Embracing History

by Lisa Mulcahy

Since 1976, the League of Historic American Theatres (LHAT) has been committed to the important task of sustaining historic theater spaces throughout the U.S. and Canada. Headquartered in Forest Hill, MD, the non-profit’s membership encompasses a diverse and impressive group of theater owners and operators. The League’s goal is to link their members through professional networking, so they can gain insight and technical info to help them restore, reopen, maintain, or improve their respective houses. To learn more about the work of LHAT Stage Directions recently spoke with Ken Stein, the League’s President and CEO.

The League’s criteria for a membership-eligible historic venue is very specific. Each theater must be at least 50 years old, and have at least one of the following attributes: an identity as an architecturally significant structure deemed worthy of preservation, an identity in terms of playing an important role in the history of American theater and film, and the capacity to be used as a performing arts facility. As well as theaters, there are individual members, which includes among others, architects, lighting specialists, and theatrical suppliers.

Stage Directions: Tell us about the mission of the League?
Ken Stein: At its core, the League represents historic theaters which uniquely serve a dual role—not only as a performance space, but as a space that requires historic preservation. Trying to solve logistical problems in this context is not easy, and can be expensive to accomplish. We help our members maintain the integrity of their spaces, and network with each other for ideas and solutions. So, our members aren’t reinventing the wheel—instead, it simply might be that one member needs a piece to fix a marquee, and another member may have that piece. We help provide a shared experience, and best practices for our members in this way.

Talk about the value of LHAT-CHAT (the League’s online networking service) for sharing information among members? 
LHAT-CHAT is a very popular networking tool. Imagine Facebook for historic theaters. We have 300 theaters in the league, and 1,200 individuals participating. Those individuals taking part in CHAT may own or operate, or work with historical theaters. So they have a lot of good information if you have questions. It might be that someone has a piece of ceiling plaster that needs fixing, and they ask for advice—there’s a lot of “Been there, done that!”, or on the other hand, “By all means, don’t do what I did in that situation!” On CHAT, members are happy to share successes, and also equally, mistakes. Also our staff will jump in and do research to answer questions if that’s needed. 

What to you is the value of these historic theater spaces to a community?
I used to run both the Paramount and State Theatres in Austin, Texas. The Paramount, to this day, looks very similar to the way it did when it opened in 1915. The State, on the other hand, was gutted to be changed from a movie theater to a live performance space. We found out through audience surveying that people thought the Paramount was beautiful, historic, and safe, but people said about the State, ‘I’m not sure I’d want to go to that part of town after dark.’ And the two theaters are right next door to each other! The difference was, simply, that the Paramount had maintained its historic value, and the State had changed from its historic appearance, so the perception of the State had changed. There is the importance of historic value—if you maintain your historic space, the history of your building can give you a competitive edge. We tell our members, embrace your history, your small bathrooms, the fact you have no lobby space—don’t run from it. Remind people of your history, because they connect to it. 

Have you seen an increase in the restoration/preservation of these spaces as working theaters? 
Yes. In the late ‘70s, people living in the suburbs suddenly found their local downtown theaters appealing again. Then in the ‘80s and ‘90s, many major movie and vaudeville houses got restored. In the last decade, there’s been a movement to restore single-screen movie houses in small town, Main Street America, because if you get that local historic theater open and operating, you increase foot traffic, and that benefits nearby restaurants and galleries as well. That goes for small live performance spaces in communities as well. I’m hearing, more and more, that people are really looking for a way to connect with a kinder, gentler time. The nostalgia of a historic theater provides that—you walk through its doors, and you leave the modern world behind. Historic theaters don’t just sell tickets, they sell experiences—and that means a historic space can draw on sustainability in its business model. 

Further information from the League of Historic American Theatres: www.lhat.org