It could have been the first historic arts facility to get rehabilitated in Over-the-Rhine three decades ago, long before the neighborhood renaissance took hold. Instead, the Emery Theater will be OTR’s last outdated concert hall to find new life. And a familiar old friend is leading the charge.
The Children’s Theatre of Cincinnati (TCT) wraps up a public fund-raising campaign this month to renovate the Emery Theater as its new home for public performances and education programs. The overall goal is $48 million, which includes $10 million in historic and new market tax credits and almost $2 million in state and city funding. The vast majority of the budget is for construction costs; $5 million will be allocated to programming enhancements and an endowment for future preservation needs. TCT is planning to close the deal this fall, begin site work in November, and debut the new theater in fall 2025.
Kim Kern, the organization’s managing director and CEO, says the positives of operating a permanent home for its theater productions outweigh the challenges of renovating a 111-year-old building—especially considering that TCT performed in the Emery in its early years. “We’re going back home,” she says.
The Emery Auditorium opened in January 1912. The city’s leading arts benefactor of the day, Mary Emery, funded it to serve as the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra’s new performance hall and hired Harvey Hannaford Jr., a partner in his grandfather Samuel’s architecture firm, to design it. Mary named the theater for her late husband, Thomas Emery Jr., and would go on to fund a major expansion at the Cincinnati Art Museum, to save the Cincinnati Zoo from bankruptcy, and to found the village of Mariemont.
The Emery stage has hosted luminaries such as Sergei Rachmaninoff, John Philip Sousa, and George Gershwin, who performed his Rhapsody in Blue there. Bette Davis, Eleanor Roosevelt, and Martin Luther King Jr. gave speeches there as well. The building’s last sustained activity was in the 1980s and early’90s and included organ recitals, classic movies, and the Riders in the Sky national radio show.
In 1989, the Contemporary Arts Center drew up preliminary plans for relocating to the Emery complex (the theater and adjoining classroom building, which is now apartments). The Mapplethorpe controversy scuttled those plans, and the CAC would build a new facility at Sixth and Walnut streets.
For 20 years, from 1949 to 1969, TCT called the Emery home. The organization had launched in 1919 and was known as the Junior League Players until becoming an independent arts nonprofit in 1947. Performances moved to the Taft Theater in 1969.
Being a tenant at the Taft, says Kern, limits TCT mainstage shows to 40 total dates per year. A new home at the Emery offers unlimited possibilities. “We’d like to add new programming targeted to specific age groups and present shows from other children-focused arts groups,” she says. “We’ll also rent the space for one-off shows and private gatherings.”
Kern is excited about new technology that will allow TCT to overcome some of the Emery’s shortcomings, especially the lack of stage wing space and depth. An onstage video screen and projection mapping capabilities will expand sets to the full proscenium and even onto the building’s walls. A 20-foot-by-20-foot turntable lift will allow set pieces to be stored and raised from below the stage. Not bad for a facility that officials at the University of Cincinnati, former owner of the Emery, declared “beyond repair” as recently as 2019.
Local developers Dave Neyer and Chris Frutkin purchased the buildings from UC that year with the intention of renovating the performance hall with Children’s Theatre. The pandemic caused yet another delay in the Emery’s rebirth, though planning continued behind the scenes.
Since the ill-fated Contemporary Arts Center renovation idea, the Emery has stood by while Over-the-Rhine icons like Music Hall, Memorial Hall, Woodward Theater, and Ensemble Theatre were remade for modern audiences and new facilities were built or adapted for Cincinnati Shakespeare Company, Art Academy of Cincinnati, and the School for Creative and Performing Arts. The Emery’s wait might finally be over.