Curtain to rise on theater restoration

Building slated to open for arts council staff in less than two weeks

January 10, 2003|By Athima Chansanchai | Athima Chansanchai,SUN STAFF

Anyone walking down Westminster's Main Street can see signs that the old Carroll Theatre is being restored. The faM-gade, in recent years flat and nondescript, includes a three-sided marquee that is a nod to the theater's heyday.

Less visible is the work inside, where a performing arts center with galleries, a stage and classrooms is taking shape.

A key piece of the project was put in place this week, when 263 seats were installed in a theater that will feature plays, dances and musical performances - and movies.

"We're not sure the public understands that inside we're working furiously," said Sandy Oxx, executive director of the Carroll County Arts Council, which is scheduled to move from its cramped home into the restored theater in less than two weeks. "We're dealing with a historic restoration, so you can't just knock it down and start from scratch."

In this last stretch of work before the arts council staff's scheduled moving date Jan. 21, a flurry of activity is in progress as more than a dozen workers paint walls and decorative molding, install floor tiles and carpeting and refinish floors.

"In just one day, you can see what huge chunks are being done," Oxx said. "It takes these guys two days to wallpaper the theater. It takes me two days to wallpaper my bathroom."

During the half-hour she spent with a visitor, a kitchen floor was installed.

The theater was built in 1937 as an art deco movie palace on land bought for $10. Until its sale to the Church of the Open Door in 1988, the theater showed thrillers, blockbusters and films noir to generations of Carroll County residents.

During that time, the building lost its marquee, and its 702-seat theater was divided into two theaters. The city bought it for $310,000 in 2000. More than $1 million has been collected through government grants and private donations for the renovations.

The building will provide the arts council 14,000 square feet - it is 10 times the size of the organization's home down the street at the Winchester Exchange building. It also includes four times the classroom space - and basics now lacking.

At the new building, each of the two classrooms will have sinks, unlike the classrooms in the council's current home.

"Now we teach art with no water, which is almost impossible," Oxx said.

Combining old, new

Blending the old with the new is an arduous process but Oxx persevered, even when it meant reconstructing elements from scratch.

In the lobby's ceiling is decorative molding, painted to the original patterns and colors. Much of it had to be re-created through plaster casts of the originals, then hand-painted.

Some of the original colors didn't make the grade. Oxx rejected the pink-and-green color scheme in the grand expanse of the theater and chose a more subdued navy and gold.

On the outside, the two storefronts that once were bookends for the building - an insurance agency and a beauty parlor - will be the center's display windows for events and exhibitions. The marquee is a faithful reproduction of the original three-sided neon display.

But instead of a box office facing the sidewalk, an information kiosk of similar design will greet center visitors. Where the beauty parlor used to be, are new men's and women's restrooms.

Staff offices - now in a cubicle in the Winchester Exchange basement - are adjacent to the lobby, and have a tin ceiling taken from the former insurance agency next door.

An exhibition gallery is immediately behind the lobby. Oxx said the first show, scheduled for April, will be a celebration of Maryland artists, with the arts council in every county nominating one artist to represent it. She said Carroll wants to acknowledge the construction of the center as a statewide effort.

Down the hall from the gallery is the theater, where a stage and a backstage area were built because the space could accommodate only a screen before.

The arts center has expanded the second floor, adding rooms to a vacant space. The part of the second floor that covers what had been the theater's vaulted ceiling includes, at the sides, the building's original stone pilasters.

Seeking memorabilia

Although Oxx is excited at the prospect of having more space for her organization, she is a little nervous about assuming the responsibility to tend to a self-contained center.

"It's totally intimidating," she said, listing new responsibilities that include finding acts to perform on stage, managing a larger staff and maintaining a building with no landlord to help.

Oxx is seeking memorabilia from the theater's past to decorate the lobby, administrative offices, and glass displays that face the sidewalk.

"What we're finding is that the memorabilia is in people's heads," she said. An arts council board member is gathering memorable experiences from people who used to go to the theater or work there, which will be converted to video and shown during the center's grand opening in April.

For her office, Oxx envisions a more tangible link to the building's past: a row of the theater's old seats.

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