DANVILLE — The grande dame sits quietly downtown, showing her age. A passerby might think she’s just another empty shell, waiting for the bulldozer.
Those who know the Fischer Theatre are quick to point out there’s a lot of life left in the lady, and she’s waiting patiently for her close-up.
“In reality, there’s a lot going on behind the scenes,” said Cher Pollock, president of the Vermilion Heritage Foundation board.
The 129-year-old building is still structurally sound and the acoustics in the auditorium are phenomenal, Pollock said. A whisper on the stage can be heard in the projection room a distance away.
“If a tornado goes down this street, I maintain the Fischer will be standing,” she added. “The structure is sound. It just needs some love.”
The Grand Opera House opened on Nov. 5, 1884, at Vermilion and Harrison streets. The name was changed in 1912 when Louis F. Fischer bought the theater; he enlarged and modernized it. The theater closed in 1982.
As part of behind-the-scenes activity, numerous consultants have come through and studies have been done.
The next step, perhaps six months away, is a campaign to raise funds to restore the historic theater to its past glory. Pollock said recent estimates put the price tag at $5 million, and the work could be completed within five years.
“We’re not just sitting here,” Pollock said. “We have an active, dedicated board who loves this building. Everyone on the board has faith we’re moving in a positive direction and will see work begin on the building.”
Board members meet once a month and always have a full agenda, she said.
Linda Federman, a volunteer in the gift shop, agreed that, to the average person, it looks like nothing is being done. “What has to be done is being done and the goal remains the same,” she said.
A renovated theater will be an economic stimulus to the city, she said, adding it will become a destination for people interested in historical sites.
Amy Chrisman, a board member and local artist, agreed the theater will draw people from all over. “This could turn the whole community around,” she said. “This kind of building is rare.”
When she was painting scenes of local landmarks, Chrisman fell in love with the Fischer.
“This one in particular touched me in a way that I wanted to be involved and help her come back to life again,” she said. “I see the Fischer Theatre as a diamond in the rough, the crown jewel of Danville.”
Lots of stories
While the gift shop, entertainment museum and café make a good first impression on visitors, the real work lies behind the doors to the auditorium.
In the lobby is a set of recent artist’s renderings, showing what the Fischer could look like after renovation, and the board has had architectural drawings done this year.
Pollock said board members have consulted with theater experts about lighting — how to maintain historic integrity while using modern lighting. An array of consultants has been working with the board.
“They love the building,” Pollock said. “They’re so excited about the building and being part of the renovations. They consider it a blank slate and that’s exciting to them.”
She added the consultants’ excitement renews the volunteers’ enthusiasm for the project.
A visitor might see the peeling paint, cracked plaster, missing wall sconces and debris from the years. But others who love the Fischer don’t notice the engineering holes in the ceiling, for example. They see the beautiful plaster carvings, ornate designs and the balconies.
People come in and tell stories about their first date at the Fischer or tossing popcorn from the balcony or buying jewelry next door, Pollock said, adding, “We love those stories. We have a binder we encourage people to write their memories in. That’s the legacy of the Fischer.”
The people of Danville are wonderful in their support of the theater, she said.
Not just a theater
The auditorium will be the centerpiece when finished, but the other floors will be renovated, as well. The museum could move to the top floor, for example.
The Grand Opera House was not only a theater — it housed offices and residences on the second, third and fourth floors. In 1915, Boston Academy of Music and Knecht Apartments were on the third and fourth floors.
In 1931, the third and fourth floors were the Portia Club Furnished Rooms for Women. The second and third floors were occupied by a blueprint company, May Belle Cook Beauty Shop, Fidelity Insurance and Publix Theatres.
Doctors, dentists, insurance companies and a military recruiting service occupied the upper floors until 1961. There were businesses in the first-floor storefronts, as well.
In the screening room, much of the equipment is intact, including a reel winder and storage for the big reels of film.
From the upstairs windows facing Harrison Street, people can look out onto a mural painted by the Walldogs a couple of years ago — artistic renderings of famous Danville natives, Dick and Jerry Van Dyke, Bobby Short, Gene Hackman, Donald O’Connor and torch singer Helen Morgan.
The theater already has made great strides toward a comeback with its gift shop, Stage Presents, and an entertainment museum in the lobby.
The gift shop, opened in 2009 and run by volunteers, is full of items celebrating the area’s men and women who have achieved national fame, as well many items produced by local artists. The shop once was the site of a jewelry store.
Through the gift shop’s side door, people enter the Fischer Arts & Entertainment Museum, which was opened last year.
Theater items sought
Also, the hallway past the lobby has been dedicated to the theater’s history. Pollock said she’d like to have more items from the other Danville theaters, such as the Palace (formerly the Lyric), Times and Terrace. The screen from the Times is located on stage, and the ticket booth from the Palace is being renovated.
“All of the historical pieces, even from other theaters, are meaningful to us,” she said.
When the theater was closed in 1982, Keresotes Theatres took seats, boiler and everything else they could use and sell. Items from the theater were sold, too, including the organ, which is in someone’s garage in Rockford. (However, a historic organ was found to replace that one.)
It would be nice to have the original vertical marquee of the Fischer, Pollock said, wondering if it’s in someone’s barn somewhere.
Does Pollock ever get discouraged at the amount of work ahead of the board?
While acknowledging that there’s a lot to be done yet, she points to the Holland building as an example. She watched that old structure turned into an award-winning apartment building, which was a big job, she said, and the Fischer can be a success story, too.
“I see all the wonderful architecture and the history … the frosted glass on the old wood doors ... and then someone comes in and tells me a great story,” Pollock said.
That, and a love for the building, keeps her and the board positive about the future.
FYI To learn more about the Fischer or to make a donation, go to http://www.fischertheatre.com. Stage Presents gift shop and the entertainment museum are open from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Thursday through Saturday.