OBERLIN — It’s nearly showtime again for the Apollo Theatre.
Comfortable new seats and state-of-the-art sound and projection equipment have been installed as part of a $6 million renovation of the 99-year-old theater at 19 E. College St.
The theater, owned by a subsidiary of Oberlin College, is planning some thrilling activities this weekend for the “soft” opening of the Apollo, which is expected to open to the public in a few weeks.
“Silence of the Lambs” director Jonathan Demme, whose son and daughter attended Oberlin College, will be a guest at the screening of films created by young people at the Apollo Outreach Initiative at 10:30 a.m. Saturday.
Demme, whose latest project is a documentary about New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, is one of the Hollywood movers-and-shakers who helped raise funds and direct the renovation.
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In an Apollo appearance last year, Demme told aspiring filmmakers, “You and a simple hand-held camera can help change the world.”
In addition to the main theater, which now contains 417 seats, the renovation includes classrooms for the cinema studies department on the second floor.
There’s also space for the Apollo Outreach Initiative, the program in which Oberlin College’s cinema studies students help local children and teenagers learn how to make films.
This weekend’s events also will showcase the Apollo’s new life as a versatile performing arts venue.
At 7 p.m. Sunday, there will be a free showing of “Louis,” a silent film about Louis Armstrong as a young boy, presented by the Oberlin Conservatory of Music and Oberlin College’s Cinema Studies Department.
The multimedia production features the black-and-white silent film with live music performed by the Oberlin Jazz Orchestra under the direction of Dennis Reynolds.
“Louis” was written and directed by first-time filmmaker Dan Pritzker and shot by Oscar-winning cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond (“Deliverance,” “The Deer Hunter,” and “Close Encounters of the Third Kind”). The film’s score, written by jazz musician Wynton Marsalis, also incorporates pieces by 19th-century American composer, Louis Moreau Gottschalk.
The screening Sunday in Oberlin will be the third time the film has been brought to a theater with live music.
The film premiered in 2010 with a five-performance domestic tour with Marsalis’ band. A slightly smaller ensemble reprised the project for two shows at the 2011 London Jazz Festival.
Conservatory Dean David H. Stull called Sunday’s showing of “Louis” “a particularly unique and invaluable experience for Oberlin’s jazz students to perform Marsalis’s score in such a setting.”
On Monday, construction workers still were putting finishing touches on the theater.
The latest renovation includes improvements to the stage, which can be now used for live performances as well as a new moveable screen and speakers; new projection rooms; an ADA-compliant wheelchair lift; refurbished theater seats; and construction of a 61-seat screening room on the ground floor, which will serve as a second theater screen.
A mixture of old and new can be found at every turn.
For example, new LED lights have been installed on the old, iron seat supports of the theater, built in 1913.
The charming “Ladies” and “Gentlemen” signs leading to the restrooms have been restored.
Architects also retained the gleaming black and red Vitrolite tile added when the theater was remodeled in 1950 in the “Zigzag Moderne” style.
Renovations revealed Art Deco fiberboard panels dating to the 1930s hidden behind the wall covering in the main theater. In order to obtain state and federal requirements for historic-preservation tax credits, the panels were replicated and updated to meet current theater standards and its new color scheme.
From the outside, the Apollo’s distinctive marquee has been furbished and reinforced.
An entrance to the west of the theater has stairs leading to the cinema studies facility, which includes a postproduction lab, a sound recording studio, a small screening room and shooting studio, a color correction suite and a simple animation room.
With the reopening of the Apollo, the cinema studies department will have a home unlike any others, according to Geoff Pingree, director of the cinema studies program.
He said he knows of no other liberal arts institution where students can share what they have learned with the surrounding community from a home base “that’s a grand, historic theater from the era of silent movies.”
College Properties of Oberlin, a wholly owned subsidiary of Oberlin College, purchased the theater from twin brothers William and Sandy Steel in 2009. The theater is now owned by Apollo Theater LLC and the college subsidiary has a five-year contract with Cleveland Cinemas to manage the theater.
The brick theater was built by William Hobbs in 1913 and its first show featured “Thor, Lord of the Jungles,” a three-reel, silent thriller.
In the Apollo’s early days, live musical and vaudeville acts were presented on its stage.
In 1928, Jerry Steel, a film distributor from Cleveland and father of the most recent owners, purchased the Apollo Theatre complex, which includes commercial and residential space adjacent to the theater.
Funding for the purchase and renovation of the Apollo complex was provided by support from Oberlin alumni, friends of the college and community members. Donors include the Steel family, television director and “Cheers” creator James Burrows ’62 and his wife, Debbie Burrows, the Goldring Family Foundation, Oberlin College Board Chair Robert Lemle ’75, the Nord Family Foundation and an anonymous Oberlin High School graduate.
The Friends of the Apollo was organized to support the renovations and its steering committee includes husband and wife actors Rhea Perlman and Danny DeVito, as well as Demme, local arts advocates Kevin Flanigan and Jaqui Willis and Oberlin alumni Elizabeth Ignat-Bausch ’91 and Justin Ignat-Bausch ’90.
10:30 a.m. Saturday: Academy award-winning director Jonathan Demme will be among the guests in a free showing of films created by young people in the Apollo Outreach Initiative.
7 p.m. Sunday: Free showing of “Louis,” a film about Louis Armstrong as a young boy. The Oberlin Jazz Orchestra will perform along with the film, which is silent. Tickets will be available at 5 p.m. at the theater.
Contact Cindy Leise at 329-7245 or firstname.lastname@example.org.