It was a long way to go to watch a movie, but my
trip from the suburbs of Indianapolis to the rural
southern Indiana town of Spencer to check out
a renovated 1920s movie house made me realize
that not every bit of small-town America has
disappeared. The spirit that it “takes a village” and
that the world does not need to be all Wal-Marts
and fast-food restaurants is alive and well there.
Located near Bloomington, home to the
massive Indiana University, Spencer sits among
the rare rolling hills of this part of the country.
It’s no longer the small town aesthetic of
Norman Rockwell illustrations or Frank Capra
movies, but it seems to have retained that same
spirit among its current-day residents.
The story of the AV portion of the renovation
is documented in my feature article, but what I didn’t write about
was how the project really got started. What I
learned from my May visit to Spencer was that
the town’s beloved 1920s movie theater, like
so many structures from that era, had fallen
on seriously hard times. While it was privately
owned, Mother Nature had taken hold of
the theater to the point of no return, or so it
seemed. The community (under the banner of
the Owens County Preservation Corporation),
pooled together its resources and received a loan
from the Indiana Landmarks organization to get
the building secured from the outside elements.
But that’s as far as they could take the process
with their limited funds. Fortunately someone
in the town was resourceful enough to reach
out to a philanthropic organization called the
Cook Group, which already had refurbished the
historic French Lick (Indiana) Hotel and Casino,
to the tune of $500 million. The Cook family,
which makes its fortune selling medical supplies
out of its headquarters in Bloomington, is known
to support causes that improve the communities
in which its employees live.
Obviously that grant was essential to the story,
but it was Cook’s attitude toward philanthropy
that struck me, for it was so community minded.
It also was the way the town respected those
resources that made me appreciate this project.
Tradesmen and artists from the area were
hired to perform the renovation, and everyone
took their responsibilities very seriously. When I
interviewed, the AV contractor, Eric Stiening, he
noted that he chose a 2K Christie projector even
though he could have found the money for 4K.
“Our overall goal was to make it as appropriate
as possible without going overboard just because
we had Cook behind us,” he said.
A year after its grand opening, there is still
only one paid employee at the theater, but
there are more than 100 volunteers, including
Steining’s colleague Tyson Jordan, who is
trained as a projectionist at the theater.
Walking into the theater for the first time takes
your breath away because it’s not what you’d
expect to see inside a small-town Indiana building.
It’s a relic of our more ornate past that has been
restored and enhanced with modern technology.
And the project is the result of a community effort
that I used to think only happened in the movies.