People's Bank Theatre celebrating 100 years

MARIETTA, Ohio (WTAP) - Theaters have been known to be the focal point of communities, gathering places for generations of residents, and Marietta is no different.

The People’s Bank Theatre, formerly the historic Hippodrome Theatre is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year. It has gone through several names, owners and uses...but its existence has played a pivotal role in the history of Marietta in the last century.

"The building is 100 years old, built in 1919 and renamed the People’s Bank Theatre in 2016 as part of major renovations," said Hunt Brawley, executive director for the theater.

This old town theatre has a unique history, starting with its humble beginnings on Second Street. That vaudeville theater burned down in 1917 and the owners decided to rebuild.

"The owners I think wanted to build a much bigger, more ambitious theater," Brawley said, "and so essentially started the construction process in 1918 and built what was known as the new Hippodrome Theatre on its current site."

Brawley notes that the theatre was a very modern facility when it was first built. In fact, it was the first air conditioned building of its kind in Marietta.

"They just used well water," Brawley pointed out. "The well still exists next to the property. They just pumped 58 degree water, there were two big coils and that air just dropped into the theater, which was a huge deal back in 1919."

The theater played host to many headlining acts throughout the early century until it was bought by Shea Theatres in 1949 and renamed the Colony Cinema. It moved toward showing mostly films until its decline and closure in 1985.

"December ‘85, the downtown was really drying up, a lot of the energy was taken out of the downtowns into the strip centers and malls out on the pike," Brawley said. "It was very hard for businesses in the downtown to survive."

Local business owner Dan Stephan, affiliated with Peoples News bought the building in 1989 with hopes to one day bring it back to life. And, sure enough, those efforts began in the early 2000s.

"The theatre surfaced as something that was important to the community that we should be looking at to redevelop," Brawley said.

Raising money was challenging but organizers came together. They hit a slight hiccup in 2007 when the recession hit, losing their legacy backer in Bank of America. But they picked up a familiar face in People’s Bank and a $7.5 million restoration was almost ready to roll.

"Our first show was January 2016 after the theatre had been closed since 1985," Brawley noted.

Three years since reopening, Brawley says attendance is up to 30,000 a year and ticket sales have exceeded expectations, showing how important the theater is to the community.

"Much of the downtowns were built around theaters as entertainment destinations," he said, "and so we always looked at this theater as a potential catalyst for the economic development of downtown and I think it’s proven to very much be that."

The revitalization of the theatre highlights the irony of downtowns nationwide seeing a second wave of life as commercial strip malls, which replaced them, now on the decline. But Brawley says with headlining acts like Chicago and Dione Warwick, the answer to their success is simple.

"People love the fact that hey, we can come to a real first class theater in a small town in southeast Ohio and that’s fantastic," he said.

People’s Bank hosted Chicago back in May, its biggest event ever, Brawley believes that booking has elevated the theater to new heights and the future is very bright for who or what the 100 year-old venue may host for the future.