The Main Theater may be a treasured landmark in Mt. Healthy, but it needs renovations before new memories can be made under its roof. Karen Arnett of the Mt. Healthy Renaissance Project is part of a concentrated local effort to restore the theater to working condition after more than a decade of neglect. She answered some questions for Soapbox concerning the building’s ultimate fate and how The Main Theater can fit into a modern Mt. Healthy.
How and from whom did you acquire the property?
The Port of Greater Cincinnati Development Authority acquired it in 2015 through the Hamilton County Land Reutilization Corp. (Landbank), which it manages, and spent nearly $41,000 on repairs — fixes to protect it from further deterioration, such as boarding up windows, gutting the interior and making roof repairs.
What was the Main Theater’s condition before your involvement?
The building had been empty for 10-15 years. Structurally, it is in surprisingly good condition. It was looking a bit rough around the edges when the Port did its stabilization. The Port had the front façade/cornice repainted, and it really glows now. The City has not done any work on the building as of yet, other than to replace a broken front window. We are still in the process of exploring possibilities for renovation, and haven’t yet developed a specific road map for funding or construction. Currently, we are moving forward to nominate The Main Theater for the National Register of Historic Places, and don’t want to do any construction work prematurely that might endanger our ability to secure the historic tax credits that will accompany the historic designation.
How much work and time has your organization invested in The Main?
When we learned that the City would be acquiring The Main Theater, the Mt. Healthy Renaissance Project put together a working group to lead the charge. Mayor Wolf and a Mt. Healthy city councilmember, Jenni Moody, are a part of the group, along with several members of the Renaissance Project. So it turns out that this won’t be a charge so much as a steady walk. Reclaiming and repurposing The Main Theater will be a long process, perhaps taking a few years.
Something rewarding last fall was that the UC/DAAP historic preservation class, under Prof. Jeff Tillman, included The Main and three other Mt. Healthy buildings in their practicum class. They took measurements and inspected the building and mapped current conditions.
What kind of work is still needed?
We are in phase one of this mid- to long-term project. Everything is ahead of us: getting an architectural plan in place and fundraising for the renovation. Phase I is a kind of friend-raising period. This year, we will be opening a pop-up shop in the intact storefront. We will be open weekly, hopefully a few hours each weekend, from May-September. The pop-up will be a fun experiment: we want to bring people to The Main, to let them know what’s in the works and to energize the building. We hope to have the work of local artists and artisans for sale, along with temporary art exhibits by our local community groups. In honor of Mt. Healthy’s bicentennial, we’ll offer some special wares. The pop-up will also be a performance space. We have some community members who want to bring spoken word, acoustic music and that kind of thing. We’ll also have some freshly brewed and locally roasted Deeper Roots coffee for folks to sip.
Another exciting thing in the works is that we are working with Elementz on a mural for the front entry wall of The Main Theater. The mural artist, Ben Thomas, is going to do the work, and it is going to make the place look vibrant. We expect that will be completed by the pop-up opening in May.
What is the plan for The Main's future use after revitalization?
Although things could change, our current vision on which the working group unanimously agrees is that we want the space to return to being an entertainment hub for our community. The theater was a mainstay in the lives of thousands of folks who grew up in and around Mt. Healthy, and those folks have many good memories of this theater. We think that Mt. Healthy deserves to have such a hub once again, though this time around, it will not be solely for movies. We envision it being a place for a mix of live theater, live music concerts, some film and other events. We’d be happy to find a theater group that might want to make The Main its home base.
What do you think is important for our readers to know about the theater?
The Main Theater had an incredibly long run — it was one of the longest-lived movie theaters in Cincinnati. The Blum family ran this movie theater from 1915-1971. It has a rich history and there are lots of stories. One fun story is that when the film broke during a movie, which it used to sometimes do in the celluloid days, the owner would go down to the front and play the banjo to entertain the audience until the movie resumed. And his cousin, who was a local Catholic church organist, played the piano for the silent movies before the talkies took over. The stories about The Show, as many locals still call it, are absolute gems.
You can follow the progress of The Main Theater, and find out more about the pop-up, by joining its Facebook group.