Goshen’s quaint and lively downtown has one prominent void at 216 S. Main St. The Goshen Theater, a majestic but worn 750-seat auditorium sits vacant amid the renewed bustle of the city’s main drag.
Once a popular center for performing arts following its construction shortly after the turn of the 20th Century, the theater has since been used as a movie house, a concert venue and, most recently, a sanctuary for a local church. Now a group of local leaders feel it’s time to refocus the theater’s role in the community.
Goshen Theater Inc., (GTI) formed in 2010, has been working to A.) purchase the theater from its current owners; B.) raise as much as $9.5 million for necessary repairs, reconditioning and upgrades for the facility; and C.) develop a workable business plan for continued community use of the theater.
The non-profit group, led by President Gina Leichty scored a major victory this month when the Goshen Redevelopment Commission voted to loan GTI $150,000 for the purchase of the theater.
“We’re excited about it,” Leichty said. “I see (the theater) as having a huge economic boost for the downtown through its programming. Any shows that happen there will spill over into many of the restaurants and shops. It’s a very important project for downtown Goshen.”
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 theater-goers would attend shows at Hascall Hall and The Goshen Opera House, which was later renamed 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 vice 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 touchup was in 2001, according to Myron Bontrager, pastor of Downtown808, the theater’s current owner. Those were mainly cosmetic renovations to the lobby and 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 last year. “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.’ ”