American Preservation: Pantheon Theatre to Be Re-Purposed

 

By Carla Charter

VINCENNES, INDIANA – The Pantheon, a vaudeville era theatre space which once housed performances of Red Skelton, Duke Ellington, and the Marx Brothers is now being repurposed as an incubator for entrepreneurs starting new businesses.

The Pantheon, according to Vincennes historian Norbert Brown, was first opened on May 16, 1921.  It was built by Adler Lyons and Louis Wilkerson a pair of entrepreneurs who had recently come back to Vincennes from World War I.  The two received a 40-year lease on the land where the theatre was built.

The Pantheon Theatre was built for three purposes, stage performances, silent movies and concert performances.  The theatre, which had a seating capacity of 1250, was originally scheduled to take six months to build at the cost of $75,000.  Instead the building took over a year to build and cost in excess of $225,000 to complete, Brown said.

During construction, no expense was spared. “There were marble walls with brass fixtures in the restrooms. The walls had free hand painting. There were nine chandeliers in the auditorium. The stage area had the capacity for 52 different back drops. There was a Wurlitzer Hope Jones Theatre Pipe Organ at the cost of $16,000- $18,000.

On the opening night of the theatre there was a performance of Midnight Whirl with tickets costing $15 each. Street cars brought theatre goers to the Pantheon and the ladies wore red roses. “The paper called it a Red-Letter Day,” Brown said.

Among the performers who appeared at the Pantheon was Red Skelton, a Vincennes native, who held his first performance there.  As a child, Brown said, Skelton stood behind the stage, later saying when he saw the crowds, it was then when he knew he would be in show business, Brown continued. Others who performed at the Pantheon over the years included Minnie Pearl, Hank Williams, the John Phillips Sousa Band, Edward Bergman and Charlie McCarthy, the Marx Brothers, Fay Ray and Duke Ellington.

In 1960 the building was given back to the landowner.  “At that time, it was more of a novelty to stay home and watch television and there were three other theatres in the area,” Brown said.  The building then became a Sears store, with the lower level seating being removed and a drop ceiling being placed in the building.  By 2006 Sears had closed and the building was empty.

“Vincennes is a town of 20,000. We are a farming community.  Our largest businesses are agricultural and manufacturing.  The economy has changed.  Farms do not employ as many people as they used to, We are also trying to keep young people in the community. We wanted to create an alternative if they wanted to stay here. The city and county got together and decided we needed to develop more small businesses.  As a result the Pantheon Education Center, a non–profit project with Knox County and City of Vincennes was developed.  We teamed up with Purdue University so that along with offering the space for people to work remotely, Purdue will help with those ideas and make them marketable businesses, according to Nichole Like, Executive Director of the Pantheon Education Center.

As for the 2.4 million restoration,  Myszak continued, “It is a beautiful old building.  This will be a remodeling project, not a full restoration of the theatre space. There will be new office space. The stage will become a conference area with a warming kitchen for use during catered business meetings.  Eventually we will be utilizing the balcony area for conference and meeting space.  We are saving all the existing features there now.” Remodeling will also include a new stage curtain, and ADA improvements including an elevator to make the building accessible as well as accessible restrooms. said Myszak.  It is hoped the building and new project will be opened by Spring of 2020.

Despite the repurposing of the building there will still be nods to its past uses.  “There will be a ticket booth there to add to the nostalgia, a new Marquee and a plaque commemorating the theater,” said Myszak.

Brown is happy to see the new enterprise using the building. “The building was deteriorating very rapidly year by year. The theatre represents a lost era in time.”