a new bank two doors away, and it’s a fight for survival, like anything. I think probably United North is one of the most successful CDCs (community development corporations) in the area. I don’t know of another as strong as we are. We cover the whole North End, and actually, we were voted No. 1 in the state of Ohio.”
Neighborhood businesses believe in the Ohio Theatre, too, according to Morey. Jaleo Young, owner of J Maes’ Home Cooking, said he feels more secure in his operation thanks to the extra traffic the Ohio Theatre draws to the neighborhood.
“It brings business our way,” Young said. “It just helps and attracts all different types of people, which helps the businesses in the neighborhood. When they have those events, it helps us with business flow. It just attracts people that normally wouldn’t come to this area. They’re seeing that good things are happening on Lagrange Street. It’s a real good thing.”
The capital campaign continues, but Ohio Theatre advocates are aggressively working on a solid slate of events.
“There’s a number of events that are just straight rentals,” Bunch said. “That ranges from dance recitals to a boxing match. So, there’s really a wide range of stuff going on. We’re in our second season and things are up and running more smoothly this year.”
The next event will be The 24-Hour Plays, a performance of short plays written, produced and rehearsed by University of Toledo students in a 24-hour period. The show is set for 7:30 p.m. Dec. 13. Cost is $3-7.