(Herald & Review (Decatur, IL) Via Acquire Media NewsEdge) June 22--DECATUR -- The power is out at Decatur's historic Lincoln Square Theatre. Insurance has lapsed. The stage that famously played host to the likes of Bob Hope and magician Harry Blackstone is gathering dust, undisturbed by all but the resident ghosts.
The building at 141 N. Main St. is up for sale on the website of Brinkoetter and Associates, currently listed at $300,000. And yet, the nonprofit organization's board of directors says they'd still prefer to reopen the historic theater.
The question is, how?
"I will be the first to admit that while our current board is a group of dedicated and passionate Lincoln Theatre fans who have the best of intentions, we lack expertise in some vital areas as it relates to turning the ship around," said board President Anne Thompson, a veteran of community theater in Decatur. "This challenge involves overcoming our somewhat downtrodden image so we can re-engage the leaders within our community who can lend their expertise."
To do this, Thompson and the Lincoln Square Theatre are attempting to form what they refer to as a "transition team" of community members that would inform and oversee everything from fundraising to event booking. In the wake of former Executive Director Debbie Ford's passing in March, however, the organization was thrown into even more uncertainty than before. Thompson is determined in her own task, but admits the organization is ill-equipped in many areas.
On a most basic level, the theater is dealing with debt. No shows, and thus no revenue stream can exist while the building's power has been turned off, and it can't be turned back on until existing utility bills are paid. According to Thompson, these total around $12,000 owed to Ameren Illinois. That company's representative said delinquent accounts such as the theater's could lead to further action to collect.
"Disconnection of service is always a last resort," said Ameren's Marcelyn Love. "Once service is turned off, it can be referred to a collection agency if there's no sign that payment is forthcoming."
This, therefore, would be a transition team's first task. Fundraising measures would have to be implemented to raise the $12,000 and get the lights on, but at the same time, shows would need to be booked in advance to provide a regular source of revenue, lest the same monthly bills immediately drag the theater down. Clearly, a background in venue management would be required by at least one transition team member.
"More than anything, we need to get a new executive director who has booking experience and expertise in running a venue," Thompson said. "We need a viable business owner, a good fundraiser, and someone who knows about building structures and getting it back up to par. We need people with law and accounting experience. What we want to see is forward movement, getting the doors open and having shows to stay in front of operational expenses."
That's certainly easier said than done, however. The last show held at the building was in November 2013, and the eight-person board hasn't officially nailed down any transition team members so far. Even events that would normally have been housed at the theater can no longer operate there, such as Troy Taylor's annual Haunted America Conference, currently in its 18th year. The conference had been hosted at the Lincoln for most of the last decade and was booked there again for this year. Only nobody informed Taylor the power was out, according to the author.
"I would really have liked to hear it officially from someone at the theater, but I had to hear it second-hand," said Taylor, who transferred the event to the Decatur Conference Center and Hotel. "I'd already spent a few thousand dollars on advertising for an incorrect location. I would have been happy to work around it, but I had no idea. They've been nice enough to still let us do the nighttime ghost hunt, but that's really the least they could do."
As a local author who has published numerous books chronicling every aspect of the Lincoln's haunted history, Taylor said he would be particularly disappointed to see the theater remain closed. Indeed, in many ways the theater has been like a home base to his operations in Decatur over the years. Ultimately, he agrees with Thompson in one respect: Changes would undoubtedly be needed to save the historic building.
"It has a ton of great history, and I've always tried to bring attention to it," he said. "I'd love to see it up and running again, but I don't think it's ever going to work the way it is, which is too bad."
Lori Sturgill, the producer of the Decatur Celebration, is another local leader who would prefer to see the theater operational. Last August, the Celebration orchestrated the theater's last large-scale show, as Here Come the Mummies kicked off the annual festival. The act would have returned to the venue again this year, but that became an impossibility.
"I understand what they're going through, because it wasn't long ago that we were really close to that ourselves," Sturgill said. "I think just like anybody that comes to that situation, you go through the thought process of ,'Am I really doing the right thing? Is it still right for this to exist?'
"Celebration went through that, and the Lincoln Theatre is going though it now. I hope there's a plan out there that could make it vital again."
As Thompson admits though, doing so would take far more than "bake sale money."
The fact that the building is officially for sale also seems to undermine any attempts to get it operational again, as the two goals would appear to be at odds. The board, however, doesn't view the sale of the theater as a "goal," only a possibility. The organization remains in stasis, looking for help both in its finances and leadership, unable to act without an outside infusion of expertise. In their hearts, the board members simply want to ensure the building will remain safe and erect.
"We can't just stop, wait and hope someone buys it; we at least need to try," Thompson said. "And we don't want to sell it to anyone unless they want to keep it as a theater. It's a good venue. If we can get things put together, it could be a tremendous venue."
The question remains, though: Who would step up to do this job, and how would they do it? Although expenses have been curtailed with the power turned off, the current board is not working with an unlimited timeframe to find answers.
Today, the Lincoln Square Theatre sits dark, only two years shy of its centennial birthday. Over the years, it played host to many great musicians, vaudevillians, films and people of note.
In the local history of Decatur, it has left an indelible mark as a venue and landmark. Its future will be decided in the coming months.
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