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A photo of the Sandusky State Theatre's marquee.

Resilient Ohio: Sandusky State Theatre Weathers the Storm of COVID-19, Building Collapse

The marquee of the Sandusky State Theatre featuring a quote from the musical Finding Neverland, the last show presented at the theatre before lockdown began in March 2020. Photo courtesy of Sandusky State Theatre.Last year’s coronavirus-pandemic-induced shut down created an obstacle for theatres everywhere, but for the Sandusky State Theatre, a performing arts theatre and “entertainment destination” in Sandusky, Ohio, the lockdown was merely “the calm before the storm”—literally.

Three months after shutting down, the Sandusky State Theatre, already adjusting to its new normal with virtual programming offerings, suffered severe damage when a storm hit Northern Ohio, including the Erie County region. Straight-line winds from the storm, which are no stranger to the Great Lakes area, resulted in the partial collapse of the building.

For many years, the Sandusky State Theatre has played a critical role in the community, as well as in the arts and culture sector in Ohio. Built in 1928 as a Vaudeville house, the theatre has been home to many famous acts, including Shirley Temple and B.B. King. It has been both privately owned and now operates as a nonprofit. In recent years, the theatre has become an all-encompassing performing arts venue and hosts a variety of programming from dance recitals to touring Broadway productions.

On the evening of June 10, 2020, Chris Parthemore, executive director of the theatre, had been on his front porch watching the storm when it struck Sandusky State Theatre.

“My phone started blowing up with people saying, ‘There’s damage to the theatre and the back half of the building is gone.’ I immediately went to the theatre,” Parthemore said.

Prior to the storm, the theatre had just kicked off its new slate of online programs as part necessary adaptations for COVID-19 safety.

The Sandusky State Theatre is working with an architectural firm that specializes in theatre construction. The theatre is inviting community feedback while considering renovations. Photo courtesy of the Sandusky State Theatre.“The virtual concert we did went really well, and we were excited about the new virtual programming. We said, ‘Okay, we are going to keep going; hitting our mission statement and providing arts for the community,’” Parthemore said. “And then on June 10, the building fell down. We knew the storms were coming in, but we didn’t think the building would be in danger.”

The entire back portion of the theatre collapsed, breaking a water main that would leak about 60,000 gallons of water a minute for several hours. The local fire department got straight to work ensuring that no one had been in the building during the collapse. Once the scene was secured, the Sandusky State Theatre team was close behind.

“We had to start working right then and there,” Parthemore said. “So, in addition to addressing the camera crews who rushed to the scene, we got generators on site and started pumping water out right then. This allowed us to save a lot of irreplaceable items (from water damage).”

One of the most important saves, Parthemore said, was the theatre’s iconic 1928 Golden Voiced Marvel Page Organ, which was built in Lima, Ohio, before it was moved to its first home, the Sandusky State Theatre. This complex instrument—one of four in the country—was used to accompany silent movies screening at the theatre. In the 1960s when the theatre had fallen on hard times financially, the organ was sold to a gentleman in Michigan, who would later gift it back to the theatre upon his death. The organ was returned to its original home in the theatre in 1995, where it was professionally refurbished and retrofitted for the space.

With this storied history in mind, Parthemore said checking on the Page Organ’s status following the aftermath of the storm was a top priority. He said the theatre was grateful to find that, while the Page Organ’s pipes had been destroyed, the organ itself survived.

“We were able to find a set of pipes for sale that we could acquire pretty quickly,” Parthemore said. “The organ will play again, thankfully.”

As the memory of the storm and damages linger both physically and financially, there is hope in knowing that the theatre will thrive again, Parthemore said. Shortly after the storm hit, he climbed up on the roof above the still-intact portion of the theatre and was moved by the sight of a beautiful sunset in the wake of the storm.

Taking a photo of the sky, Parthemore immediately reached out to the theatre’s PR representative.

“Is it too early to announce that we are coming back?” he recalls saying. “Because I don’t see that we have a choice.”



 

The theatre is on the National List of Historic Landmarks, so most of the building will be reconstructed to be exactly the same. Parts of the theatre will be redesigned so that it is more accessible to patrons and the various tech crews that utilize it. Photo courtesy of the Sandusky State Theatre.Now nearly a year later, renovation plans are underway. The Sandusky State Theatre is working with an architectural firm that specializes in theatre construction. Parthemore, along with the Sandusky State Theatre board, is inviting community feedback while considering renovations.

Since the theatre is on the National List of Historic Landmarks, most of the building will be reconstructed to be exactly the same. Parts of the theatre will be redesigned so that it is more accessible to patrons and the various tech crews that utilize it.

“The people need this theatre. The children need the (arts) education. It’s the cultural hub of the region. And Sandusky’s economy has seen a resurgence over the last few years as well,” Parthemore said. “There’s no way this community would let a storm keep us down like that.”

To learn more about the Sandusky State Theatre, visit sanduskystate.com.

Resilient Ohio is an ongoing series highlighting the innovative solutions developed by Ohio arts organizations as they navigate the effects of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. The impact of COVID-19 has created incredible financial obstacles for the arts across the country. According to Americans for the Arts, the negative economic impact of the coronavirus on the arts and cultural sector totals $15.2 billion across the nation—and counting. If you have a story to share about creative perseverance within Ohio’s arts community, please email it to communications@oac.ohio.gov.

ABOUT THE OHIO ARTS COUNCIL
The Ohio Arts Council is a state agency that funds and supports quality arts experiences to strengthen Ohio communities culturally, educationally, and economically. Connect with the OAC on Facebook, follow us on Twitter, or visit our website at oac.ohio.gov.

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Article by Cassie Rea, 2021 Ohio Arts Council Arts Administration Fellow



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