A New Beginning

Local group buys Ohio Theatre after previous owners announce its closing

Ratcliffs had operated the historic theatre
for the past 20 years

(April 2016)
Read previous Don Ward columns!
Don Ward

(April 2016) – Residents of Madison, Ind., on Feb. 29 were saddened to learn of the announced closing of the beloved Ohio Theatre. Longtime owners Tony and Laura Ratcliff posted the news to their website, citing low attendance and high costs as the factors in their decision. The couple had operated the theatre for 20 years.
“Declining attendance has reached the point where it is not possible to continue operating. After weighing options, we decided the best course of action was to close,” the Ratcliffs said in a press release.

File photo

The new owners of the Ohio Theatre plan to continue holding limited events to pay the utility bills until they can raise enough money to totally renovate it.

But no sooner had the news hit the town and plastered all over Facebook was there a follow-up announcement two days later when a newly formed five-person organization, Friends of the Ohio Theatre, revealed it had purchased the theatre from the Ratcliffs and would continue to operate it on a limited schedule.
Madison residents Charles Requet III and his wife, Elizabeth Auxier, Elijah Chandler, Blythe Couch and one other who asked not to be named bought the theatre for an undisclosed sum. In a March 2 press release, the new owners described themselves as “a group of enthusiastic local volunteers dedicated to preserving and restoring Madison’s cinematic heritage.”
With the help of several volunteers, the group has been busy cleaning the theatre floors and its 301 seats. They held their first event, a concert by the locally popular band The Rumors, on March 25. They plan to continue holding events, mostly on weekends only, according to Auxier. The group also has applied for non-profit status and are awaiting approval, Auxier said.
“Once we get our nonprofit status, we can begin to fundraise, accept donations and apply for grants,” said Auxier, who serves as the group’s board president. Auxier operates her own marketing firm, while her husband is an engineer at the LG&E-KU plant in Kentucky.
The group’s plan was to close the theatre for a few weeks for cleaning and then begin to book concerts, plays and other entertainment on weekends only – just enough to pay the utility bills, Auxier said.
“We hope to be able to re-open for two to three months to raise enough money to sustain the building and pay monthly utilities and expenses. After that, we will close for a major fundraising campaign to completely renovate the Ohio Theatre.”
She joked, “Of course, if people want to donate a bunch of money to us right now, we can begin renovations immediately.”
Board member Elijah Chandler said he is very excited about the acquisition. “Like so many of my friends and colleagues in the community, I grew up in the Ohio Theater. I’ve seen hundreds of films in the main auditorium throughout my life, and the Ohio has been there for some major milestones. I took my first date there, saw a 3-D movie for the first time there and, most importantly, it’s where I saw ‘Star Wars’ on the big screen for the first time. I want to make sure that my daughter and her friends get to have the same experiences.”
Blythe Couch, another board member, said she also looks forward to this project. “I am so happy to be a part of Friends of The Ohio Theater. As a lifelong Madisonian, I love everything that downtown has to offer and spend a lot of time enjoying the riverfront, restaurants and shops in this beautiful area. Some of my best and earliest memories of going to the theatre were at the Ohio. I am thrilled to be involved with this new adventure and can’t wait to see what amazing things the future holds for this historic landmark.”
Significant details pertaining to the renovation are not immediately available because the organization needs to conduct a feasibility study and restoration plan, Auxier said.
Requet, who serves as the group’s vice president, “We will know more about the future once we obtain the plans and have defined strategies to ensure success.”
Additional information will be shared with the community as it becomes available, Auxier said.
The Ohio Theatre first opened in 1907 as The Little Grand Theatre, according to accounts written in the Madison Courier newspaper at the time. It was built by Herbert H. Johnson and first operated by Louis E. Holwager and seated 400 people. In 1913, Holwager wrecked the building and rebuilt the theatre to include a balcony and stage and to seat 700 people. A fire damaged the building on Dec. 27, 1928. In 1930, Holwager leased the theatre to H.H. Johnson, who redecorated it with a new lobby, carpeted aisles and new exits. Holwager closed the theatre in 1936 for a complete renovation, which included new equipment, new seats, upgraded restrooms, draperies, lights and acoustics. It re-opened on Oct. 4, 1938 to a packed house, according to the Courier reports of the time. The theatre showed the Marx Brothers’ “Room Service” that night, along with “The March of Time” and “Mickey’s Parrot,” a Mickey Mouse cartoon in Technicolor. Also shown was “Queen of the Air,” a musical short with Vincent Lopez.
A new owner by the name of Baker operated the theatre in the 1950s, according to recent owner Tony Ratcliff. It had a long run but then was closed in 1993. During that span, John Galvin took over as manager in 1960 for his father-in-law, who owned it at the time. Galvin bought the theatre from him in 1963. He operated it and the Skyline Drive-In on the Madison hilltop simultaneously for many years. In 1978, a second, smaller theatre was created in the upstairs balcony of the building. Galvin closed the theatre in 1993, then sold it in 1996 to the Ratcliffs. In 1992 Galvin closed the Skyline drive-in.
The Ratcliffs, originally from northern Kentucky and previously owners of a theatre there, re-opened the Ohio Theatre in 1996.
In 2005, the Ohio Theatre served as the location for the world premiere of the movie “Madison,” the story about Jim McCormick’s 1971 victory at the Madison Regatta in the community owned hydroplane Miss Madison. The event saw thousands of people flock downtown to Madison’s Main Street to view Hollywood actors Jim Caviezel, Chelcie Ross, Jake Lloyd and others entering the theatre during a “red carpet” style gala. The movie also starred Mary McCormack, Paul Dooley and Bruce Dern.
In 2006, a historical marker was erected in front of the theatre to commemorate 1930s-era actress Irene Dunne, who spent much of her childhood years in Madison.
In September 1999, a bronze and granite Hollywood-type star was created in front of the theatre to honor the 1959 movie, “Some Came Running,” which was filmed in Madison and starred Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and Shirley MacLaine. The marker dedication took place during a weekend gala event to commemorate “Some Came Running.” The movie earned five Academy Award nominations.

Learn more during the coming weeks and months by liking the Friends of The Ohio Theatre Facebook page or by emailing: friendsof theohiotheatre@gmail.com.

• Don Ward is the editor, publisher and owner of the RoundAbout. Call him at (812) 273-2259 or email: info@RoundAbout.bz.

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