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Published: Monday, 4/28/2008

Efforts prop up sagging 'jewel' in Toledo's Polish district

BY JIM SIELICKI
BLADE STAFF WRITER
Michael Nelson, Ohio Theatre Inc.'s president, said restoration has begun on the Lagrange Street showcase while bookings and entertainment continue there. 'We are staying open,' he said. Michael Nelson, Ohio Theatre Inc.'s president, said restoration has begun on the Lagrange Street showcase while bookings and entertainment continue there. 'We are staying open,' he said.
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In the best theatrical tradition, the shows will go on - even if the theater's facade threatens to crash into the street at any moment.

But it'll take more than a weak wall to keep the Ohio Theatre's trustees from closing the curtains one last time.

"We are staying open," declares Michael Nelson, president of The Ohio Theatre Inc.

The theater's future appeared uncertain in August when the city ordered the entrance at 3114 Lagrange St. and front offices closed because inspectors found the wall was bowing 6 to 8 inches toward the street.

But the setback was temporary. The theater resumed operations by directing patrons through a stage door and moving the offices.

Mr. Nelson now works out of the lounge area of the women's restroom. Martin Blaszczyk, who edits the theater-owned LaGrange St. News, puts out the monthly newspaper from a desk inside the lobby.

The theater continues booking films and shows, hosting school groups, and putting on other productions to keep the building open while raising money for renovations.

"If it falls, it will fall out into the street, and part of it will fall inside and go right down to the basement," Mr. Nelson said of the problems cited in the inspector's report.

The board did not want the theater to go dark while awaiting repairs. "It was the only way we had to keep it open," Mr. Nelson said. "If we had closed, everyone would have lost interest. Now they'll finally be able to see something."

If there is doubt about its future, a hand-painted sign facing Lagrange lets the curious know "Restoration Has Begun." Some progress from renovations is visible, albeit on a small scale.

A pair of glass entrance doors were cut into the brick wall of the north side leading to a parking lot shared with a neighboring bar. Security lights were added. A canopy that will incorporate part of the old red marquee will be added over the side doors in about a month.

Concrete sidewalks were poured along the north side and a ramp and another walk were added to the rear.

"If the theater had closed, even temporarily, it would have taken the heart out of the Lagrange business district," said Terry Glazer, executive director of the Lagrange Development Corp., a community organization of residents and business owners.

"The Ohio Theatre is probably one of the biggest assets in the business district," Mr. Glazer said. "It not only serves the people in the neighborhood, it attracts people into the neighborhood."

The Lagrange Development Corp. has assisted the theater board in finding grants or other money sources for the renovations.

Mr. Glazer noted that the theater served as a rallying point during the "Keep Jeep" in Toledo campaign 10 years ago.

"It's been a real jewel," he said. "It's been used by local groups and by groups from outside."

Meanwhile, the shows continue.

On Saturday, the theater began is biweekly matinee series with a John Wayne classic, The Trail Beyond, along with a Three Stooges film and a cartoon.

Movies from the public domain - for which royalties don't have to be paid - and classic and foreign films are part of the fare, Mr. Nelson said.

The Rocky Horror Picture Show, a cult comedy that parodies science fiction and horror films and over the 33 years since its initial release has developed a tradition of audience participation, recently ended its local run for the season. It will resume in the fall when college students return, Mr. Nelson said.

Rocky Horror features the 1975 film and a local "cast" of actors who play out the scenes in conjunction with the movie. That every-other-month production will resume in September.

Some older films are still projected from the twin Mighty 90 carbon-arc projectors that were installed in the 1920s.

But the Ohio Theatre entered the digital age recently when it bought a $17,000 DVD theater projector, the type used in modern cinemas - for just $375. The model had been discontinued, Mr. Nelson said. The new DVD projector was used to show the John Wayne flick.

Prices are kept low to encourage repeat business. Popcorn's a buck, soft drinks are $2, and the price of a movie ticket, $4.

When school lets out, a New Hampshire group will help put on a children's theater summer camp.

An early feasibility study of the work needed on the wall estimated $128,6000 for the facade, plus miscellaneous work for a first-phase total $205,489.

In the two years since then, the cost estimate has ballooned to just shy of $2 million, Mr. Martin said - a tall order for an organization with a $175,000 annual budget.

There's no timetable for work on the facade to begin. "I have to have $2 million before we can start," he said.

Later phases over a 10-year span call for adding dressing rooms, creating a larger concession area, and other amenities.

"No one is paid here. We're all volunteers," Mr. Nelson said.

As president, Mr. Nelson said he puts in 40 to 60 hours a week. He took over as president last July, having served two years on the board prior to that.

When he took the post, he gave up running a small shop that sold imported Polish pottery from a wood-frame building the theater owns next to the Lagrange Development Corp. offices and the theater itself.

The Ohio Theatre is using a volunteer grant writer to help research sources of money from the government, corporations, and foundations.

Contact Jim Sielicki at:

jsielicki@theblade.com

or 419-724-6078.



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