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Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Lightning struck … and an arts institution was born, sparking life in inner city neighborhood

By Kelly Trumbo and Jessica Wilson
Special to KyForward
 

Its mullioned stained glass windows still cast eerie colors across the pews, but the old Salem United Methodist Church at the corner of Eighth and York streets in Newport’s Westside is no longer a house of worship – except for those who worship musicals, comedies and dramas.
 

The Stained Glass Theater in Newport has become a regional destination for community theater. (Photo by NKU student Marina Schneider)

The home of the Footlighters, Inc. is now the Stained Glass Theater, a regional destination for community theater with productions of such stage classics at The Producers, Our Town, The Miracle Worker and Hello Dolly!
 

“Our mission is to entertain our audiences with the best community theater productions that we can,” said Gary Rogers, a graphic designer for the Footlighters and member of its board of directors.
 

The story of how the theater and its troupe came to occupy the stately old church begins in the 1960s in another city’s Westside neighborhood – Cincinnati’s.
 

“The Footlighters began as a group of friends in Western Cincinnati in 1963, who got together to pursue their passion of producing musical productions,” Rogers said.
 

If all the world actually were a stage, then the Footlighters would have been just fine the way things were. They needed a stage and the world would have provided. But Shakespeare’s description being more metaphor than reality, the Footlighters had to beg and borrow venues. As often as not in those early days, the actors and their sets ended up at high school auditoriums or civic halls.
 

The troupe got by like that from its founding until 1986. And then lighting struck. Literally.
 

That was the year that a tornado hit Newport. Among the damaged buildings was Salem United. Lightning struck the steeple and debris fell through several floors, damaging the electrical system and otherwise leaving a mess. With $210,000 needed to make repairs, Salem United’s congregates decided to merge with another church and sell the York Street building. That was the Footlighters’ cue: Time to move from one Westside to another.
 

With help from donors, they bought Salem United, made enough repairs to open the doors and, by 1987, took the stage in their new home. And what a home it made. The church was designed in 1882 by renowned Cincinnati architect Samuel Hannaford, better known for designing Cincinnati’s Music Hall and City Hall, two of the architectural gems of the Queen City.
 

“Restoring the building with new and vibrant use may be the most important achievement of all,” said Mary Haas, who with others scraped together the down payment to buy the church. It was, she said, an investment in art and life in Newport’s Westside, a neighborhood she especially cares for because she attended high school a block from the theater.
 

The investment is paying dividends. The Westside is an old neighborhood, and one that shows all the strains of its age. Vacant homes and businesses are scattered throughout. Factories that once employed many residents are long gone. Poverty rates are high. Crime is a problem. But you can also see change in the Westside.
 

After the Stained Glass Theater opened, shops and restaurants followed, including the popular York Street Café across the street. A new audience was introduced to Newport and its small-town yet urban charms. Rogers estimates the theater’s subscriber base at nearly 700 season ticketholders, which keeps the theater running and Newport’s Westside known as a regional destination for arts and culture.
 

“Because we were originally a Cincinnati group, we brought a whole new audience to the area,” Haas said.
 

The Footlighters also rent the space out for local businesses and other private groups for receptions, meetings, benefits for local charities and – in something of a return to the venue’s clerical roots – for weddings.
 

As a nonprofit, the theater counts on the community and its volunteers to survive. Ticket sales, grants and donors help pay the bills but, with the exception of a few artistic and support personnel, the labor force works for the joy of it. Haas and her husband, Don, are representative of the volunteers who keep the floodlights beaming for the Footlighters. Both are lifetime board members. She got involved in the late 1960s after some experience in theater at Hanover College.
 

“I auditioned for Dolly. I didn’t get the part but became forever a Footlighter,” she said. “I joined to sing and dance but after getting my degree, I mixed it up with directing. What fun, and work of course, because in your head you play all the parts.”
 

Don was the facilities manager for many years. Mary was the president. She also hosted parties and wrote grants  whatever it took to keep the doors open and the actors acting. At one time or another, the two of them have taken care of the marketing, along with interviewing and choosing directors, musicians, cast and crew.
 

The Footlighters is that kind of nonprofit. If you can’t roll up your sleeves, it’s not for you. As Rogers explained, “All those on stage and behind the scenes are volunteers who mostly work fulltime during the day and fulfill their passion of the theater in the evenings and on weekends.”
 

Music, drama and art may be disappearing in a lot of places. School programs get shut down on a regular basis, and community theaters struggle. But the Footlighters have managed to keep the Stained Glass Theater vibrant, even as the troupe marks its 50th anniversary this year. It’s not only a contribution the arts. It’s also been a contribution to an old neighborhood’s rebirth.
 

“The arts are a proven way to keep areas alive and growing,” Rogers said, adding, “We have found that most people who visit us for the first time plan on coming back and maybe bringing other friends with them.”
 

Northern Kentucky University students Jessica Wilson and Kelly Trumbo reported and wrote this story as part of an assignment for their public relations course and in conjunction with KyForward. The class wrote feature stories on people and places in an inner-city area of Newport.

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