Though she'd be too modest to admit it, the restoration of the 91 year old Park Theatre in the small Indiana town of North Vernon is largely due to the persistence of 80-year old Hulda Reichenbach.
I met Hulda on Sunday, just as the Railroad Days parade was about to get underway (more on that at the end of this post). We chatted in front of the Park about how this gem of a theatre could be thriving in a town of just 6,000. Hulda remembers going to the Park Theatre as a child -- a trip into town to see the movies was "a rare treat," as she puts it.
It took years of hard work on the part of Hulda and a group of other community volunteers -- and a stroke of luck.
From a feasibility study in 1994 to its opening in 2003, the project faced a series of trials and tribulations that would impress the most jaded listener. This included the collapse of the theatre's roof and a last minute payment of $500,000 to secure the theatre.
The good fortune came from her husband Bill's sister, who sold 3 1/2 valuable acres of Kentucky farmland to a mega-church that wanted to expand. The farmland was appraised at $435,000, and the church donated the balance. Why was Hulda's sister-in-law so generous? As Hulda tells it, a very unexpected death in the family contributed to her sister-in-law deciding to provide a legacy by helping make the North Vernon theatre possible. But without the years of prepatory work, Hulda and her North Vernon friends would never have gotten to this point.
As you can see from the photos, its a remarkable small theatre. There's also a shot of a poster in the theatre offices showing Hulda as Miss Daisy -- she's an accomplished amateur actress.
Hulda also told me how they recovered for the restored theatre the painting of the Lion & the Girl, which hung in the old theatre. The painting is mounted at the top of the stairwell that leads into the theatre auditorium -- a dramatic work of art which I'm sure catches everyone's eye, young and old.
I also spoke with Steve Mobley, the Executive Director of the Jennings County Community Foundation. His organization has helped with the Park Theatre and other projects in the area. To Steve, the Theatre is the major reason for a revival of North Vernon's downtown -- which also boasts some quite distinctive buildings.
I'm also setting out an audio clip from part of my conversation with Hulda. In it, she tells the story of how she and her friends got back the "Lion and the Girl" painting which is at the top of the stairway leading up to the theatre auditorium.
- to listen to the conversation [press blue arrow to play; click link to download]
- access this conversation on our podcast page
The Park Theatre has an amazingly full schedule -- including community theatre, movies, and other live performances. Hulda made a point of telling me that Wednesday evening movies are free for kids.
p.s., by chance I happened to arrive in North Vernon just as the annual Railroad Days parade was getting started -- what a great way to celebrate the town's railroad heritage. As Hulda told me, at one time some 70 trains a day passed through North Vernon. It seemed like just about everyone in town was in the parade; and most everyone called out a hello to Hulda.
Here are just a few photos: