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Requiem to Restoration

When an aging theater closes the curtains and locks its doors, it normally stays that way. That was nearly true of Drexel Theatre after more than 70 years of mainstream movies and obscure independent films. But the most recent round of renovations has restored the long-lost luster and art deco décor to Bexley’s most iconic [...]
J.R. McMillan

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When an aging theater closes the curtains and locks its doors, it normally stays that way.

That was nearly true of Drexel Theatre after more than 70 years of mainstream movies and obscure independent films. But the most recent round of renovations has restored the long-lost luster and art deco décor to Bexley’s most iconic and familiar façade.

“We wanted to restore the grandeur of the theater, but we didn’t want to change the ambiance,” explained Kevin Rouch, theater director. “That’s the fine line the architects walked, being able to update with digital screens and new concession equipment in the lobby while maintaining the feel of what patrons enjoyed most about the theater.”

“One of our regular guests shared that her first date with her now husband was at the Drexel, but she was worried that we would change it so much that her memories would be lost,” he confessed. “But after seeing the improvements, she found me to tell me, in her eyes, it felt the same—only better.”

My own relationship with Drexel Theatre is also personal. Unlike most Columbus transplants who eventually discover the Drexel, it was literally my first stop.

It was May of 1997, and I’d just driven three hours from Huntington, West Virginia to interview for a job as the theater’s publicist—a position that turned over often and turned out to be an awkward amalgamation of advertising design, community organizing, and guerilla marketing.

College kids may have a hard time believing this, but not so long ago, getting a real beer in a real glass at a movie theater was a novelty—back when film was film, not a stream of encrypted electrons. If you wanted to know what was playing and when, you needed to find the tiny ads in the Columbus Dispatch, or the slightly larger ones in The Other Paper, The Alive, or The Lantern. If you were feeling particularly high-tech, you could pick up a landline phone and call a souped-up answering machine so a disembodied voice could read you the showtimes aloud like a cross between a town crier and a carnival barker.

That was also part of the gig—I was the voice of Drexel Theatre.

The business office was located immediately above the since defunct Drexel Radio Café, and the aroma of fresh coffee and grilled paninis was such a constant, you almost forgot about it. Piled deep under press kits, ad slicks, and one-sheets were two desks—one for me, the other for Jeff Frank.

“We all owe Jeff and Kathy a great debt for creating an incredible brand that has allowed us to maintain community support through this last phase,” Rouch said. “They are huge part of why the theater survived when times were tough.”

It’s hard to overstate how synonymous Jeff and his wife Kathy were (and still are) with the Drexel. From subtitled matinees to science fiction marathons, there was just enough subtlety and shtick to strike the balance between successes and setbacks. Jeff tended to skip sophomore projects, favoring first-time directors and undiscovered actors and actresses before they were big. Breakout films burnished the theater’s reputation for finding the next great talent and his insight for independent films was essentially unmatched in the market.

On one screen, you would have Kevin’s Smith’s first foray into serious subject matter with Chasing Amy, among the first LGBT-themed films to find crossover acclaim. But you’d also find Hard Eight, Paul Thomas Anderson’s dark journey of redemption and directorial debut on another. Then there would be Microcosmos rounding them out, a French nature documentary that lasted longer at the Drexel than I did.

I remember when we actually passed on Jackie Brown, the highly anticipated follow up to Pulp Fiction, much to the dismay of the theater’s faithful. The calculation was that every other multiplex in Columbus would also be screening it over the make-or-break week between Christmas and New Years—when all of the major studios tend to release their Academy Award contenders.

We skipped it in favor of an exclusive engagement of this clever little film from a couple of best friends from Boston, directed by a guy who made a career telling stories outside the mainstream. While every other theater in town was struggling to fill seats amid high expectations and lukewarm reviews of Quentin Tarantino’s latest opus, we were selling out every screening of Gus Van Sant’s Good Will Hunting.

That’s probably a fitting metaphor for the decade that followed—some surprise hits, but mostly splashy premieres that never fully resonated with audiences. The Arena Grand would change hands, as would the Gateway. The North foreshadowed the eventual closing of the Grandview Theater. Once again, the original Drexel Theatre stood alone.

The film industry was fine, but times were lean and the future uncertain for movie theaters. Between the immediate gratification of Netflix and ease of RedBox, going to a theater to watch a movie with friends and strangers became a ritual and rite of passage almost lost on a generation raised on HBO with barely a memory of Blockbuster Video. Successful, single location cinemas survive on nostalgia and inertia—the failing ones on credit cards and fumes. Sheer force of will wasn’t going to be enough this time.

“Six years ago, the theater would have closed its doors had we not stepped in,” explained Richard Stoff, chairman of Friends of the Drexel. “We came in with a promise, to return the theater to its original art deco splendor, and create a new, inviting, and warm neighborhood community gathering space for the people of Central Ohio.”

Though most may recall the Drexel’s gala fundraising premiere of Happythankyoumoreplease, directed by Bexley’s own Josh Radnor, the groundwork for the grassroots group that rallied to restore the theater was well underway. A nonprofit board was assembled, debts were settled, and operations were reorganized before the remodeling even started.

We had an inspiring governing board—among them were folks who inspired me, like Bob Lazarus—a pro bono study from Deloitte & Touche, the financial acumen of CAPA, and we started to restore the theater,” noted Stoff. “Bringing in that kind of legitimacy went a long way. By the time we finished it, we [had] invested $2.5 million dollars.”

Initial fixes were acute, but somewhat invisible—like a new roof and HVAC. Digital projection and sound were essential as well. Relocating the rundown bathrooms to the other side of the lobby allowed the theater to renovate while remaining open. The final phase restored the marquee, lobby, and concessions, as well as the creature comforts of the theaters themselves.

“There is a community education mission for the theater,” Stoff explained, noting the popularity of the Drexel’s “Talk-Back” panel discussions following select screenings. “There was a very powerful film that came out a few years ago called Alive Inside, a documentary about the effectiveness of music therapy in the treatment of Alzheimer’s. We asked Bonnie Burman, the director of the Ohio Department of Aging, and Peter Whitehouse, professor of neurology at Case Western, to do a Talk-Back and packed the house for that.”

Preserving a building’s appearance and aesthetic is a matter of money. It’s harder to put a price on preserving the larger role a local theater plays in the lives of its audience.

“Getting the theater placed on the National Register of Historic Places was a game changer for us, and that was no small feat,” he explained. “Drexel Theatre remains a community and cultural asset.”

For more, visit drexel.net.

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Q&A: Columbus artist Mandi Caskey wants to bring us together

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Photo by John Thorne
 

Context plays one of the most important roles in our understanding of art. For instance, if you saw the unveiling of Columbus artist Mandi Caskey’s latest masterpiece, you’d probably equate the message to the daily protests that have been held in Columbus over the past week.

When the mural on the abandoned highway overpass near Scioto Audubon Metro Park was started, that wasn’t the case. It was a message meant to distract us from the hardships that COVID-19 flooded our lives with.

Now, to some people, the mural’s message, which stretches over 400 feet, takes on a new meaning.

(614) caught up with Caskey to find out the inspiration behind the piece and how she feels about subjectiveness in art. Check out a brief Q&A below and some incredible aerial footage from photographer/videographer John Thorne.

Obviously a project this big can't be tackled alone. Who all helped bring this idea to life?

This project was originally an idea that I wanted to do secretly aka illegally, but my business partner came up with a better idea. And that was to get other artists involved and pay them during the stay-at-home order. 

The whole time we honestly didn’t think we would be able to get approval on all the permits we needed, but thanks to Lori Baudro, over a month and a half we got permission and permits from the Department of Public Service, ODOT, and the Arts Commission. We were honestly in shock. 

When it came down to businesses, we started working with Tim Cousino, who’s an architect. He figured out all the measurements we needed. From there we had to get our hands dirty and clean the surface of the bridge, which had five 9-foot around dirt piles that we shoveled off.

Once the surface was prepped and ready to go, we had Jacob Bench come out. He’s an engineer that helped translate all of Tim’s measurements. The project would have been 10 times more difficult without him! 

Through the process, we slowly grew the team. David Greenzalis is my partner in crime so he was there from the beginning. Katie Bench, Hawke Trackler, Lisa Celesta, Ariel Peguero, Chris Blain, Patrick Cardwell, Eric Terranova, Sam Rex, and Justin Paul, who has taken the amazing footage everyone has seen. All of these people are passionate, hardworking, and just awesome to be around. I was excited when we all came together. 

From what I've read, it seems like your idea for this was green-lit very quickly and easily. Why do you think people responded to the idea in your message so strongly?

There’s a combination of reasons everything moved so quickly (in terms of government) ha-ha. Part of it was the fact people were at home; they wanted something to get excited about. This was a project people could easily get geeked out about: 400-foot long mural on the bridge that has been abandoned for 10-plus years! I think they just wanted to see if it could happen. Also, the bridge will be torn down in a year or so; this means the mural doesn’t need any upkeep. The fact it was temporary made it an easy Yes for people. Still in shock this all worked out so smoothly.

What roadblocks did you run into during the process of creating the mural?

A big roadblock that no one could help was the weather. Man, was it a beast to work with. When we first started prepping the bridge, it was raining and around 40 degrees outside. We were in coats with gloves for half of the project. Then it rains for almost two weeks straight, which pushed back any painting we wanted to do. The days when we did get to work was easily 95 and scorching! We were all burnt to a crisp! It was stressful but fun working with this crazy Ohio weather.

How do you think art helps people during times of unrest and uncertainty like we're in right now?

Art is truly the bridge between thoughtful conversations and action (pun intended). Public art specifically can be the most impactful since it’s meant to be viewed by everyone. There’s no fee to look at it, no dress code, no need for art knowledge, just acceptance and appreciation are necessary. 

Art in general helps people look outside of their own personal bubbles. We can see into someone else’s mind for a split second and become apart of the art and experience. I think we forget that art is a living representation of us, but I hope through this unsure time we start to remember why humans started painting in the first place.

I think there's something to be said about how the mural was made on the basis of the coronavirus pandemic and bringing people together and now it can take on the meaning of the social change that needs to happen in this world. What are your thoughts on that?

Originally the mural was made because I personally felt alone and knew so many other people were feeling the same way during the stay-at-home orders. Once the project actually started to become a real thing, “we are stronger together” became more about the people who were working together; so many different types of backgrounds and artists. People from different periods in my personal life, all coming together and making something epic. 

When it was all said and done, the words are made for everyone, from any background, race, gender, far and wide. It’s a message that I hope makes people know I’m with them, that no matter the craziness in the world, someone’s got your back.

 

 
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Columbus artists employed to paint boarded-up downtown for #ArtUnitesCbus

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The Columbus arts community has really stepped up to the plate when it comes to trying to unite and inspire during tumultuous times. One of the latest efforts from visual artists around the area includes CAPA and Greater Columbus Arts Council (GCAC) latest partnership, #ArtUnitesCbus.

“When I do these projects, I try to remember to have fun and enjoy my loved ones. Even though it’s a bad time, there’s always room for love,” visual artist Hakim Callwood said.

The creative venture will exist to employ around 20 Columbus visuals artists. Their job will be to paint murals in place of the broken windows at the Ohio Theater and GCAC office. 

The art installations are expected to be finished by the end of the week.

“#ArtUnitesCbus is just one small way the arts community is trying to help. These murals are not the answer, simply a message that we ALL can, and must, help heal our community,” said Tom Katzenmeyer, President & CEO of the Arts Council, in a GCAC press release on Monday

Now more than ever is an extremely important time to give our community artists a platform. 

“The Columbus artists are more of a family than I think people understand,” Callwood said. “Whether we all talking every day or hanging out together; it doesn’t matter. When there’s times of need we always use our talents to support.” 

Check out the progress of their murals below.

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Weekend Roundup: 5/29 – 5/31

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With Ohio slowly starting to fully reopen, initial in-person gatherings have trickled into our news feeds.

Below are a few things you can check out over the weekend if you’ve been itching to leave your house and are capable of following COVID-19 guidelines.

Friday

Fair Food Weekend @ Oakland Nursery

One of the most disappointing summertime cancellations was the axing of the Ohio State Fair. For those still wanting to get their elephant ears or deep-fried oreo fix, Chester Foods will be bringing a pop-up food truck to the Oakland Nursery. Corn dogs, funnel cakes, fried oreos, fresh-cut fries, and lemonade shake-ups will all be on the menu. Fair food will be set up on both Friday and Saturday.

Time: 12 p.m. - 8 p.m. | Address: 4261 W. Dublin Granville Rd.

Saturday

Sonic The Hedgehog/Jumanji: The Next Level and The Hunt/The Invisible Man @ South Drive-In

With movie theaters in Ohio still closing their doors, the drive-in revival has been sweeping the state, nation, and world. Once drive-ins were given the go-ahead by DeWine, South Drive-In began to provide the double feature experience to eager moviegoers. Admission is $9.50 on Friday/Saturday and $7.50 on Sunday for those 12+, $2 for ages 5-11, and free for those under 4.

The showings for this weekend are as follows: 

Screen 1:

  • 9:05 p.m. Sonic The Hedgehog (PG)
  • 10:53 p.m. Jumanji: The Next Level (PG-13)
  • 12:56 a.m. Sonic The Hedgehog (Friday/Saturday only) 

Screen 2:

  • 9:25 p.m. The Hunt (R)
  • 11:05 p.m. The Invisible Man (R)
  • 1:09 a.m. The Hunt (Friday/Saturday only)

Check out the South Drive-In website to see what social distancing guidelines need to be followed.

Time: Arrive 1-2 hours prior to first showing | Address: 3050 S. High St.

Sunday

Reggae on the Patio @ Skully’s Music-Diner

If you’re in search of a relaxing Sunday, look no further than Skully’s. The music venue/bar will be opening its patio for those to have socially distance hangs, drinks, and wings. Skully’s will be setting the mood perfectly for a chill Sunday by spinning reggae music all night long. Get yourself out of the house and go catch some island vibes.

Time: 7 p.m. - 2 a.m. | Address: 1151 N. High St.

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