Auditorium Theater

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Auditorium Theater as it appeared before 1968
On Monday, June 11, 1894, the corner stone was laid for what would become a Newark landmark. Originally called the Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Memorial Building, the theater was built to serve many purposes. Originally, it housed two store rooms, a large opera house, a second-floor library and reading space, and a third-floor memorial hall for use by the Grand Army of the Republic and the Union Veteran Legion. The Board of Trustees assembled to oversee the construction of the building purchased the property for a sum of $19,000. [1] Previously, the home of Samuel D. King stood on the site at 22 N. Second St. That house, built in 1831, was removed from the property and now stands on Sixth Street as part of the National Heisey Glass Museum . [2]

The theater opened for business on March 1, 1895, with a Newark Opera Club production of “Pirates of Penzance” being its first performance. Many famous performers of the early 20th Century graced the stage, including Count Basie, Harry Houdini, Gene Autry, Eva Francis, Zoe Fulton, Elsie Hirschberg Deermont, Elsie Janis, Eva Tanguay, Texas Guinan, and Frank James, the brother of famous outlaw Jesse James.

 A photo of fire crews extinguishing flames at the Auditorium Theater.
Fire crews working to put out flames at the Auditorium Theater on April 29, 1968
Eventually the name was changed to the Auditorium, and the theater continued to thrive until a fire damaged the front of the building. At approximately 3:44 a.m. on April 29, 1968, crews responded to a blaze at the then 73-year-old structure. The fire destroyed the front portion of the theater. The damage was estimated to be around $250,000, with fears that the building could be a total loss.[3] Included in the losses was an extensive collection of Civil War memorabilia that was housed in the theater. The fire was ruled as arson.[4] While the original façade could have been repaired and salvaged, architects of the time opted to replace the front of the building with a modern design.[5]

In 1978 the building was rented by the Midland Theatre Corporation, but was forced to close due to low attendance. The Licking County Players leased the building during the 1980s and offered community programming with the help of volunteers attempting to save the building, and in 1991, Licking County Veterans Memorial Auditorium Inc. proposed a tax levy to renovate the building. [6] The levy did not pass.

In 1992 local entrepreneur Dave Longaberger purchased the Auditorium for $70,000, with plans to renovate it into an entertainment facility.[7] Longaberger planned to restore the façade to its original elaborate grandeur. He intended to use the facility for Longaberger functions as well as community events such as movies, plays, and concerts.[8] After investing in the restoration of the nearby Midland Theatre, Longaberger deemed the Auditorium too costly to complete, and the property was transferred to the Newark Midland Theatre Association. [9]

In 2001, an estimate to renovate the building was totaled at $25,000,000. The theater had become structurally unsound and the stage needed replaced. Due to the exorbitant cost of restoration, it was decided that the structure should be demolished. The Newark Midland Theater Association discussed the possibility of dividing the property into two lots, with one serving as parking and the other housing a three-story office building. [10]

The property was deeded to the Licking County Foundation who funded the $300,000 demolition of the building in July of 2002. The Foundation planned to build a community park with a sprinkler-style water exhibit and greenspace. It was given the name Foundation Park. [11] The location is currently home to the Licking County Foundation’s offices and park.

C.S.

References

  1. “Corner Stone of Newark’s Memorial Temple Duly Laid,” Newark Weekly Advocate, June 14, 1894.
  2. Licking County Historical Society, “Theaters Big in Newark,” The Advocate, January 13, 1985.
  3. Dan Davis, “$250,000 Fire Hits Auditorium,” The Newark Advocate, April 29, 1968.
  4. Heather Homan, “Rich in Heritage,” The Advocate, October 1, 1995.
  5. Sarah Robinson, “Auditorium Theater Group Gears Up for Restoration,” Granville Booster, July 2, 1990.
  6. Kent Mallett, “Remembering the Auditorium Theater,” The Advocate, July 30, 2002.
  7. Jeff Bell, “Longaberger Saves Auditorium With $70,000,” The Advocate, June 7, 1992.
  8. Jeff Bell, “Longaberger Has Big Plans for Auditorium,” The Advocate, November 27, 1992.
  9. Mallett, “Remembering the Auditorium Theater.”
  10. Kent Mallett, Auditorium Theater to Be Torn Down,” The Advocate, July 8, 2001.
  11. “Auditorium Coming Down,” Our Town, July 11-17, 2002, 1.