•the final movie weekend of the year, holiday-garbed film buffs packed the Historic Artcraft Theatre waiting to catch the classic “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation.”
People dressed in Santa hats and festive sweaters, some even donning bathrobes, shorts and winter hats like Randy Quaid’s Cousin Eddie character.
By showtime, all of the 576 seats in the Franklin theater were filled. This was the third sellout of the weekend.
The Artcraft Theatre is entering its 10th year since reopening, and the storied movie house is more popular than ever. Close to 7,000 people came to the theater for its December slate, a ticket sales record. On several weekends when films weren’t scheduled, live theater, concerts and vaudeville brought people from all over Indiana to downtown Franklin.
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For all of its successes, theater operators see even more potential for growth.
“We’re going to be doing more theater, more live concerts and events,” said Rob Shilts, executive director of Franklin Heritage Inc., which owns and operates the theater. “It’s trying to fill a niche that, if folks aren’t in the mood to drive somewhere to see live shows, they can do that right here in their backyard.”
The Artcraft prides itself on being a throwback.
Art deco neon decorates the lobby. Popcorn costs $2 a box. Each film starts with an old-fashioned cartoon or short film and a playing of “The Star-Spangled Banner.”
The theater’s movie lineup looks like a rundown of the most beloved films from the past 50 years. People can come out to see “Back to the Future” one weekend, “The Wizard of Oz” the next.
The chance to catch “Gone With the Wind” or “Lawrence of Arabia” on the big screen is a rarity.
“A lot of parents saw these movies when they were kids and are bringing their children to see them at the same age,” Shilts said. “We get kids, parents and grandparents all watching the movie together.”
The Artcraft was built in 1922 and served as Franklin’s main movie house for nearly eight decades.
Over time, the building fell into disrepair and closed in 2000. Franklin Heritage, a local preservationist group, bought the theater with the intention of renovating and reopening it.
When the Artcraft reopened in 2005, local officials envisioned starting a chain reaction benefiting all of downtown Franklin.
They wanted to preserve a Franklin icon. Doing so would bring people to the downtown area and help with the overall revitalization of the courthouse square.
“That’s why these theaters were built in the center of towns like this — they were the places that generated the foot traffic,” Shilts said. “When theaters were relocated to the outskirts and these small theaters closed down, a lot of downtowns died with them.”
Gradually, the theater has attracted more and more people.
When the theater reopened, capacity was 450. During the past decade, small adjustments have increased that number.
This past year was one of major construction projects both inside and out. The Atterbury Job Corps program helped remove close to 400 seats in the theater during the course of 19 days.
Workers took out platforms that had been built under the seating to hold electrical wiring, then rebolted the seats into the concrete floor, creating more space for the audience while improving sight lines, Shilts said.
The work also allowed for the addition of 25 seats. Increasingly, every last chair has been needed.
“As we’ve added more seats, we’ve been blessed by this community to continue to fill them all,” Shilts said.
Improvements to the stage, including light and sound systems, increased electrical capacity and a screen that could be raised and lowered, allowed for a more diverse slate of events at the theater.
This was the first year it added traveling live events. A performance by the Glenn Miller Orchestra sold out, while almost 500 people came to see the traveling honkytonk show Branson on the Road in August.
The Missoula Children’s Theatre took up residency at the Artcraft for a week in June. Instructors helped local children create their own performance over the course of five days, culminating in a public performance.
With a more diverse lineup, the theater more closely resembles the all-purpose entertainment centers that stir nostalgia in older generations.
“The history of this theater and what it can offer is what captures people,” Shilts said. “You don’t see too many of these thriving and surviving. We’re a little more hometown, bringing back some of the past.”
The success of the Artcraft
has attracted attention from all over Indiana.
More people are attending the theater from outside Franklin than inside, many driving more than an hour to get here. Ticket purchases from the Carmel and Fishers areas are increasing.
During the theater’s Hitchcock Festival in October, people
came from as far away as Pennsylvania.
“A lot of our movies are
50 percent or more new viewers. To have that many new audience members all of the time is impressive,” Shilts said.
As they analyze what worked and what can be improved for the coming years, Artcraft officials want to build on the success of 2014.
In addition to films such as “My Fair Lady” and “Sunset Boulevard,” the theater will host a selection of Heartland Film Festival movies for a “Best of the Fest” event.
Missoula Children’s Theatre will return this summer, and Shilts is lining up other traveling acts to come to Franklin.
Depending on funding and donations, work will continue on restoring and improving the theater.
“We still have a ways to go with our stage and sound and light, to get it where we want it to be,” Shilts said. “But this year proves that we’re on the right track.”
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Upcoming Artcraft events
Where: 57 N. Main St., Franklin
- Jan. 9 and 10: “Viva Las Vegas” starring Elvis Presley and Ann Margaret
- Jan. 23 and 24: “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan” starring William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy
- Feb. 13 and 14: “My Fair Lady” starring Audrey Hepburn and Rex Harrison
- Feb. 27 and 28: “Lawrence of Arabia” starring Peter O’Toole and Alex Guinness
- March 13 and 14: “No Time for Sergeants” starring Andy Griffith and Myron McCormick
- March 27 and 28: “Sunset Boulevard” starring Charles Brackett and Billy Wilder
Showtimes: 2 and 7:30 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays
Cost: $5 for adults, $4 for seniors, college students and military with ID, $3 for children 12 and under
Information: historicartcrafttheatre.org or 736-6823
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“A lot of parents saw these movies when they were kids and are bringing their children to see them at the same age. We get kids, parents and grandparents all watching the movie together.”
Rob Shilts, executive director of Franklin Heritage Inc., which owns the Historic Artcraft Theatre in Franklin