Ohio Theatre ready to start its 2nd act

Vaudeville-era site now multipurpose

Students from the Toledo School for the Arts rehearse at the Ohio Theatre, from front left, Henry Tylinski, 13, Chloe Hudson, 13, and Khalil Carpenter, 12.
Students from the Toledo School for the Arts rehearse at the Ohio Theatre, from front left, Henry Tylinski, 13, Chloe Hudson, 13, and Khalil Carpenter, 12.

She’s a grand ol’ lady, one of Toledo’s last remnants of the vaudeville era.

Now, after nearly a four-year hiatus, the Ohio Theatre has new life as a multipurpose facility in the heart of North Toledo’s Polish International Village, where its latest owners see it as a centerpiece for reversing decades of urban decay.

“We’re calling it the ‘Miracle on Lagrange Street,’ ” United North Executive Director Terry Glazer quipped as he strode along Lagrange between the theater and his office next door, beaming with pride.

Those who drive by the structure at 3114 Lagrange, renamed the Ohio Theatre and Events Center, may just see a nondescript building with lots of work left to do.

Its familiar sign was down Thursday. Scaffolding remained out front as 140 students from Toledo School for the Arts studying dance entered for a morning rehearsal, then came back that night to perform for friends and family members — the first event held on stage since the latter part of 2009.

But even before the facility reopened, signs of promise emerged, such as a new restaurant called J’Mae’s Home Cooking that opened a while back. It has become a hit with residents.

There’s a new senior center. A store from a national chain that carries discount grocery and home products is expected to open nearby soon.

Mr. Glazer knows those are incremental steps. But they’re also signs that United North’s years of planning and grant applications and collaborations with other groups, such as ONE Village, might be stimulating a turnaround.

The Ohio Theatre and Events Center lies smack in the middle of a proud, yet economically distressed neighborhood that’s just a few blocks west of the site of the 2005 riots.

Tough times existed here long before the 2008 housing crisis and banking crisis.

United North is trying to feed the neighborhood’s hunger for more culture, Mr. Glazer said.

“We’re going to be introducing youth to the arts,” he said.

Jamie Sampson, left, theater manager, and Terry Glazer, United North executive director, watch the rehearsal.
Jamie Sampson, left, theater manager, and Terry Glazer, United North executive director, watch the rehearsal.

Consider that Sunday’s event is a Toledo Symphony concert, featuring the organization’s chamber ensembles.

With support from the Ohio Arts Council, the symphony is playing in a theater that — according to Mr. Glazer — nearly became a porn shop only a few years ago.

St. Hedwig Parish prevented that from happening by purchasing it. The parish then sold the building to the nonprofit Ohio Theatre Inc. in 2004. In 2009, that group sold it to United North.

The symphony’s 1 p.m. concert is being offered for $7 a ticket, with free admission for children 12 and younger.

The symphony concert will be preceded at noon by what is called an “Instrument Petting Zoo.”

Jamie Leigh Sampson, the Ohio Theatre’s newly hired manager, said Rettig Music will display instruments for children to pick up and play with, and see what they might want to learn in school.

Ms. Sampson, a bassoonist-composer who has performed with the Western New York Chamber Orchestra and others, sees great potential in the theater’s revival.

Other events Ms. Sampson has in the making for the Ohio Theatre include a summer writing workshop for high school students, a Toledo Ballet workshop, an Internet gaming seminar sponsored by the group Beyond Gaming, and a fall series of artistic films.

Mr. Glazer said he recently met a man at a health club who said his father was an Ohio Theatre usher in the 1930s. Mr. Glazer told the man he now has a chance to be one in 2013.

“So many people have their roots attached to the Ohio Theatre. To bring it back means so much,” he said.

The Toledo area once had more than 60 neighborhood movie houses. The Ohio Theatre, the Valentine Theatre, and the Maumee Indoor Theatre lead a short list of what’s left.

The Ohio Theatre, built in 1921, remains a work in progress. But it is far enough into a $5 million renovation for United North to reopen it.

The group is confident it will raise an additional $2 million in private funds. Every dollar it raises will be matched by grant dollars. The theater, placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2006, has been authorized to receive up to $2 million in state historic tax credits.

More than $1 million was spent on the first phase, which included stabilizing the interior with a new roof. A new heating and air conditioning system, bathrooms, and lighting were added.

The most visible change is an expanded stage. The theater’s first three rows were removed to make that happen.

Seating capacity was reduced from 960 to 724, but there’s a much greater feeling of intimacy between viewers and performers.

The project’s next phase will replace original seats with wider, more comfortable ones, eventually reducing capacity to 425 seats.

The theater once had 1,800 seats.

Nearly $1 million is expected to be spent on restoring the facade. Other remaining work includes interior and exterior painting, and installation of those new seats.

The remaining work is to be done during the next two years. United North decided it could live with a nondescript exterior for now to let the community back into the theater sooner and fall in love with it again, Mr. Glazer said.

Contact Tom Henry at: thenry@theblade.com or 419-724-6079.