The Star Beacon; Ashtabula, Ohio

June 23, 2013

What will become of Ashtabula's Shea's Theatre?

It could cost $5,000,000 and take five years to restore a piece of local history

By DAVE DELUCA - For the Star Beacon
Star Beacon

ASHTABULA — In its heyday, Shea’s Theatre had thick carpeting and other plush attractions, even water fountains with undersea themes. Sculpted stone comedy and tragedy masks still watch over the entrance of the Main Avenue building. Built in 1949 in an architectural style called Streamline Moderne, Shea’s Theatre is one of the last of its kind. Today Shea’s is the home of the Senior Center, which also owns the building.

For much of the 20th Century movie theaters were the centerpieces of their towns. Today, old movie theaters are coming back as downtown focal points. Shea’s Theatre in Franklin City, Pennsylvania has been restored as a part of downtown revitalization, as have scores of other old cinema palaces in Buffalo, Columbus and towns across the country.

The idea of restoring Shea’s Theatre in Ashtabula is popular. A recent survey conducted by the Ashtabula Downtown Development Association (ADDA) indicates it is. But renovating Shea’s Theatre in Ashtabula won’t necessarily bring it back as a busy grand movie theater.

In that survey, so far some 64 percent thought restoration of Shea’s was very important, while 62 percent thought historical buildings should be preserved. Improving the appearance of Main Avenue older building facades came in at 79 percent and more than half of respondents thought a movie theater doubling as a community centerpiece would be a good idea.

The ADDA commissioned a feasibility study with Michael

Hurwitz of Historical Opera Houses, a Columbus-based organization dedicated to restoration of classic opera houses and movie theaters. He gave a public presentation on restoring Shea’s Theatre in December. Hurwitz said it was worth restoration, but the most important thing was maintaining it as economically viable after restoration.

“Based on a physical review of the auditorium portion it is viable and technically worth the effort of saving,” Hurwitz said in his study. “However when considering the reclamation of any historical theater, the physical plant is not the only factor in the equation.”

In the study Hurwitz said the project needed to consider if the community would be able to sustain the theater after restoration, how to get optimum usage and how to best manage the property. He said the theater will never resume its glory as only a venue for stage shows and movies, and needed to consider additional things to generate business like trade shows, weddings and conferences as well as entertainment.

Another consideration when thinking of showing movies is the change in movie projection. As of this month, theaters around the country will be going digital. The cost of this upgrade from 35 mm film to digital has prevented some older non-chain theaters and drive-in movies from staying in business. However Shea’s Theatre could still specialize in classic, foreign and recent movies released before the digital change over. It could also show locally produced and other independent films. In this way visitors could experience the glory days of cinema in the perfect historical setting.

The ADDA’s Economic Restructuring Committee is exploring the theater’s entertainment options and successful restoration of theaters in other communities. If the theater was restored, it could become part of the New Lyceum Circuit. Founded by Hurwitz, the New Lyceum Circuit provides high quality entertainment, advertising and marketing packages and interfacing with artists and venues. It is specifically created to meet the needs and requirements of historical theaters. Roberta Madar Pruett, chairwoman of the Economic Restructuring Committee said Hurwitz is currently researching other Ohio towns with successfully restored theaters for ADDA.

“We’re taking this process slowly, step by step,” Pruett said. “It’s important to thoroughly investigate every aspect of what it would entail to restore Shea’s. We need a plan that will actually work.”

She said it was unlikely Shea’s could ever accommodate a 1,500 seat auditorium again. But it could incorporate entertainment with other functions. She said the theater would have to work in conjunction with other local arts and entertainment venues.

“When Michael Hurwitz was here he said he’d never seen a town this size with such a great arts center,” she said. “He said the Ashtabula Arts Center was our most notable asset. A restored Shea’s Theatre would have to work with and enhance other local assets.”  

To bring Shea’s Theatre to the level of many successful restored theaters could cost $5,000,000 and take five years. Funding for restoration could come from individuals, companies or state or federal historical preservation grants.

ADDA president Lynda Annick hopes the community will continue to contribute input. She said more than money is needed to restore Shea’s. It requires public interest and dedicated professionals.   

“To be a successful project it’s necessary to have the right professional people with the commitment and knowledge to make it happen,” she said.

To weigh in on the restoration of Shea’s Theater go to ADDA’s website and click on Shea’s Theater Restoration Survey.