Frank J. Rembusch
When you think of the Historic Artcraft Theatre, do you think of the Rembusch family? The Rembusch family shaped cinema in Indiana for three generations. In this three-part series, we get to peek inside the Artcraft’s archives to look at this prominent family in the Artcraft’s history.
Frank Rembusch was born in 1876 in Batesville, IN. His parents were immigrants from France. They lived in Metz, France, on the German/France border. His father, Peter Rembusch, was a cabinet maker and fought for Napoleon III during his short reign. Frank was the youngest of eight children. Once the Rembusches immigrated to the United States, they settled in Shelbyville, Indiana.
At the age of 13, Frank began working in a furniture factory in Shelbyville, specializing in mirrors. Later in his career, he took his knowledge of making mirrors and partnered with Inez Porter to begin a mirror factory. When Frank and his business partner split, he kept what he knew in mirrors while also working at a general store. After hours, the store would convert itself into an informal theatre. They would put up a cloth and use a projector to show image slides and early silent films. After watching these informal shows, Frank saw a need. While the patrons seemed to enjoy the entertainment, the projections were blurry and full of shadows on the cloth screen. With the knowledge he had about mirrors, he invented a solution that would revolutionize the early 1900s world of motion pictures.
The Creation of the Glass Curtain In the early 1900s, Frank Rembusch created the Mirror Screen, also referred to as the Rembusch Screen. He added metal and glass behind a cloth screen to make the projected picture brighter, clearer, and better to look at from an auditorium. To stop competitors from creating a similar screen design, Frank patented the screen in 1909.
Motion Picture News Rembusch Screen Company Ad
“The screen revolutionized the world of motion pictures,” said Glenn Faris, history and preservation coordinator at Franklin Heritage Inc. “The screen was renowned nationwide and took up ads in magazines like Motion Picture World and Motion Picture News.”
At the time, the Rembusch Screen was the best kind of screen a theatre could own. If a cloth screen was hanging against a colorful background, or if the cloth was more ivory rather than pure white, the image would be distorted. Especially for black-and-white films, clarity and having the whites, white was critical.
Unsolicited testimonials were published about the Mirror Screen in The Moving Picture World. Frank S. Montgomery from Memphis, Tenn. shared “Great and wonderful improvement. Send two more at once.”
Frank built a factory for the screens in Shelbyville, IN, which shipped screens all over the globe. There are records of the Rembusch screen being shipped from Shelbyville to South Africa. When a screen had to be packed for shipment, an A-frame had to keep the screen steady upon a slot car. According to an article in Motion Picture News from 1915, it took “twenty men to carry a large plate by hand straps.”
Frank had a catalog created about the Rembusch Screen. On the cover of the catalog, his son, Trueman Rembusch, was pictured sitting on a projector and looking at a crystal clear image of his face on a soft white backdrop.
The ads for the Rembusch screen varied between being classy and artful to bold and confident. An ad out of the Mirror Screen Catalog proclaims: “TO DISCRIMINATING EXHIBITORS WHO CARE: We are living in the age of the world’s greatest progress. Thoughts and dreams of yesterday become the realities of today. He that would keep pace with the march of events must reach forth and equip himself for the battles of life… In other words, we are coming to the time when ‘flickering shadows’ will not suffice to attract and hold the public favor. No single item of projection apparatus has as much effect on the projection of a perfect motion picture as the screen or curtain which catches the image… Any exhibitor who will investigate the virtues of the ‘mirror screen’ and study the true philosophy of De Luxe Motion Picture practice will find that every statement made is indisputable and can not be denied… Why not order one today?”
The screens could vary in size to fit the movie house’s space. Prices ranged from $135 for a 6’ x 8’ screen to $695 for a 12’, 6'' x 16’, 8” screen. Special sizes that required slot cars ranged anywhere between $750 to $1,000. At its height, the factory turned out nearly thirty screens a week and had a stock of screens on hand at all times.
Building a Theatre EmpireWhen the Motion Picture Screen company was in motion, Frank took the next step and began acquiring a chain of theaters in the area. His first theater was the Alhambra, which he built himself.
Opening in 1903 in Shelbyville, the Alhambra theatre was known as the home of the Mirror Screen and the ‘photoplay palace of Frank Rembsuch’. It was the first theatre to use the mirror screen. The Rembsuch family claims the Alhambra was the first theatre designed to show movie pictures in the US. At the time, theaters were built as opera houses, vaudeville acts, and other live performances, then adapted to movie screens when silent films came along.
In an article about the Alhambra Theatre from Motion Picture News, written by an author with the initials J.M.B., “No expense was spared in either the exterior or the interior. The walls are decorated and hand-painted on cloth. An illustration shows the arrangement of the mirror screen. The over-draperies are all of velvet. The stage is particularly attractive, as it has a large proscenium arches and two smaller proscenium arches on the side, which singers may use or an orchestra may be placed. It has a pipe organ on one side and a piano on the other of these small openings.”
Music was one of Frank’s pastimes. He was a violinist and his wife played the organ. He loved the choir at St. Josephs in Shelbyville. On the roof of the theater was a cupola where a live band could perform.
“Patrons could be up on the roof and before a show or a big event, and Frank would have his band playing,” said Glenn. “As people walked along the sidewalk, people could either listen or go on inside. It was all about the experience of the performance.”
The Alhambra still stands. The building currently hosts an Elegant L dress shop and apartments.
He soon started adding other theaters in the surrounding area to his portfolio, leasing the Crump in Columbus, the Rialto in Indianapolis, Why Not in Greenfield, Grace in Martinsville, and of course, the Artcraft in Franklin. Frank rented the Artcraft from 1928 to 1935. Rent was $50 a week for the Artcraft.
The Artcraft Theatre in 1945
After managing the Artcraft for nearly 10 years, Frank purchased the Artcraft theatre, along with other theaters around the state. When Frank passed away in 1936, his son Truman, who had grown up working in the theaters, purchased the growing theatre empire.
A Voice for the Exhibitor Frank left behind many legacies. By the time Truman took over the business, nearly all the theaters were owned by the Rembusch corporation. Truman was heavily involved with the remodeling of the theaters in the 1930s and turned the Artcraft into the majestic Art Deco style theatre we know and love. Trueman stood on the shoulders of his father and flourished under the many core ideals his father instilled.
Frank J. Rembusch
“Frank was a committed showman,” said Glenn. “He laid the foundations of the theaters and of giving the patron a great experience, then Truman took that and ran with it.”
People will only see the other side of Frank’s legacy if they are going through family papers and archived files in the movie industry.
“Frank played a big role in independent theater organizations. Truman took his dad’s foundations and ran with them too, such as helping form the Allied States Association of Motion Picture Exhibitors, the National Association of Theater Owners, and many other organizations,” said Glenn. “Frank fought for independence and was a voice of independent theaters. He was against big business and what was thought of as unfair Hollywood or unfair government protections. Frank was a voice for the exhibitor, which Truman carried on.”
Be on the lookout for part II in this series about Trueman Rembusch, coming soon!
Learn about the Artcraft Theatre’s establishment, the Rembusch family, and more history of the Franklin theatre at the Johnson County Museum of History (135 N. Main Street, Franklin, IN 46131). The Artcraft Centennial Celebration Exhibit is open from now to May 2023.
View a timeline of Artcraft history at historicartcrafttheatre.org/about.
Megan Elaine is a writer and storyteller who lives in Franklin, IN.