Centennial centerpiece: Artcraft Theatre celebrates 100 years

The promise of entertainment and live performances sent ripples of excitement through the Franklin community.

When the Artcraft Theatre opened its doors in 1921, it was envisioned as a main draw to downtown Franklin. People who came to see a vaudeville show or silent movie would make a day of it, eating at nearby restaurants and shopping at downtown businesses. The theater would help raise the fortunes of the entire town.

One hundred years later, that is still the case.

“Unlike a lot of other theaters, for some reason, everyone just admired and loved the Artcraft,” said Rob Shilts, executive director at Franklin Heritage, which owns and operates the Artcraft Theatre. “It brought the traffic into town. This is what got people to go to these stores or eat at these restaurants or get groceries here. It’s the same thing we wanted to do when we opened it back up.”

The Historic Artcraft Theatre is approaching its centennial year by looking at the past 100 years and celebrating the role the theater still plays in the tight-knit community. Officials are considering a year-long approach to the anniversary of the theater, including historic displays, special merchandise and a community party rivaling anything that’s been seen in downtown Franklin.

Though planning is still fluid, one aspect is certain — appreciating the unique attraction that Johnson County has maintained.

“One hundred years old for anything, especially a single-screen independent movie theater that’s only had four owners in its entire lifetime, is worth celebrating,” said Dave Windisch, marketing director for Franklin Heritage. “You see movie theaters that are built, change format, change owners, and are torn down in the same time we’re chugging along, doing what we know how to do.

“It’s a pretty special thing, not just for movie-lovers, but for the community, to know that this anchor has been here for a whole century now.”

Beneath the glittering and glowing marquee, moviegoers flooded through the Artcraft’s doors the weekend before Christmas for one of the most popular movies of the year — “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation.”

Nearly every show that weekend was sold out, and festive attendees donning Christmas sweaters, lightbulb necklaces and other fun outfits excitedly made their way to their seats.

The holiday season has become a centerpiece of the Artcraft’s yearly lineup, screening classics such as “It’s a Wonderful Life,” “A Christmas Story,” “White Christmas” and “Home Alone” to packed houses.

But the theater has found unique ways to incorporate film into Franklin’s traditional celebrations year-round, from classic monster movie mini-film festivals leading up to Halloween, to timeless love stories shown around Valentine’s Day.

As much as the physical building, the Artcraft is woven into the fabric of Johnson County.

“I told everyone that all I wanted for Christmas was a full house, and we got it, so I’m happy,” Shilts said.

The Artcraft Theatre opened for the first time on Nov. 1, 1922. At the time, it mainly offered vaudeville shows and silent movies. Trueman Rembusch, owner of Syndicate Theatres and whose family was a major player in the theatrical business in Indiana, purchased the Artcraft in 1936. The theater remained a full-time theater in the Syndicate Theatres chain until 2000.

Visitors to the Artcraft immediately notice the distinctive Art Deco designs, reflected in neon lights and other architectural features. Those additions were made to the theater in 1944, and were important to maintain as modern owners renovated it.

“Truman Rembusch was a real showman, who knew the movie business up and down,” Shilts said.

The Artcraft operated uninterrupted throughout the 20th century. But in 2000, it ended its run as a full-time theater and became a multi-use venue instead.

Trying to capture the nostalgia of the Artcraft, Franklin Heritage launched its “Classic Cinema on a Classic Screen” film series in 2001. But the series was suspended two years later, when the theater was deemed unsafe.

Still, supporters refused to give up on the theater. Franklin Heritage purchased the building in 2004, and began its restoration work. The theater reopened to the public on June 16, 2004.

Since that time, officials have poured massive amounts of funding and manpower into repairing and maintaining the theater. The facade and marquee have been completely redone, structural inadequacies fixed, a mobile screen installed and myriad other projects completed.

Work remains, though, which leads into a main component of the 100-year anniversary.

In anticipation of a year’s long celebration, Artcraft officials have kicked off a centennial campaign raising money to continue preserving the historic theater. People are encouraged to donate $100 — or more — in recognition of the momentous anniversary.

Donors will have the opportunity to share their stories about the theater, from Saturday mornings spent watching cartoons, to first dates, to longtime family traditions.

“What was your connection to the theater? Do you remember the first time mom and dad brought you for your first movie? We want to gather as much of that information as we can,” Shilts said. “It’s important to preserve the theater, but it’s also important to preserve the emotions, the experiences, what the theater meant to them.”

Windisch hopes to have special merchandise available commemorating the 100th anniversary. Staff and volunteers are searching through a wealth of historic documents, donated by former owner Mike Rembusch, which provide context to what was happening throughout the theater’s lifespan.

They are also combing old newspaper archives to get a more clear picture at its role in the community.

“I’m really looking forward to seeing how we promoted this theater in its early days, and trying to tie that into how we promote the theater today, and connect the past and present,” Windisch said. “We want to remind people that our building has been around for so long that, yes, we did show ‘The Wizard of Oz’ when it came out, and we’re still showing it.”

Planners are working on putting together a downtown party closer to the actual date the Artcraft opened, with live music and themed tents. Shilts envisions a band, vaudeville acts, fortune tellers and other unique performers for the 1920s-themed party, though those details are still coming together.

Regardless, excitement is building, and will continue throughout the year.

“Part of it is trying to tell the story through these decades — what was going on in the world and what was going on in Franklin, and why the theater was so important,” Shilts said. “It’s a monstrous task.”