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Oberlin College Alumni and Friends Group Funds Purchase of Oberlin's Historic Apollo Theater

Feb 02, 2009

OBERLIN, OH – Acting to preserve a cherished local institution, Oberlin College announced today that it has reached tentative agreement to purchase Oberlin’ s historic Apollo Theater, one of the few single-screen movie houses still operating in the United States.

College Properties of Oberlin, a wholly-owned subsidiary of the College, has agreed to purchase the theater, located at 19 East College St, from twin brothers William and Sandy Steel. College Properties of Oberlin will continue the operation of the 840-seat venue as a movie theater. Because it is being purchased by a College subsidiary, the theater will remain on the City of Oberlin’s tax rolls.

Funding for the purchase and renovation of the Apollo 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 Chairman Robert Lemle ’75, the Nord Family Foundation, and an anonymous Oberlin High School graduate.

Known for its distinctive ambiance, eclectic selection of motion pictures, and reasonable ticket and concession stand prices, the Apollo Theater is beloved by generations of Oberlinians. The brick theater was built by William Hobbs in 1914. 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 current 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 “Zig-Zag 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.

“The Apollo adds so much to our quality of life. Going to the movies at the Apollo is a great Oberlin and Lorain County tradition,” said Marvin Krislov, president of Oberlin College. Mr. Krislov said that as a member of the Oberlin community, the College has an obligation to preserve important cultural assets and enhance the town’s quality of life.

“Our hope is that the Apollo will become more than just a movie theater,” Mr. Krislov said. “We would like to see it become a venue for showcasing the wealth of theatrical, artistic and musical talent that thrives in Oberlin. We also see it offering exciting new opportunities to students and faculty in our Cinema Studies and theater programs.” A number of Oberlin College alumni have gone on to outstanding careers in theater, motion pictures and television including William Goldman ’52, Avery Brooks ’ 70, Julie Taymor ’73, Eric Bogosian ’76, James McBride ’79, Bill Irwin ’73, John Scheinfeld ’75, Ed Helms ’96, and the late John Cazale.

The first phase of renovations bringing the theater in line with building codes will be done this summer in partnership with local businesses and other interested parties. The Apollo’s grand re-opening is expected to take place in fall 2009.

While the Apollo will continue to be a working movie theater, the second phase of the project includes transforming the theater into a new performance space as well as a venue for community events.

To support the second phase of the project, a Friends of the Apollo organization with local and national members has been formed. It fund-raising activities will benefit the theater’s ongoing and future programming and educational outreach activities. The Friends steering committee members include actors Rhea Perlman and Danny DeVito, filmmaker Jonathan Demme, local arts advocates Kevin Flanigan and Jaqui Willis, and Oberlin alums Elizabeth Ignat-Bausch ’91, and Justin Ignat-Bausch ’90. For more information regarding Friends of the Apollo, contact Zach Pretzer, associate director of The Oberlin Fund, at Zachary.Pretzer@oberlin.edu.

“The Apollo is a truly vital part of the Oberlin area’s history and contemporary life, and the case for preserving it was compelling,” said Robert Lemle. “It is important given the difficult economic times that the College was able to fund the purchase of the Apollo and its initial operating expenses entirely through private gifts. That reflects how important the theater is to the greater Oberlin community.”

The theater is a key part of the Downtown Oberlin National Register Historic District, said Pat Murphy, executive director of the Oberlin Heritage Center, the local historic society and historic preservation organization. “It’s amazing we still have such a wonderful, historic movie theater that has been the centerpiece of our downtown,” Murphy said.


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