News and Media
Historic Apollo Theatre Reopening in Fall
Jul. 20, 2012
When the Apollo Theatre reopens in the fall, audiences will be watching new releases in the same building where students are learning to produce films. A $6 million, yearlong renovation is transforming the nearly century-old theater into a modern film and performance space on the first floor, and a Media Education Center with state-of-the-art postproduction facilities on the second floor. The project will no doubt usher in a new era for the Apollo—a one-of-a-kind historic theater and academic space—as well as the cinema studies department.
Construction is ongoing this summer, and is expected to be complete in August. During the course of the project, crews have unearthed a couple of surprises that have altered the course of the renovation. The most important discovery revealed Art Deco fiberboard panels dating to the 1930s hidden behind the wall covering in the main theater. In keeping with state and federal requirements for historic-preservation tax credits, the decorative panels, in a chevron pattern, will be replicated and updated to meet current theater standards and new color scheme in the main theater. Another unforeseen issue was the discovery of a railroad rail that was recycled for use as a support beam.
From the outside, one noticeable difference will be a refurbished marquee that meets historic preservation standards. Leo Evans, Oberlin’s assistant director of facilities planning and construction, says the structural system for the marquee had to be reinforced to provide adequate support. In addition to restoring the upper windows, work is being done to replace missing and damaged panels in the once-gleaming façade of black and red Vitrolite glass — a glossy, marbled surface that was popular at the turn of the century and throughout the Art Deco era.
Major upgrades to the theater include improvements to the stage, which can be now used for live performances, as well as a new moveable screen and speakers; new projection rooms; an ADA-compliant wheelchair lift; refurbished theater seats; and construction of a 61-seat screening room on the ground floor, which will serve as a second theater screen.
Cinema studies faculty have been closely involved in planning the second-floor renovations, as that space will become a key component of the curriculum as well as the department’s permanent home. The second floor will include a postproduction lab, a sound recording studio, a small screening room and shooting studio, a color correction suite, and a simple animation room.
“With the reopening of the Apollo, the cinema studies department will have a home,” says Geoff Pingree, director of the cinema studies program. “The postproduction facilities there will allow us to strengthen a curriculum founded on the integration of critical studies and production, on thinking about media as well as making it.
“The renovated theater also presents a wonderful opportunity for the entire Oberlin community to share a media center that can attract not only students to the college, but scholars, filmmakers and artists from around the world. It can become a draw for film festivals and lecture series and provide a center for storing archival materials. In the Apollo we envision a place that will allow cinema studies’ vision and the Oberlin community’s needs and interests to develop hand in hand.”
Pingree says he knows of no other liberal arts institution where students can study and make media, then take what they’ve learned and share it with the surrounding community — all from a home base that’s a grand, historic theater from the era of silent movies.
“When you add to this the access Oberlin students have to the extraordinary talents and resources of the Conservatory of Music, it’s not hard to understand why this is such a special place for aspiring filmmakers and scholars.”
There will also be an office and classroom dedicated to the Apollo Outreach Initiative, a program that enables Oberlin’s cinema studies students to teach media literacy to children and teenagers in local public schools. Oberlin College students take a for-credit practicum in media literacy and pedagogy, then work in the community as mentors to school-aged youth, empowering children and teens by giving them the tools and support they need to make their own films, radio programs, websites, and other media.
“AOI is a year-round media literacy outreach program, housed in cinema studies, whose mission is to provide sustainable educational outreach and media literacy opportunities for public school students of all ages,” Pingree says. “My colleague Rian Brown-Orso (associate professor of cinema studies and new media) and I started the program three years ago as a way to help transform the Apollo into a media production and education center genuinely dedicated to serving the entire Oberlin community.”
Brown-Orso, who is co-director of the Apollo Outreach Initiative, adds, “By drawing on the talents, social consciousness, and enthusiasm of our students at the college, we seek to help young people in the broader community grow as artists, citizens, and leaders by mentoring them in the use of media, especially film, as a force for local and global understanding and change.”
College Properties of Oberlin, a wholly owned subsidiary of Oberlin College, purchased the theater from twin brothers William and Sandy Steel in 2009. The theater is now owned by Apollo Theater LLC and is managed by Cleveland Cinemas.
The brick theater was built by William Hobbs in 1913. Its first show featured Thor, Lord of the Jungles, a three-reel, silent thriller starring silver screen pioneers Kathlyn Williams and Tom Santschi. In the Apollo’s early days, live musical and vaudeville acts were presented on its spacious stage.
Jerry Steel, a film distributor from Cleveland and father of the most recent owners, purchased the Apollo Theater complex, which includes commercial and residential space adjacent to the theater, in 1928. That year, the Apollo screened the first “talkie,” or sound film in local history. The theater was remodeled in 1950 in “Zigzag Moderne” style. Its distinctive triangular marquee with traveling neon lights was added, along with a façade of gleaming black and red Vitrolite tile, and interior walls of padded vinyl and glossy crimson velveteen.
Funding for the purchase and renovation of the Apollo complex was provided by generous support from Oberlin alumni, friends of the college and local community members. Donors include the Steel family, famed television director and Cheers creator James Burrows ’62 and his wife Debbie Burrows, the Goldring Family Foundation, Oberlin College Board Chair Robert Lemle ’75, the Nord Family Foundation, and an anonymous Oberlin High School graduate.
The Friends of the Apollo was organized to support the second phase of renovation and beyond. The Friends of the Apollo Steering Committee include husband and wife actors Rhea Perlman and Danny DeVito, filmmaker Jonathan Demme, local arts advocates Kevin Flanigan and Jaqui Willis, and Oberlin alumni Elizabeth Ignat-Bausch '91 and Justin Ignat-Bausch '90.