Community Celebrates Park Theatre’s Re-Opening

Community Celebrates Park Theatre’s Re-Opening

Posted by on Sep 23, 2003 | 0 comments

From North Vernon Sun special section
Sept. 23, 2003

by Barbara King & Bryce Mayer

Community celebrates Park Theatre re-opening
Intrepid group persevered despite overwhelming odds

It began as a dream — an impossible dream, some pronounced — in 1987 when the Jennings County Players, the local community theater group, decided the Park Theatre would be the ideal place to serve as its home. The troupe was then performing at the Vernon Academy, a cramped structure with inadequate sound, lighting and space.

The idea was not new; indeed, ever since the Park Theatre closed in late March of 1962, there had been what most termed nostalgic notions now and then of bringing the movie house back to life.

When the Players committed to the Park, it still took almost 10 years for an intrepid group to form which would spearhead the $1.2 million refurbishment of what could only be described as a dilapidated structure in a declining side street in downtown North Vernon.

“A lot of people figured we would never make it,” says Bill Reichenbach, a self-described stubborn Kentuckian who is one-half of the powerhouse couple credited for getting the task completed. “My mother taught me ‘can’t’ never did anything. Besides, it is something that ought to be done.”

The idea that the Park ‘ought’ be restored proved a unifying theme for those who have served on the Park Theatre Civic Centre, Inc. non-profit board. But more than a theatre revival, those involved all expressed a tenacious commitment to renew the downtown area. Those two ideas were intimately linked.

Mary Knarr, who with her late husband Larry were involved from the beginning, describes her motivations as just like everyone else on the board. “I hated to see downtown North Vernon become a ghost town. I think theater and  performing arts is something that the younger generation need to be aware of.”

When the rear of the structure collapsed just months before the group formally incorporated in 1996, a less committed group might have surrendered. Some people told them they should just tear the building down. Board member Alan Marshall recalls that he, for one, “did not want to see the downtown area with a hole in it.”

Another board member, Patti Yount, remembers that at the time another fate for the theatre was being bandied around town. “There were some who said it should be a parking lot,” she says. “We’re proud to say it now ‘parks’ 332 people. It is probably the nicest parking lot in the state.”
Max Wiley owned the Park at the time, renting out the front to small business owners and utilizing the rear for storage. After the roof fell in, he dropped the purchase price from $45,000 to $35,000. Board member Jerry Sharp agreed to donate the $35,000 anonymously. He describes his largesse today as “a leap of faith” and only recently agreed to be publicly acknowledged for his gift.

“I didn’t want people to know (at the time) because people were saying ‘it’s crazy,’” he says.

Starting with a feasibility study in 1996, work progressed, sometimes painstakingly slow, other times at breakneck speed. No matter what, the board kept their perspective and held their dream close.

“I was never discouraged,” says Hulda Reichenbach, president of the Park Theatre board since its creation. “It never entered my mind to quit.” With such verve, she and her husband Bill became the unflappable advocates for the Park. Bill served as the volunteer superintendent/workhorse over the course of the project, often spending 12-hour days at the site which by opening night totaled over 7000 manhours. From shoveling trash to straightening old nails to chiseling old plaster from bricks to building a balcony to overseeing professional craftsmen, Bill says he has learned a lot.

“I’m still trying to decide what I want to be when I grow up…an electrician, a painter, a carpenter…I’m still working on it.”

Hulda’s commitment has been equal or more, as she has literally been ‘on stage’ for the project, courting contributors and volunteers for the past seven years at least. She admits to one discouraging time, back when the Indiana Department of Commerce visited the site after the roof collapsed. Officials were not encouraging at all. Instead,  they said the Park was hopeless and should be torn down.

That pronouncement prompted Hulda to visit Karen Fields’ third grade class at Brush Creek School. The class had learned about the goal to restore the Park Theatre in the Plain Dealer and asked their visitor “How do you know when to save a building?”

Hulda was quick to respond.  “I said, ‘You have to listen to see if it has a heartbeat.’”

Members of the Park Theatre board of directors all heard that heartbeat, even though some admit with a laugh that at times Hulda and Bill probably heard that beat a little bit louder than some of them.

The Park is now returned to a grandeur unforeseen just seven short years ago and promises to be a tremendous asset for North Vernon and Jennings County for generations to come. New board member Diana Earl says it is precisely that promise  that so captivates her.

“My life is half over,” she says. “But it is for our children and future generations. That’s why the Park is so special to me. Finally, there is a center for the youth and children to come to.”

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