Visual Arts » Film

Historic Theater Lives On



Saturday night means it's downtown night. It's a night out in small town America in the 1950s. Residents flock to the downtown square. Local restaurants open their doors. Quaint specialty shops sell their unique gifts. After the day's activities, people head to the latest moving picture show at the theater.

Through the decades, downtown squares look the same. Maybe a bit more worn. But those restaurants, those stores and those people are still there. But there's something missing--the theater.


The theaters used to be a staple of most towns. They were social hubs. But, as towns grew and new theaters were built, their charming predecessors, with their one projection screen and rolling film, disappeared.

In Franklin Indiana, a town of 24,000 people, the Artcraft Theatre is an exception to the disappearing act. Noticing the building may close, Franklin Heritage, a nonprofit historical preservation group, decided to purchase the establishment in 2004.

"The reason we bought the theater was because it was really falling into decay," says Rob Shilts, executive director of Franklin Heritage and the Artcraft Theatre. "It was getting steadily worse, and we had heard a rumor that they were getting ready to sell the projection equipment. Usually when that happens, theaters go dark. As a preservation group, if we didn't do something about this, we might as well have packed our bags and gone home."

Other historic theaters across the state and around the country haven't had the support the Artcraft received from local preservation groups and city governments. According to Shilts, there are only about 20 working historic theaters left in the state.

According to The League of Historic American Theatres, there are 42 historic movie palaces in Indiana. This means less than half are still working and being restored. In some states such as Idaho and Wyoming, only five historic theaters still stand.


Shilts believes they should be preserved because they were built so well is in the first place. The Artcraft and other downtown theaters help boost small town economies. The Artcraft has been a central figure in Franklin's efforts to revitalize the downtown area. With its biweekly weekend movies, it draws a crowd of 600 people a night. This added up to 35,000 people last year.

Franklin residents have a special connection to the movie house. Local business owner Dave Windisch has fond memories of the Artcraft. He now works with the theater to design custom movie posters through the screen-printing company Mile 44 that he runs with his business partner Stacy Curtis.

"It's where I grew up watching movies," says Windisch. "When I found out Franklin Heritage bought it, I thought it was a great idea and something I wanted to get involved with. I like being able to do work in a town and a community that means a lot to me and means a lot to other people."

In its partnership with the Artcraft established in 2007, Mile 44 has done 24 posters for movies such as Monty Python and the Holy Grail, The Day the Earth Stood Still and Hoosiers.


The custom posters aren't the only unique aspect of the Artcraft movie showings. In an attempt to make the experience as authentic as possible, Franklin Heritage is in the process of getting the building back to its "period of significance" between 1948-'52. This is the time when the town did most of the renovations to give the building its current art-deco feel. Franklin Heritage hopes to have the renovations completed by the Artcraft's 100th anniversary in 10 years.

In addition to the building and decorations, the staff also does various activities that used to occur before each movie back in the day.

"We still play the national anthem before every movie," says Shilts. "Everybody gets up and sings. We still play a cartoon before every movie. We do 'short attention theatre,' which is a 30 second to one-minute version of the movie, some kind of funny skit, to get the crowd warmed up and laughing."

The movies are still shown on 35-millimeter film, using the old 1950s projectors. Shilts's goal is to keep the experience as original as possible because "the history is what sells the place."


Frequent moviegoer and Franklin resident, Amy Grimmer, visits the Artcraft a few times a year and enjoys the experience.

"I love the old movies and the nostalgia," says Grimmer. "It's great because it's old-fashioned and doesn't have all the bells and whistles of the modern theaters. It has been a staple in the downtown for years, and I love that they're trying to continue the tradition."

Shilts believes the following and the need for a movie house like the Artcraft will only continue to grow in the years to come.

"There are going to need to be more places to relax as society speeds up," says Shilts. "It's like walking back in time. We want to get back to where the streets were crowded and double-parked on a Saturday night. A sense of community starts with the house you grew up in, the school you attended, the church you went to and lots of times--the theater. That's part of the draw."

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