By MICHAEL WANBAUGH
THE GOSHEN NEWS
Many things can stand out to visitors as they drive down Main Street — The 1800s architecture, the elegant and prominent county courthouse or the historic police booth. But the one thing that screams, “GOSHEN” is the bright and blinky V-shaped marquee of the Goshen Theater.
But while a thriving downtown entertainment scene continues to blossom here in the Maple City, the future of this stately, 700-plus-seat theater on the east side of Main Street between Washington and Jefferson Streets is in serious danger of wilting away.
“The theater is a crucial building with a huge footprint in downtown,” said Gina Leichty, director of Downtown Goshen Inc. “Of course we want to do whatever we can to help it.”
After serving primarily as a church the past two decades, the theater is going dark. Myron Bontrager, pastor of Downtown808, which has owned the theater since 2002, said his congregation has decided it was time to sell the facility and has since stopped booking events there. The wedding of David and Trisha last week, as proclaimed by the marquee, was the last of those events.
“Basically we keep the lights off,” Bontrager said, “and try to keep it cool enough that it doesn’t sweat inside. We’ve gone bare bones.”
With a congregation of around 60 people, Bontrager said it has simply become too expensive for the church to utilize and maintain the theater. Until the building sells and the church finds another facility, the group meets on Sundays in a small, second-story room they call the “café.”
“It really has been a good building for us,” Bontrager said. “We have no regrets.”
With the future of the theater in doubt, Downtown Goshen Inc. took the lead on studying its potential. A federal grant allowed DGI to hire a firm to conduct a broad feasibility study of the facility, which has since been completed and presented to the community late last year.
The result of that study was a recommendation for more than $7 million in upgrades (see list) that would bolster the theater’s usefulness and allow it the versatility to book a wide range of activities and performances more than 200 days/nights per year.
That’s a tall order, Leichty admits, especially with so many competing venues nearby, including the 900-seat Sauder Hall and 400-seat Umble Center at Goshen College; the 1,700-seat recently renovated Lerner Theater in Elkhart; and multiple other venues in South Bend, Shipshewana and Nappanee.
Still, Leichty believes there is a place and a niche for the Goshen Theater to be a major player as both an entertainment hub and a community gathering spot.
“We’re being very realistic and pragmatic, but at the same time dreaming big,” Leichty said. “… We see the theater as a key contributor to both downtown and the community as whole — in some ways like a community center.”
Therefore, a task force was assembled to determine how the theater could be used. Many members of that task force traveled to Huntington on Friday to visit that city’s historic downtown theater that now operates as a restaurant and performing arts business. The possibilities for the Goshen Theater, Leichty believes, are many. And as Goshen has managed to build a reputation as a regional destination for arts and entertainment, she sees the resurrection of the theater as perhaps one of the final and most substantial pieces of Goshen’s downtown makeover.
Recognizing this, Leichty has formed Goshen Theater Inc., which is just waiting for its non-profit status to be approved. That group will organize efforts to raise funds for the outright purchase of the theater from Downtown808, which is about $300,000, Leichty said. She also indicated the church has a memorandum of understanding with Goshen Theater Inc., not to entertain other offers until 2014.
Bontrager said the church has had inquires about the sale of the theater, but has not had any direct offers. He also said it is important for the church to know they are selling the theater to a group that intends to put it to community use.
“It was built to serve the community and deep down we feel the theater belongs to the community,” he said. We’ve tried to respect that.”
In the early 1900s Goshen was growing, nearly doubling in size in just a 20-year period. In 1900 the population was 7,810. For decades, local theatergoers would attend shows at Hascall Hall and The Goshen Opera House, which was later re-named Irwin Opera House.
In May of 1905, construction began on The Jefferson Theater, now known as the Goshen Theater. It cost $85,000 to build. Construction was completed shortly before the first performance, “The Merchant of Venice,” on Nov. 6, 1905.
Indiana Gov. Frank Hanly attended that first show and delivered the dedication address. The theater thrived for the next 13 months until it was destroyed by fire on Dec. 18, 1906. The Jefferson Theater had been such a success that just a few weeks later it was announced it would be rebuilt even better on the same site.
The Jefferson Theater, in its current form, re-opened to much fanfare on Oct. 10, 1907. According to newspaper archives, a writer for The Goshen Daily News Times proclaimed, “the rebuilt house is more perfect in every respect than the one that burned last December,”
The rebuilt theater helped usher in a golden age of theater in Goshen, attracting big-name shows en route from Chicago to New York and vise versa. Live performances continued at The Jefferson well into the 1920s until “talkies” revolutionized the entertainment industry. From then on, The Jefferson served primarily as a movie house.
In 1948 the theater was remodeled. The current V-shaped marquee was installed to replace the old square canopy of the past four decades. Because of the shape of the new marquee, the word, “Jefferson,” could not fit on it. As a result, the venue was renamed, The Goshen Theater.
The most recent touch up was in 2001, Bontrager said, when Downtown808 made some cosmetic renovations to the lobby and performed some major detailing to the arch and trim above the main hall stage.
“We made an effort to make it look impressive when you walk in,” Bontrager said Friday, walking down the aisle to the front of the auditorium. “That worked out well, but when you turn around (and look toward the balcony ceiling) you’re reminded, ‘oh yeah, it’s an old theater.’ ”
A community center?
Goshen Mayor Allan Kauffman remembers seeing his first movie at the Goshen Theater when he was a kid, something about a talking donkey, he said.
A few years later he recalled another personal milestone.
“It was,” Kauffman remembers, “the first place I ever put my arm around a girl.”
But going from a teenager to mayor of a city of more than 32,000 people, Kauffman knows the difference about being sentimental about the theater and having common sense about its rehabilitation.
“It’s such a prominent building in downtown, so for it to go dark would be a huge drag on downtown,” Kauffman said. “And if it sits empty for a long period of time it will just deteriorate further. Now, if we can figure out a plan to keep life in the theater, I think it will be good for downtown.”
Like Leichty, Kauffman can envision a community center concept at the theater, especially after the plug was pulled on a proposed community center earlier this month.
“Could the theater be the gathering place? I don’t know,” Kauffman said. “The things that Gina and the people she is working with have made work downtown (such as First Fridays); I have some confidence that they’re going to figure this out.”
The feasibility study points out that few rehabilitated theaters are self-sustaining and do require local subsidies for operation. Kauffman did not discount the possibility of offering annual economic development income tax funds to help support the theater if an operation plan does come together.
“Would it be the end of the world if we allocated a little bit of money from EDIT for the operation of a downtown venue,” Kauffman asked. “I think it could be a worthwhile expenditure.”
Like Kauffman, it seems most Goshenites have some kind of personal connection to the theater. Bontrager is keenly aware of the power and significance the theater possess.
“My father told me that he saw his first movie there — ‘Jesse James’ back in the 1930s,” Bontrager said with a chuckle. “He was raised Amish, so he wasn’t supposed to be there. “
Over the years, Bontrager said Downtown808 has made a concentrated effort to open the theater for community events. Among those events have been theatrical performances, wedding receptions, concerts and movie showings. The space is routinely used in conjunction with First Fridays activities.
“We’ve noticed over the years how people react when they visit (the theater),” Bontrager said Friday. “There is something about the space that feels like, ‘this is home.’”
The willingness of Downtown808, which has occupied the theater since 1998, to offer the space for community events, is unusual for a church-owned theater, Kauffman said. But in this case, it may have helped save the theater from falling into irreversible disrepair.
The mayor thought back to a comment made during a workshop that stuck with him while serving on Indiana’s Main Street Board back in the early 1990s.
“The main speaker said, ‘Whatever you do, don’t let your only downtown theater become a church,’” Kauffman said. “The (Goshen) theater had just become a church.”
The point the speaker made was that congregations can often be separatists in more secular downtown environments. When Downtown808 took over the space in the late 1990s, Kauffman was relieved to notice that wasn’t the case anymore.
“When Downtown808 took it over it was a whole different feeling,” Kauffman said. “They opened (the theater) up and let the community have events there. Downtown808 has actually been good for downtown.”
Now it appears time for a new chapter in the theater’s history. What that chapter will read is far from decided. But it seems there is a consensus that the theater should have a major and continuous role in the community.
“There is so much that could happen and we’re still very much in the development phase,” Leichty said. “But at the end of the day, I see more than 200 businesses in the community that stand to benefit from the theater’s success.”