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Theater branching out to include more offerings

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Since reopening 10 years ago, the Historic Artcraft Theatre has specialized in reshowing classic movies such as “Casablanca” and “Back to the Future.”

But supporters envision a rapidly expanding slate of offerings at the theater.

Area bands can play bluegrass, country and rock ‘n’ roll in front of more than 600 people. Acting troupes will bring Shakespeare and other live plays to the stage.

Vaudeville acts will tell jokes, sing silly songs and do magic in a call-back to the golden age of live theater.

The Artcraft is evolving into a new phase as an entertainment complex. Organizers are booking live orchestras and theater performers to go with its normal rotation of classic movies.

“There’s going to be a lot of focused attention this year. Not that there hasn’t been before, but this is all to help get us more live acts,” said Rob Shilts, executive director of Franklin Heritage, which owns the Artcraft.

The Lil’ Darlins Vaudeville act will find a much improved situation when they perform at the Artcraft on Thursday.

When they last visited Franklin in 2012, the 14-member troupe had to get ready at the bed-and-breakfast they stayed at three blocks away, then drive to the theater.

But this time, they’ll have dressing rooms, a lounge area to relax in and a patio to sit outside, if they want.

“It’s all part of the process. We know we can do movies, but to do theater, you need dressing rooms, restrooms, places for the actors to stay,” Shilts said.

Since Franklin Heritage, a local architectural preservation group, purchased the Artcraft in 2004, work has been ongoing to restore the theater.

The building structure has been remade and solidified. The original Art Deco lobby decorations and neon were restored.

“The nostalgia of it is what sells a lot. It reminds them of a theater they went to as a kid,” Shilts said. “To have something that’s always been here, it’s a comforting sense of community.”

During the past six months, pieces have fallen into place to truly become Franklin’s home for live entertainment.

The Artcraft calls on a force of 150 volunteers to help with its projects. For some of the more intensive work, the theater has partnered with Atterbury Job Corps, an occupational training center for youths located between Edinburgh and Nineveh.

Students in the building trades courses have come to the theater for the past year, volunteering their time while getting experience in their future profession.

“These projects provide the Atterbury Job Corps student real-life, hands-on training opportunities,” said Jeff Byrd, the program’s business and community director. “The restoration projects require skilled labor that isn’t easily found, so this partnership is a perfect match to accomplish the goals of both organizations.”

Inside the theater, Job Corps students removed wooden risers that had been built under the seats to hold electrical wiring to light the ends of each row. The platforms had been installed in the 1950s, but current theater officials realized the risers could trip patrons and weren’t necessary anymore.

The work of unbolting the seats, taking out the risers, reconfiguring the electrical wiring and reinstalling the chairs took about a month, Shilts said. By using Job Corps for the labor, Artcraft officials were able to save a considerable amount of money to get the work done quickly.

“The only way for a grassroots organization like us to do this is through volunteer labor. People don’t realize, but there is something going on here every day. We’re always improving on it,” Shilts said. “We get labor, they get skills they wouldn’t get anywhere else.”

Half of the seats were finished before December, and the other half will be done in April.

The stage itself has also been the focus of improvements in recent months. Shilts has purchased two new curtains, one to go inside the main curtain and one intending to hide the mechanisms in the back of the stage.

Legs, long curtains that hide the wings of the stage to the audience, and borders to dress up the top of the space will also be installed.

The equipment will be necessary for live theater, Shilts said.

All of those items cost about $22,000. Professionally installing and hooking up all of the equipment will cost another $56,000.

“These are the kinds of equipment they would have had back then, only with modern technology. It’s all meant to take us back to that original stage,” Shilts said.

Electrical upgrades have provided more circuits to handle bands and other groups that have sound and lighting equipment. The circuits are separate from the Artcraft’s existing movie and sound electrical needs,

Shilts said.

“Part of owning a theater is having flexibility, to be able to go from movies one night to a big party the next night. To have a concert, then flip it to theater,” Shilts said. “A theater has to be versatile and flexible, and this provides us with that.”

One of the most useful improvements has been made outside the original theater building.

A newly renovated bungalow connected to the back of the theater will provide dressing rooms, lounges and a place to relax before performing. Actors can go right from their dressing room to the stage, without having to go outdoors.

The house will also serve as an event space, where sponsors or other groups can host parties before films or concerts.

Workers from Atterbury Job Corps created an atmospheric patio with bricks originally used to pave Main Street.

Across the street, a dilapidated former hotel has been purchased by Franklin Heritage, and is in the middle of a renovation as well. Job Corps has rebuilt the front porch, and further work will be done throughout the year.

Shilts envisions a meeting space where organizations can conduct retreats, groups can rent out its commercial kitchen to prepare food for downtown Franklin events, and the theater can store old props and costumes.

“The theater has no storage. But in there, you can put additional costuming and seasonal things, records, that’s perfect for us,” he said.

Estimates on the work are still rough, and could fall anywhere between $40,000 and $60,000. The cost will depend on the help they receive from Job Corps, who can do everything from interior painting to drywall.

Already, they’ve spent $25,000 on materials and improvements. But getting the labor for free is key for them, Shilts said.

“We’ve got all of these different volunteers to work on this stuff. If we didn’t have them, it wouldn’t be where it is today,” Shilts said.

The improvements have already allowed the Artcraft to expand its slate of entertainment.

Shilts has booked the world-famous Glenn Miller Orchestra to perform live Big Band classics in June.

Missoula Children’s Theater, a traveling group that brings directors and props to a community then recruits local children to create a performance, will be in June as well.

Traveling country act Branson on the Road will be through in August.

The improvements being made in the coming months will establish the theater as the county’s foremost cinema and performance house well into the future, Shilts said.

But all of the work is intended to recall the Artcraft’s past.

“Everything we’re doing is taking us back to 1922,” said Shilts, referencing the year the Artcraft opened.

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