Restored Historic Theatres – More Than Just Pretty Faces

by Kyle Moore

Red Bank, New Jersey.  Rome, New York.  Keene, New Hampshire.  Newberry, South Carolina.  Fullerton, California.  What do all of these cities have in common? They all have historic theatres that have survived economic downturns or gone through periods of decay and neglect, but are now experiencing a renaissance thanks to the efforts of their community.   In towns across America, communities have seen fit to invest the time, money and energy to revitalize their historic theatres, many of which had become decrepit eyesores.  The result has been an economic boom that has produced jobs, new businesses, and a flood of revenue.  As the Fox Theatre renovation continues, it is helpful to look around to real-world examples of the enormous economic impact that a revitalized classic theatre can have on its surroundings.

The Count Basie Theatre in Red Bank, New Jersey, had been in operation since the 1920’s, and was the last survivor of a slew of hopeful movie theatres that had been built in that era.  By the 1970’s, though, even the Carlton Theatre (as it was then known) was considered “outdated,” and the possibility loomed that the theatre would be torn down.  In December of 1973 the Monmouth County Arts Council purchased the theatre with the help of a significant donation from an anonymous donor, and with fundraising events featuring homecoming heroes Bruce Springsteen and Count Basie himself, the theatre managed to survive.  Today, the Basie is a thriving, busy theatre with 200 performance nights per year, and the focal point of enormous economic activity.  This is an excerpt from the Count Basie Theatre’s 2010 Annual Report:

“In addition to bringing the arts into our community, this year the Theatre’s activity had an $11.7 million economic impact, supporting the full-time equivalent of over 300 jobs. The Basie is an economic engine. The buzz is palpable when our stage is lit, and that buzz supports a wide array of businesses”

Art and Kylie Pierce are the operators of the Capitol Theatre in Rome, New York. The theatre was built in 1928, but was almost shut down completely between 1974 and 1989.  “We got really busy about 7 or 8 years ago,” said Art Pierce.   “In 2002, we did a total of about 24 performances.  Now we do about 120 performances in a year.  In 2002 there were only 3 businesses on the block, and now there’s 10.  Every one of them stepped up their business because the Capiol theatre was doing more shows.”

“There’s a real ripple effect in the community,” says Kylie Pierce.  “The theatergoing public spends approximately $750,000 a year in the surrounding area. And a lot of those people aren’t even from our community, they’re coming in from elsewhere and bringing their money.”

Of course, not every old theatre gets rescued.  In cities across the country, once-grand and revered theatres stand as reminders of a bygone era.  They echo with ghosts, rotting on the inside and out, covered in graffiti, their interiors in tatters.  Their names, “The Dream,” “The Gem,” or “The Grand,” are ironic reminders of their cruel fates.

Thanks to the efforts of the Fullerton community, the Fox Theatre in downtown Fullerton is the process of being reborn.  While construction is underway, plans are being made to rebuild the Fox into a major entertainment venue that will host over 200 performances per year.  When that happens, the lights emanating from the Fox are sure to cast a glow all over downtown Fullerton.