Can the Emery Theatre Rise Again?

Local developers are partnering with The Children’s Theatre in the latest attempt to bring the historic OTR theater back to life.

The ghosts still await their encores. The B-flats and C-sharps hang in the air between the massive stage and the vaulted ceiling, mingling with the applause and shouts of “Bravo!” from audiences long dead. They’re all ready for life, joy, and elegance to return to the Emery Theatre in Over-the-Rhine.

The Emery Theatre waits for its encore in Over-the-Rhine.

Photograph by Devyn Glista

The future of the Emery Center—not just the theater, but 60 apartments and two business tenants under the same roof—is now in the hands of two well-known and respected local developers. Dave Neyer, former CEO of Al. Neyer and founder of STNL Development, and Chris Frutkin, owner of City Center Properties, took the keys from the University of Cincinnati just after Thanksgiving, purchasing the property for $8.275 million.

The university had owned the block-long building since 1969, after it absorbed the Ohio Mechanics Institute (OMI) into its engineering college. OMI built the imposing structure on Canal Street, today known as Central Parkway, in 1911. UC used the old classrooms and laboratories to turn out mechanical, civil, and electrical engineers for 20 years until relocating the program to its main campus. But the adjoining and stately Emery Theatre sat mostly dark—a work of and for the arts in a facility focused on the sciences.

Quiet buildings, over time, begin to lose their luster. The plaster peels. The paint fades. The floorboards start to creak beneath your feet. Updated building codes pass you by. But with the empty space far off in downtown and with other priorities eating up a constrained budget, it’s easy—and perhaps economically rational—to put off investments and improvements.

I’m not saying that’s why UC officials, asking the university’s board of trustees in April 2019 for permission to sell the building, declared the Emery Theatre “beyond repair.” Back in 2001, the old classrooms had been converted into market-rate apartments that UC said were no longer profitable in 2019. A complex financial and legal arrangement separating control of the apartments from the theater to create overlapping governing boards with different missions couldn’t have encouraged would-be investors. A couple of New York City graduate students tried to revive the theater 10 years ago, but that effort ended in bitterness, litigation, and an eventual legal settlement.

New owners are working on a plan to restore the dilapidated Emery Theatre.

Photograph by Devyn Glista

All in all, owning the Emery Center hadn’t been a great experience for UC once the students departed. Besides, university officials noted, they’re not in the real estate business. They wanted out.

“It’s exciting and challenging, very challenging,” Frutkin admits as we sit in a small common-use room between the bustling Coffee Emporium ground-floor space and a narrow corridor leading to the theater. “I renovate and rent apartments, so the theater is a whole other thing. It’s completely unique, both in terms of what it needs and its historical value. Even the business model is different.”

But, Frutkin is quick to say, the Emery is not beyond repair. He’s heard that verdict before with other projects he’s taken on. He exudes two traits that have gotten him this far: confidence in his fix-it-up acumen and exuberant optimism for the building and the neighborhood.

Frutkin is a visionary, a dealmaker, an entrepreneur, and a risk-taker. But, he says, while he knows how to fix up and market a dilapidated apartment building, he knows little to nothing about what a theater needs to function, grow, and profit. Enter Kim Kern, managing director and CEO of The Children’s Theatre of Cincinnati (TCT), the oldest professional children’s theater organization in the U.S. She’s hoping that her company will be the headline act of a newly refurbished Emery Theatre.

TCT was a part of the Frutkin/Neyer bid proposal—it was also listed in some of the other seven proposals that UC considered—and the principals clearly enjoy working together. Kern calls Frutkin and Neyer “the dynamic duo,” while Frutkin calls the partnership with TCT “our perfect match.” It’s a feel-good moment for a daunting project that’s had more stops and starts than the Brent Spence Bridge at rush hour.

Frutkin leads the way through a hallway that takes us past a couple of rooms with tall ceilings that could be renovated into offices. The shredded paint on the ceiling looks like it’s one rumbling truck on Walnut Street from plummeting to the floor. A discarded washing machine, presumably from one of the apartments, collects dust in the hall. The rooms are disheveled and dirty, but you can see the possibilities.

We move into the theater itself, entering at the rear of the orchestra level. Frutkin fiddles with the lights, and dark turns to dim. We walk past a sound booth likely built in the 1970s and up to the stage, climbing a few unsure steps, and look back. The room’s majesty is obvious through the twilight and the chill of an early winter afternoon. The emptiness causes Frutkin to lower his voice, and he sounds almost reverent asking me what I think.

Photograph by Devyn Glista

It’s hard to put into words. You realize you’re standing on a stage where Sergei Rachmaninoff conducted his concerto, John Philip Sousa led his marches, and George Gershwin performed his Rhapsody in Blue. Bette Davis graced this stage. So did Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and, in the 1990s, the Riders in the Sky national radio show. What they saw was an appreciative audience; I see empty seats.

“The first time I was here, and maybe the only time, was to see Creature from the Black Lagoon back in 1983 or ’84,” says Frutkin, laughing as he hearkens back to when he was a teenager. The classic horror film was in black-and-white, and the Emery, possessor of an authentic silver screen, presented it as part of a nostalgic film series. In those days, there was a warm-up act: A musician played the 2,000-pipe Mighty Wurlitzer organ, recovered from the demolished RKO Albee Theatre and lovingly restored by the American Theatre Organ Society. The working organ now resides in the Music Hall Ballroom.

We move up to the first balcony and then the second, and the higher we go, the worse the deterioration. The top balcony is strewn with discarded seats, although the framing appears to indicate these cheaper seats were originally benches. It’s hard to tell through the darkness. The stage, from here, looks like it’s in Sharonville, and the ceiling is so low it recalls those last few rows at Fifth Third Arena before UC remodeled. The view is not obstructed, but it’s a bit claustrophobic.

Kern acknowledges restoring that space might not make the cut. “The damage is catastrophic,” she notes. “The ceiling is falling in. There’s water damage. Critters have been up there.” But she’s mindful of a couple of things. First, historic tax credits—and she’ll need those to make the project financially viable—limit changes you can make to a building’s original design. And second, what would closing off that balcony do to the acoustics, the pure sound that made the Emery famous in the first place?

“Lots of questions and no real answers right now,” says Kern, matter-of-factly. But she’s busy lining up the experts she’ll need to get those answers.

There was hardly a place to stand on the gleaming parquet lobby floor as hundreds of well-dressed patrons anxiously waited to walk into the Emery Theatre. Men brushed snow off their top hats and wide-lapelled coats. Ladies sported the latest low-on-the-brow hats over their bobbed hairstyles. Many wore fur stoles or tunics over bright, bold print gowns that were—shock!—showing some ankle. It was the second Saturday night of 1912, and winter rushed in when the doors to Walnut Street opened. But the mood inside was warm and festive. The theater’s patron saint and the city’s leading arts benefactor, Mary Emery, was likely the center of attention.

(L-R) Chris Frutkin, Kim Kern, and Dave Neyer are working on a plan to restore the dilapidated Emery Theatre.

Photograph by Devyn Glista

Guests passed through heavy draperies rather than doors to get into the auditorium, and they probably gasped. Besides its enormous width and its 2,200 seats, they admired fawn and cream walls accented with raised antique gold plaster accoutrements that gave the hall a three-dimensional look. The antique gold glistened under the latest improvements in incandescent lighting. Moving to the front and looking up, they must have been slack-jawed at the two balconies. Both were supported by concealed 33-ton, 89-foot I-beams that ensured the Emery would be the first U.S. concert hall with no obstructed views. They seemed to defy gravity.

When the flamboyant Maestro Leopold Stokowski led the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra to the stage, eyes were likely diverted to a curved floor-to-ceiling hand-painted canvas that had been hung behind the musicians, closing off the proscenium. The theater’s architect, Harvey Hannaford Jr.—partner in his grandfather Samuel Hannaford’s firm—had opposed this addition; in fact, he fought against many of the changes from his original design and lost nearly every battle. Hannaford was greatly offended when the prickly Stokowski insisted the canvas would be a hedge against the possibility that “the sound wasn’t perfect.”

As Stokowski led the CSO through Cesar Franck’s Symphony in D Minor, he noted the warmth of each note produced. Stokowski later said he recognized the clarity of individual instruments from the podium and how each gave depth and nuance to the performance. The Emery, he said, was an acoustic masterpiece equal to the great Carnegie Hall in New York City.

Opening night was probably one of the happiest in Mary Emery’s long life. From the moment four years earlier when the Ohio Mechanics Institute accepted her offer to fund their school auditorium project to the last notes of Hector Berlioz’s Hungarian March, this theater, named for her late husband, was her focus. She worked quietly at first, and then openly, with a highly political and often fractious symphony board. She patiently dealt with Stokowski’s demands and waited out his temper tantrums. She soothed Hannaford’s bruised ego and somehow talked him into a major redesign after the footings had been poured. She donated more and more of her personal fortune to the project. And she absorbed the increasing irritation of OMI’s board of directors as its members realized that they’d lost control of their own auditorium.

Emery needed to be relentless and rich, and she was both. The Emerys built a fortune off slaughterhouse leftovers in pre-Civil War days, turning the lard from butchered hogs into candles and lamp oil. Mary, educated in mathematics and astronomy, married the eldest son of patriarch Thomas Emery Sr., and she and her husband, also Thomas, expanded the family business into chemicals and real estate. Both were committed philanthropists and progressives.

Her fingerprints, and those of other Emerys, are still here. The Emery family donated the land where Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center was built. They funded the Orphan Asylum for Colored Children and the Fresh Air Farm and Society. After her husband died in 1906, Mary created an endowment that paid for universal Saturday free admission at the Cincinnati Art Museum. Later, the Emery Foundation help fund a wing that bears much of Mary’s art collection and gave the museum the shape it has today.

Carew Tower was built by Thomas and Mary’s nephew, Jack Emery, who lived in the magnificent Peterloon estate in Indian Hill. Count the Cincinnatian Hotel, Mercantile Library, and Terrace Plaza Hotel in the Emery portfolio as well. And then there’s Mariemont, Mary’s last, and lasting, contribution to Cincinnati’s architectural wonders. She spent $7 million of her own money to create the English Tudor village, but her hope of attracting a diverse community fell short as real estate values soared.

“The Children’s Theatre board wants to go to the Emery,” says Kern. “We want to honor Mary Emery’s generosity and her wishes to have a community space that’s educational in nature while keeping an acoustically pure venue and helping to revitalize a historic neighborhood.” That’s a tall order, Kern admits, and adds without pause, “It’s exciting, and it’s terrifying.”

Kern has been busy putting on paper the “must haves” for a new performance home: dressing rooms, updated bathrooms, a modern HVAC system, a larger box office, elevators, concession space, and access for the disabled are all there. She needs to figure out how she’ll get the huge sets made in St. Bernard through a tight alley and an even tighter interior space. There are corners to turn that will be a challenge. All of it, of course, is in addition to the obvious repairs—and probably some that aren’t obvious, or perhaps not yet discovered.

Frutkin, who is busier these days designing a plan to update the apartments, believes the work needed is, in his words, “totally manageable.” “I’m leaving the architectural needs and the funding needs to Kim right now, and that’s going to take her some time,” he says, adding, “but I like to fix things that are broken.”

Photograph by Devyn Glista

Kern has been tossing so many balls in the air she’s going to need the entire Reds infield to catch them. She will commission a structural analysis, and is meeting with architects, talking to experts at the Cincinnati Development Fund about new market tax credits, conducting a programming analysis, identifying other potential tenants, and planning a capital campaign—all of it in addition to continuing the celebration of the 100th anniversary of TCT with inventive programs.

The milestone birthday itself came as something of a surprise. TCT officials had been under the impression that the company was 95 years old, but a friend of the organization found physical evidence in her attic a year ago that Helen Schuster-Martin, who owned a drama school and started TCT, produced its first play (Peter Rabbit) back in 1920. Two seasons later, TCT produced at least one play on the Emery stage. And when it became an independent and incorporated venture in 1949 after years under the patronage of the Junior League of Cincinnati, TCT moved full-time into the Emery, where the company remained until 1969. “Isn’t that just exciting, an opportunity to come full circle and return to our first home?” marvels Kern.

TCT productions have been at the Taft Theatre downtown for the last 50 years, but Kern sees a move back to the Emery as program-altering. She lauds the Taft and its management firm, Music and Entertainment Management, Inc., but knows co-owning the Emery would fundamentally transform her organization. “We are the only theater group that consistently fills a 2,200-seat house with theater for the young,” she notes. But, because of costs and the Taft’s other theatrical commitments, TCT can produce just four plays a year there. There’s little opportunity for growth.

Kern talks excitedly about the ability to expand the number of plays per season and perform them over longer time periods. She sees the chance to experiment with new works for age-specific children. “Winnie the Pooh, for instance,” she says. “We can’t do that at the Taft because it’s for a very limited, very young audience. But we’d love to do it.”

There’s even a theater genre for infants and babies who haven’t even learned to walk. It involves touch, color, lights, music, and parents. Impossible to do at the Taft, she says, but she already has a room in mind at the Emery that would work well.

It’s early yet, but Kern knows she’ll need a successful capital campaign to make these dreams come true. Renovation costs are unknown, but both Frutkin and Kern mention the realm of $20 million to $25 million. The capital campaign won’t start for at least a year, by which time Kern hopes to have a good idea where TCT stands on tax credits and construction costs. She’s applied to the Ohio Arts Council for a grant to fund a feasibility study.

“[Mary Emery would] be so pleased that the theater she built might, in the future, be used for the education of our children as well as the culture of our community,” her great-great niece Anne Ilyinsky says. “That’s always what she had in mind.”

Jeanne Golliher, president of the Cincinnati Development Fund, remembers when the nonprofit Emery Center Corporation tried, but failed, to raise funds in the 1990s for theater renovations. With all the competition for arts philanthropy at that time, she says, the fact that the Emery did not have a primary tenant put it at an insurmountable disadvantage. She thinks it could be different now. “Oh my gosh, what this will mean to the vibrancy of the neighborhood,” says Golliher. “It will add to what’s become a real theater district, and it’ll stimulate more investment on Walnut Street.” And, she notes, it will be another way to rehabilitate and recharge Cincinnati’s valuable arts heritage.

Mary Emery would be pleased, her great-great niece Anne Ilyinsky maintains, calling the theater “a historic and beautiful building built by an amazing visionary and philanthropist who brought so many great gifts to the city.” She hopes that the Emery family will gather together around restoring Mary’s legacy. Ilyinsky is particularly touched by the idea of TCT occupying the space. While it’s well known that Mary lost her husband, for whom the theater is named, she says it’s been long forgotten that their two sons died young: Albert at age 16 in a sledding accident, and 23-year-old Sheldon of double pneumonia. “She’d be so pleased that the theater she built might, in the future, be used for the education of our children as well as the culture of our community,” says Ilyinsky. “That’s always what she had in mind.”

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