Artcraft Historic Theatre turns 100, continues to support redevelopment
By Rebecca Berfanger // Photography by Angela Jackson
On any visit to downtown Franklin, it’s hard to miss the giant art deco style marquee of the Historic Artcraft Theatre, first installed about 75 years ago, to promote a business celebrating 100 years this fall.
That marquee, as well as other art deco design elements added to the theater in the late 1940s and early 1950s, have been restored in recent years to their former glory, thanks to the generous donations of supporters, and city and state historic preservation grants. Given the damage already done by the sign to the facade, had the renovation not occurred around that time, it’s possible the building would have been demolished and a parking structure or something else much less eye-catching than the Artcraft would be in its place today.
This was just one of the issues reported in a 60-page study nearly 20 years ago that have continuously been addressed by current owners Franklin Heritage, Inc. They started with immediate fixes, including electric and other major structural issues, and have been working their way down the list. The town’s local businesses and residents have also rallied around these upgrades, including donations of their own time and materials from businesses like Generations Customs Auto & Collision and a local window and door company, which ultimately helped catalyze the redevelopment of the downtown itself.
It’s impossible to imagine that block of Main Street without this mainstay celebrating its centennial on Nov. 1, 2022, including a gala with a roaring ‘20s theme on Sept. 10. Even the Johnson County Museum of History will have a special exhibit about the theater this year. The theater is also collecting personal stories via historicartcrafttheatre.org/shareyourstory.html.
To many, the Artcraft is more than just the sum of its parts: hundreds of reupholstered chairs anyone can support for just $150 per chair, murals recreated by local artist Raymond Turner, a stage originally built for vaudeville acts that had been filled in and later restored by Franklin College student volunteers, a popcorn machine that only pops corn from Franklin’s own Norton Grain Farm, and all of the other necessary equipment that has entertained generations of central Indiana residents.
“The Artcraft is the heartbeat of Franklin. I love everything about it from the glow of the featured movie title sparkling in the lights, from the sign out front to the smell of the locally grown and internationally known popcorn served inside. It’s a place to travel back in time where the little things matter and are appreciated. I try to catch as many shows in this local gem of a theater as much as I can. It’s a place where time stops for an evening, and something about its energy feels like an old friend,” said Franklin resident and frequent moviegoer, Ashley Hart.
This is exactly what Rob Shilts, executive director of both the non-profit theater and Franklin Heritage, Inc., experiences every time the 100-year-old establishment hosts a movie or other event.
“Sometimes there is so much stress and anxiety in the world,” Shilts said. “We just want to do our part for people to come to a safe, fun place. If they want to get dressed up they can. For ‘Mamma Mia!’ this weekend, we gave out goody bags with disco balls and wedding cakes. Same with ‘Grease.’ People need to relax more and have more fun. When we’re in this auditorium, nobody is on one team or another. When we show ‘Christmas Vacation,’ we have people who talk along with the show, people are high-fiving people they don’t know. When the show is over, people hang around in the lobby and they stay under the marquee talking about it because they know across the street reality sets in.”
Other than the restoration of the theater – which Franklin Heritage, Inc., celebrating its 40th year in 2023, and originally and currently a restorer of historic homes in Franklin – bought on April 20, 2004, the theater has helped restore the surrounding area.
“In 2004, Franklin was a dying town with plenty of vacant storefronts. There was not a lot of appeal there,” Shilts said. “The theater was slowly bringing in more and more people from farther and farther away. It was very much word of mouth. Different stores downtown would paint their facades or do some work to their storefronts. A renaissance of Franklin started with taking on this huge building downtown, so it makes sense to invest in our building.”
He also gave credit to different agencies, including Discover Downtown Franklin, which “took on the burden of working with downtown merchants and putting on Fourth Fridays and Strawberries on the Square,” and other events to promote local business development. “Franklin Development Corporation helped with matching grants for facades. More and more downtown businesses could fix up their places, too. … Over time we became a destination for people to get a cup of coffee. It really put Franklin on the map.”
Shilts compared the Artcraft – starting in the 1920s and through to today – to an anchor store at a shopping mall in terms of the importance to local businesses in downtown Franklin.
Director of Community Development for the City of Franklin, Krista Linke, who was on the board of Franklin Heritage, Inc. when they decided to buy the theater in 2004 and has been working for the city in various roles since before then, agreed.
“The redevelopment commission has been the biggest proponent of making sure that theater stays and continues to play that role,” she said. “We’ve seen other little businesses and restaurants that have opened nearby because there is that night time activity.”
Some of the businesses will even incorporate the movies at the Artcraft into themes for food and drinks, will sponsor movies, or will base their staffing off whether something is happening at the artcraft that night.
“I’ve heard over and over working with downtown businesses that those things and the larger festivals are really what they wanted to be part of. A lot of towns weren’t doing those things,” she said.
One of the local businesses that has enjoyed having the Artcraft in the neighborhood is Black Label Candles, who recently sponsored “Mamma Mia!” and have done movie themed candles that include quotes or movie character names as part of the Artcraft’s prize packages.
“When we were first here, as the new shop on the block, Rob [Shilts] and Danny [Causey] and the people at the Artcraft promoted our shop and talked to people about our shop. They do that about all our shops. As much as we support them, they’re supporters of everybody downtown,” said owner Diane Strack.
As for the next 100 years, Shilts and Linke hope that the theater’s traditions will continue, including their support of local non-profit organizations – they recently hosted Dancing with the Johnson County Stars in August; collections of food donations – the theater’s early owners did this as early as the 1930s and they continue to collect non-perishable items as the price of admission for “Cartoons for Cans”; a skit and contest before every show as an homage to the vaudeville history of the theater; and, of course, playing movies from various decades for fans old and young alike.
Like many residents, Linke and her family also have personal connections to the theater. Her in-laws who went to Franklin College had their first date there. Linke and her children have volunteered for the theater over the years, including Linke’s work on the membership committee, and the year her son played Raphie for a pre-show skit of “A Christmas Story.”
“Those pictures are for sure coming out at his high school graduation,” she said.
“I don’t know anyone who doesn’t have an Artcraft story,” she said. “There’s a place for everybody. … It’s also about giving back and learning how to be a volunteer. I love the multigenerational piece of it. People who are retired and kids. I enjoy being with all the ages of people who volunteer there. That’s pretty cool, too.”
For more information or to support the theater, join the membership drive asking for $100 donations to celebrate 100 years; check out the events and movies on their site, including midweek music movies on Wednesdays in September, and the senior movie series sponsored by Swartz Family Community Mortuary; submit your personal Artcraft story; or volunteer, by going to historicartcrafttheatre.org.