Whiting's Palace

Hoosier Theatre embraces history of lakefront community

By Walter Skiba 


True or false? All of the movie palaces built from 1920 to '30 across Northwest Indiana have been demolished. 

Correct answer: False. One still stands, painstakingly restored to something close to its original splendor and elegance, open for business as a single-screen venue every day of the week.

When John Katris heard that the Paramount Theatre was being razed to make way for the construction of a new federal courthouse building in downtown Hammond, he drove to the site to take pictures of what he thought was the last of the region's movie palaces, built in 1930 and shuttered in 1981.

His family had owned the Vogue Theatre in East Chicago, which also had been torn down. Katris had a bachelor's degree in engineering from Purdue University in West Lafayette and worked as a building contractor and designer.

When he learned from a man at the scene about the Hoosier Theatre in Whiting, he decided to take a look for himself. He immediately fell in love with its ornate terra-cotta façade, which had been placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1987.  

The theater itself, however, had not been declared a historic landmark, and the present owner, Tom Simstad, was interested primarily in rehabilitating the storefronts and apartments included in the theater complex. He had offered to give the land to the City of Whiting for use as a parking lot if they could come up with the $40,000 to $50,000 required for demolition. He had not found anyone interested in running the theater -- until he met Katris.  

After professionally examining the lobby, auditorium and stage area, Katris concluded that the theater could be restored and revived.  
 
True or false? All of the movie palaces built from 1920 to '30 across Northwest Indiana have been demolished.
He also took a liking to the town and the people. "Whiting is a charming, quaint little town," he says.
Seeking to learn more about the theater, he spent hours reading old newspaper articles on microfilm at the Hammond Public Library. 
 
Posing as a college student, he surveyed the "man on the street" in downtown Whiting and found that everyone supported the re-opening of the theater for movies and other performing arts. 
 
Encouraged by such positive support, he came to terms with Simstad and purchased the theater portion of the building. (Eventually, he bought the entire building.)
 
When he took possession of the theater on Jan. 6, 1991, he walked into the auditorium and looked at the ceiling.
 
"The roof was in terrible shape," he says. "I saw 8-foot-long icicles hanging from the ceiling."
 
This turned out to be just one of several major problems. He learned that almost all historic artifacts, except the chandelier, had been removed in the 1950s. There was no projector or sound system, and the seats had not been refurbished since the 1940s. 
 
A fire on the night of Jan. 20, 1985, had destroyed most of the stage and caused extensive smoke damage throughout the auditorium. 
 
Katris began restoration work in earnest in September 1994, and persisted over the next two and a half years as architect, engineer and contractor.
 
"It was entirely a family operation," he says. "I used no volunteers or government money."
 
He found the walls in some places covered with six to 10 coats of paint.
 
"I tried to get back as close as I could to the original colors," he says. 
 
He took out several front rows of seats to allow for extension of the stage for concerts and live theater, reducing the seating capacity from 774 to 620. His parents re-upholstered each seat.  
 
Finally, the Hoosier was ready to show movies. On Oct. 3 and 4, 1997, the Whiting-Robertsdale Chamber of Commerce hosted a grand opening red carpet gala. Full houses were treated to an elaborate program written by Gayle Kosalko, followed by a reception at the Whiting Community Center. 
 
The Hoosier first opened its doors on Feb. 15, 1924. For 25 cents, one could see a Vaudeville review, one or two shorts, a cartoon and a feature-length film accompanied by John Muri on the theater's Kimball organ.
 
Famous people who entertained at the Hoosier included W.C. Fields, Amos & Andy, and the Three Stooges. Red Grange threw miniature footballs to children from the roof of the building.  
 
Bank nights helped the theater make it through the 1930s. The management would give such prizes as roller skates, bicycles, china or a portion of the evening's proceeds.
 
One day in the early '40s, James Cagney stood outside the theater to sell war bonds.
 
In spite of the installation of a gigantic Cinemascope screen in 1954, attendance began to decline.
 
In 1963, the theater was damaged by a fire caused by an aging oil furnace that still inhabited the building when Katris purchased it. The Hoosier re-opened in 1967 for pipe organ concerts, was damaged by another fire in the late '70s, and re-opened again in 1980 for the purpose of hosting a film festival and live performances. 
 
The theater has done good business since the grand opening gala, showing family, mainstream action, comedy, teen, horror films and some of the Oscar nominees for Best Picture.
"We usually choose from among the top-10, box-office films for any given week," Katris says.
 
Over the past year, the Hoosier has shown such first-run films as "Spiderman II," "Shrek II," "Princess Diaries," and "The Incredibles," along with such intermediates (films that have played in theaters for two or three weeks) as "Phantom of the Opera."
 
Theater manager and author Joe Pranaitis and other employees like the family atmosphere at the Hoosier.  
 
The theater has done good business since the grand opening gala, showing family, mainstream action, comedy, teen, horror films and some of the Oscar nominees for Best Picture.
"We usually choose from among the top-10, box-office films for any given week," Katris says.
 
Over the past year, the Hoosier has shown such first-run films as "Spiderman II," "Shrek II," "Princess Diaries," and "The Incredibles," along with such intermediates (films that have played in theaters for two or three weeks) as "Phantom of the Opera."
 
Theater manager and author Joe Pranaitis and other employees like the family atmosphere at the Hoosier. 
 
A fully installed six-rank pipe organ, collected from various theater venues in the Chicago area, offers another opportunity for live music. Katris is looking for someone to play it.
 
"Walking into the theater is like walking into a historical era, with its rotunda, glass ball and gold inlay," she says. "I think of it as a mini version of the Rialto in Joliet."
 
Pranaitis and his crew keep the place clean and make sure people in the audience do not talk or otherwise disturb others during performances.
 
The projector is new and Katris is set to install Dolby stereo surround sound within a month or so.
 
He plans to open a second 55- to 60-seat theater, "The Gem," late this year or early next year in the building space to the west of the 119th Street entrance, creating a format comparable to Chicago's Music Box Theatre.
 
"We can show more independent and art films, as well as films at the end of their run," he says.
 
He later plans to build a 250-seat, state-of-the-art theater in the lot to the east.
 
Close to finishing a second bachelor's degree in theater at Columbia College, Katris intends to start his own theater company next year and stage plays at the Hoosier.
 
He is working to get a Starbuck's in his corner storefront.
 
"Whiting has the potential to become a first-class theater district," he says.
 
This article is courtesy of the The Times of Northwest Indiana.   

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