Energizing the Emery Theatre

There's a burning question about the historic Emery Theatre: Will it be ready by 2012 when the world descends on Cincinnati for the World Choir Games? 

The short answer: Probably, now that two nonprofits - the Emery Center Corporation and Requiem Project - are managing its restorations and programming, respectively. 

Once snared by mortgages and sparse funding for restorations, the historic theater could be ready for local arts by January 2012, and, some imagine, the World Choir Games in July. To the arts community, and the city, the theater's return alone could be epic. An exciting time. New energy for Over-the-Rhine. 

Graced in the early 1900s by Broadway stars and orchestras, it's likened to Carnegie Hall because, as experts point out, it has pure acoustics, or wonderful sound design. But the theater hasn't been fully operational for more than a decade. For now, it's a dormant landmark nestled on the corner of Walnut Street and Central Parkway in Over-the-Rhine.

"The Emery is a wonderful concert hall with amazing acoustics that has sat empty for far too long," says Margo Warminski, preservation director of the Cincinnati Preservation Association. "It could help revitalize the neighborhood."

The Emery family opened the theater in 1911, hosting the Cincinnati Orchestra through 1936, and Bette Davis, John Phillip Sousa and George Gershwin among other celebs of their time. At the same time, the Ohio College of Applied Science (OCAS), formerly the Ohio Mechanics Institute, was operating in the north side of the building, and collectively the theater and college were housed under what's now considered the Emery Center.

The University of Cincinnati took ownership of the Emery in 1969, with OCAS relocating to Walnut Hills in 1988, and American Theatre Organ Society holding film nights in the theater through 1999. (The Emery has opened on special occasions, including Citybeat's Cincinnati Entertainment Awards in 2008, and a Give Back Cincinnati fundraiser, Emery Jam in 2009.) Still, the theater was looking grim in 1988 without much funding behind it.

"There are some buildings that are much harder to reuse than others, because their construction limits what they can be used for," Warminski says. "Buildings that were built as places of assembly ­- churches, hall, etc. ­- don't really work well for any other purpose, unless they're small enough to be used as single family homes or condos or office space."

Efforts to restore the Emery stretch back to 1988, when local art supporters formed the ECC. Among the early board members were UC Dean Maria Krepel and Alfie Moore of the Emery family. Reportedly, the board had a rough start: Ohio Sen. Stanley Aronoff secured $4.5 million for the Emery Theatre in '88, but UC allocated most of the funding to the College of Design, Architecture, Art and Planning building, and French Hall on the main campus.

With most of the $4.5 million drained, the board cooked up Plan B, a different way to pump money into the Emery's restoration.

"The ECC realized by the mid-90s that this could not be done without some kind of endowment, some kind of income stream," says Kathy Schwab, a current ECC board member and executive director of Local Initiatives Support Corporation of Greater Cincinnati & Northern Kentucky. Constructed at $9.7 million, the Emery Center Apartments and commercial space opened in 2001. Today it has 59 rental units and houses the Cincinnati Development Fund and Coffee Emporium spaces.  

Much of the energy behind the Emery Theatre's revival comes from Tara Lindsey Gordon and Tina Manchise. Manchise grew up in Cincinnati and received her BFA in drama and dance at UC's College Conservatory of Music. She met Gordon, also a dancer who holds a BFA from the Tisch School of the Arts, during a stint in New York, and they studied "the relationships between neurological development and creative work" via New York University's graduate courses. Their Requiem Project is a culmination of their studies, and it's backed by a national advisory board that includes Bill Cunningham, former Xavier professor in the Entrepreneurial Studies Department, and Andy Hamingson, Executive Director of New York's renowned Public Theater.

"Our mission is to bring the theater back to the community, and bring the theatre back to where it's not only open, but thriving," says Manchise

Gordon and Manchise are buzzing with a mantra: "11-11-11." That's roughly two months before the Emery Theater's 100th birthday. It's a preview night, says Manchise.

"It's not necessarily a full restoration or full opening, but it's opening the doors, turning the lights on, in a way that's very Emery-specific."

Says Gordon of the preview: "It would be really fantastic if we could create something representative of the community. A music concert, something that's really interdisciplinary, something that's reflective of the possibilities here."

The Nov. 11 preview would underscore the healthy partnership between the ECC and Requiem, the latter formed two and a half years ago by Gordon and Manchise and local arts philanthropist David Sanders Jr. In the wake of new assessments, the ECC and Requiem are estimating the Emery Theatre's Phase 1 renovations - fixing up the seating, stage, electricity, etc. - will amount to about $3.5 million, and perhaps more if they restore the floors and auxiliary space surrounding the theater. Gordon and Manchise envision a gallery, a sculpture garden, classrooms, artist studios, and perhaps rooftop rehearsal space for the Cincinnati Ballet.

"Every square foot should be utilized," Gordon says. "If you have 10 people that want to come hear a lecture - fantastic. If you have a corporate event or a wedding, there should be space for that. We want the space to inspire as much creativity as possible."

The Emery Theatre is currently still closed but by 2012 all the mess inside could be gone. The ECC and Requiem say they'll preserve the theatre's early 1900s design helmed by architects Samuel Hannaford & Sons, the minds behind Carnegie Hall.

"That's the beauty of it," says Ken Jones, ECC member and owner of the architecture firm Ken Jones and Associates. "It's our belief the acoustics would change if we altered the theater's configuration."

And money for the theater is trickling in. The Emery Center Apartments are generating revenue, and the ECC and Requiem are seeking what Gordon calls "a diverse income stream."

"I think if you rely solely on one income stream, you're leaving yourself open to possibly not having any," she says. "Our mission is to diversify, so that we're not relying solely on people donating money."

The ECC and Requiem are planning to engage the city as Phase 1 develops, Gordon says. Those affairs would likely be directed to Councilmember Laure Quinlivan, chair of Council's Quality of Life Committee.

She supports the Emery's restoration, but "the city right now doesn't have a pot of money for capital arts grants," she says. "In the past, there were arts-related capital projects that were funded with Anthem money" - a fund related to the city's insurance provider Anthem Blue Cross and Blue Shield.

In the meantime, Manchise and Gordon are consulting local arts spaces like Know Theatre and Music Hall in Over-the-Rhine as they dream up programming at the Emery. Their ideas fall in line with places like the Carnegie Visual and Performing Arts Center, and the Fairfield Community Arts Center. Though smaller, both mix theatre with educational programming and various artistic goings-on.

Photography by Scott Beseler.
Tara Lindsey Gordon and Tina Manchise of the Requiem Project
Emery Theatre interiors

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