Born in a Small Town

June 6, 2014

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.

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