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Column: At 90, Artcraft Theatre still vibrant in Franklin

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The historic Artcraft Theatre is one of Johnson County’s treasures. Few single-screen movie theaters from the golden age of motion pictures survive and are still usable for that purpose. The Artcraft still is.

Built in 1922 at the tail end of the silent-movie era, the historic theater at 57 N. Main St. in Franklin boasts classic art-deco architecture and whimsical neon flourishes. It’s on the National Register of Historic Places.

Generations of Franklin kids knew the Artcraft as their entertainment hub. People now in their 80s fondly remember as children watching serial Westerns and World War II newsreels there every weekend.

 They remember bringing their first dates there for popcorn and later taking their own children and grandchildren to the Artcraft for the latest comedy or animated feature. People have a sentimental attachment to the old movie house.

Operated by the Rembusch family for 70 years, the Artcraft was sold in 2000 to Bob Schofield, owner of The Willard pub next door. Schofield tried to revive the theater as a music venue, to mixed success.

Occasionally classic movies were scheduled, but the building was showing its age and needed significant, expensive improvements. For that reason, Schofield closed it in 2003.

Most other historic theaters have long since died out after giant multiplexes with stadium seating drew away movie fans. The Artcraft could have faced the same fate: demolition or conversion to a storefront.

But Franklin Heritage Inc. came to the rescue. The group purchased the 600-seat theater and has been restoring it inside and out ever since.

“We could not sit back and let a precious landmark deteriorate,” Franklin Heritage executive director Rob Shilts said at the time of the purchase. “We want to save this once and for all and never see it in disrepair again.”

Through the efforts of Franklin Heritage and its many volunteers, the Artcraft has thrived. Continuing renovation will allow the theater to present live performances as well as movies, making it even more of a community asset.

The theater also has proved to be a commercial engine for downtown Franklin. It’s a destination for people across central Indiana. And these movie-goers often come early or stay late, patronizing downtown restaurants and bars.

When Franklin Heritage bought the theater, Shilts said: “While this is a leap of faith, we’ll get it done. People and their children will be able to go there for generations.”

His prediction is proving correct. The Artcraft is a jewel that an increasing number of people value.

Classic movie houses are on the endangered species list in communities across the country.

The Artcraft Theatre in Franklin will be able to mark its 90 anniversary this weekend thanks to the efforts of Franklin Heritage and countless volunteers who continue to work to preserve it.

We say: Happy 90th birthday, Artcraft. May you celebrate many more.

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