The Historic Artcraft Theatre has been Franklin's social and economic hub for a century. When the theatre prospered, so did the town around it. However, the Artcraft's history was not always glamorous. In 2001, the ceiling collapsed near the back of the auditorium, and the City of Franklin condemned the building. When the Artcraft was purchased by Franklin Heritage, Inc. (FHI) in 2004, they had a big project on their hands.
Over the past 18 years, FHI has recruited volunteers and artisans to restore the 100-year-old building. With grants from the DNR Division of Historic Preservation and Archaeology, the preservations started out in baby steps. A significant contributing factor that led to the restoration's success was the community and volunteers.
"Gathering a group of talented individuals has been critical to the success of the restoration. We could not preserve the Artcraft without the many stakeholders involved. They truly own the theatre," said Rob Shilts, Executive Director of Franklin Heritage, Inc. "Our volunteers and generous donors are invested in this place."
But let's back up a bit. How did this historic theatre on the southside of Indy begin? Built in 1922 as a silent movie theater and Vaudeville house, the Artcraft Theatre was built with an orchestra pit and a complete stage with dressing rooms below. Traveling vaudeville — shows featuring magicians, acrobats, comedians, trained animals, jugglers, singers, and dancers — would tour from Indianapolis to Columbus, IN, to Louisville, KY. Besides the Franklin Opera House, there was no other modern venue for the traveling performers to stop on the southside of Indy. The Artcraft was a natural second stop for shows on tour and gathered people from around the county to enjoy entertainment.
The theatre was purchased by Trueman Rembusch in 1937. From 1948 to 1952, his architect, Alden Miranda, completed the Art Deco makeover of the Artcraft and other theatres Rembusch owned at the time. The classic Art Deco remodel came with all the flourishes — rounded corners, lobby murals, neon lights, and a glittering marquee. People from around the county lined up every weekend to see Hollywood on the big screen. Picture yourself pulling up outside the Artcraft in a Chevy Bel Air with your friends to see the Incredible Shrinking Man or Jet Attack. This was the height of the Artcraft.
However, beginning in the ‘60s, other establishments like the Greenwood Park Mall, strip malls along Highway 31, and megaplex theaters were gaining traction in the area. At the time, these new novelties drew everyone's attention away from the downtown Franklin area. From the '60s to the '90s, the Artcraft saw a slow decline. When the building was condemned in 2001, many thought that was the end of the movies in Franklin.
But a few members of the community still saw potential in the old building. Since 2004, the theatre has turned a new corner, and the community has come together to save the historic structure, restoring it to its original glamor.
"When you decide you're going to restore a structure, you have to pick a period of significance," said Shilts. "We could have picked 1922, but we would have had to tear off the marquees, the neon, and everything else. Who would remember what that was? The people that remember the Artcraft know it from the ‘40s and ‘50s. To them, it is like a little palace in the middle of the country. So we stuck with the Art Deco, and we've been restoring it to that period since the beginning."
One of the first changes movie goers could come in and see were the organic, spiral murals on the lobby's walls, affectionately referred to as the bean sprouts. These murals were covered with paint and wallpaper for decades. Now framed, the first bean sprout found during restoration is by the exit door on the right side of the lobby. As more of the mural was restored, FHI found a photo showing where most of the murals were in the lobby. Artist Raymond Turner repainted the murals to restore them to their state today.
The orchestra pit was another early restoration. Used during the vaudeville and silent theatre days, the orchestra pit was filled in during the Art Deco renovation when the theatre was turned strictly into a movie house. In 2005, a Franklin College student group called FOCUS volunteered to help remove the concrete and sand away. The night before the freshmen volunteers came, FHI brought in a jackhammer and busted up all the concrete. The next day, 45 students removed a dump truck and a half of concrete and sand out of the pit. Once all the sand and debris were removed, they found a door that opened to dressing rooms below the stage.
When it came to the neon lights, the tricky part was finding a company that could work with the neon prominent throughout the Artcraft. Most companies only work with more modern, thinner neon, while the fluorescent strips found in the lobby and marquee are a wider, five-eighth-inch thick neon.
"We had a guy (Steve Renner, Neon Amenities) who traveled from Anderson, Indiana, who would come and fix the wider neon. He still works with us on the lights," said Shilts. "It was important to find craftsmen that could work on all the neon, from the lights in the lobby to the marquee, since it was unique. Over time, we have gathered a very talented group of people that are gifted at their craft."
The most recent endeavor has been the seats in the theatre's auditorium. After years of use, these seats were frayed, tattered, and uncomfortable, especially if you watched a long movie like "Gone With the Wind" or "Lord of the Rings."
FHI knew that restoring the theatre seats would be a long journey. One day, a gentleman named Randy Reel from the Indiana Correctional Institute came to look at the seats and said some of the inmates he worked with learned the upholstery trade.
"Randy said, 'If you give us a chair, I'll show you what we can do,'" said Shilts as he recalled the conversation. "I thought, well, it's not going to hurt anything."
So, volunteers took out a single chair, and inmates of the institute replaced the foam, springs, and upholstery and painted the metal back. In the end, the price for Reel’s team to reupholster a single seat was nearly three times less than the market value restoration. Once FHI had a contract with the institute to refurbish the chairs, the campaign Save-a-Seat was created. Since then, families and businesses around the area have donated funds to renovate each row of theatre seats. Since it took about four to six weeks to complete one seat, this project took nearly three years.
"There were many volunteers and individuals involved in the Save-a-Seat campaign," said Shilts. "Through dismantling, refurbishing, and reinstalling the seats, we have learned how each part of the seat works. When something breaks, we can fix it on the spot."
The Artcraft has seen drastic transformation since the early 2000s. Every weekend the lights flick on, the marque twinkles, the neon glows, and people from near and far flow through the doors. In the Artcraft, time stops; friends and strangers sit next to one another, eat buttered popcorn, and get lost in the enchanted world of the movies in a century-old theatre that won back its sparkle.
"Part of the movie industry is about believing what you see on the screen. Another part of it is the environment within which you watch it, and the Artcraft's environment is still here," said Shilts. "The idea of preservation is that you can be part of something in your town. Or, you can bring people to it and say, 'You haven't seen anything like this before.' "
Megan Stephens is a writer and storyteller who lives in Franklin, IN.