We were in Franklin, Indiana, and Rob Shilts was waiting for us, out of the rain, beneath a marquee that dazzled with a half-mile of neon and a thousand chasing lamps. SHREK, it proclaimed, today at 2 and 7:30 PM.
Shilts has been involved in Franklin Heritage, the local historic preservation group, for more than twenty years.
“When the Artcraft Theater came up for sale,” he told us, “I told the board that if we didn’t buy it, we might as well pack our tent and go home.”
With the ceiling falling in and the front wall falling toward the street under the weight of the rusting marquee, it was a much bigger challenge than the group had ever taken on. Now, more than a decade later, more than two million dollars have been poured into the building, with plans for a million more.
Kirk the ticket booth man, who daylights in the career office at Franklin College, sits in front of a bustling concession counter where a half dozen volunteers serve patrons from the vintage popcorn machine and candy counter.
More neon graces the ceiling above them, as do mirrors that set off the hand painted period signage for entrances, exits, and amenities. While I’m waiting in line for my popcorn, I’m greeted by a young woman.
“Hi, I’m Ashlee. I’m one of the A-Teens, and we have a souvenir booth over there. I bet you’d really like the Christmas tree ornaments we made from shredded tickets. I hope you’ll come over and see them when you’re done!”
While I’m standing at the counter juggling popcorn, water, lemonade, coat, camera, and a Shrek cookie, the concessionaire asks, “Do you need help getting all this to your seat?” “Take out,” she calls, and immediately a young man with a tray appears to assist me to my seat in the theater.
Like Ashlee, everyone in the theater seems to be a volunteer, which contributes to the very reasonable admission and concession prices.
Bolstering that are numerous show sponsors. The film this weekend is sponsored by Dr. John Shafer and his dogs Josey and Jaden. There’s a concession sponsor (who gets to choose the candy of the week), program sponsor, a sponsor for the short feature, and a prize sponsor, who personally donated the prizes for the preshow drawing.
Yes, there’s a preshow prize drawing, but not before two high school actors appear onstage to provide a 30 second dramatic synopsis of the show for those with short attention spans. Out comes the prize hopper, full of ticket stubs—blue (our revered elders), yellow (our fragile youth), white (VIPs), and red (the rest of y’all out there).
The donor volunteers beam from the aisle as winners receive prizes (a crown, a dragon, a Red Riding Hood book) clearly themed on tonight’s show.
Mary, queen of the backstage, banters with Rob, the emcee, about the prize drawing while the two actors wheel out an old-school blackboard with a map of the USA.
“Now,” says Rob, “a special prize for our visitors from farthest away.” We’re feeling pretty confident, being from far away Ohio, until we hear “What? Italy? Come on down!”
A student from Franklin College abashedly makes his way forward while the actors quickly spin the blackboard to show a map of the world. And the prize? A certificate, a candle made out of earwax, and a jumbo tub of popcorn.
“Locally grown,” reports the emcee, “and internationally known,” chants back the audience. Before the curtain rises, the volunteers onstage and in the aisles take on a flight attendant pose as they point one by one to the exits, and each exit gets catcalls or applause. Exit number five is clearly the most popular.
Families and couples stream out of the theater toward the cafes, coffee shops, and boutiques that have gathered around the skirts of this grand old lady.
After a quick visit to the gift shop we stand again below the glorious marquee and we appreciate the chance to spend time with some of the people across this country who believe in their home towns and work hard to build communities that nurture hope, joy, and welcome. The neon casts its glow for blocks in every direction. If you look hard you can just see it, over there, off the beaten path.