The Return of the Roxy
Bob Boarman has 16 grandchildren of his own, but to hear him talk, he's the surrogate grandfather of all the kids in town. And it bothered the 62-year-old businessman that all of his kids had to leave town to have a good time. It was a marked difference from when he was a young man growing up in Shelbyville, Ill.
Back in the day, Boarman used to go with his friends to see the movies at the Roxy, a classic one-screen theater that started life as a live-entertainment venue. But after three decades of operation as a movie house, the Roxy was shuttered in 1966. Kids who wanted to take in a show had to drive to places like Mattoon or Decatur.
"The young kids had nothing to do around here," Boarman says.
Boarman, a spry, lovable sort who could have been the inspiration for TheLittle Engine That Could, decided it was time to step forward. He challenged his Shelbyville neighbors to reopen the Roxy. And he backed his challenge by offering $100,000 ("I've made a lot of money off my automobile dealership," he says) to any community group willing to restore the Roxy to its original glory.
It took three years to get community support for the project and assemble a team, made up mostly of volunteers, to do the construction work.
That, it turned out, wasn't the hardest part.
The Roxy has a long history in Shelbyville. Built in the 1800s, the venue was originally known as the Playhouse Theatre, and featured vaudeville-type performances, including comedians, singers and other stage acts. In 1936, the building was leased to the Frisina Amusement Co. and the name was changed to the New Roxy Theatre. The "New" was later dropped and the building subsequently got a facelift, including an upgrade of the projection systems and the addition of air conditioning. But one-screen theaters in small towns had trouble staying viable -- and on Nov. 6, 1966, the theater closed -- seemingly for good. The last film shown was Walt Disney's Mary Poppins.
After the projector was turned off, the theater became a Dale Smith Paint Store (a unique paint store, given that it had an ice cream soda fountain near the entrance). When the paint store left, other businesses occupied the property. The most recent tenant was Carswell Photography Studio.
Except for older residents of Shelbyville like Boarman, the Roxy Theatre was little more than a memory. And, until recently, Boarman's challenge to reopen the theater attracted little interest. Then, this fall, the Shelbyville Chamber of Commerce was approached by a Charleston, Ill., investor who wanted to open a drive-in theater.
While the chamber was talking to the investor, Boarman "stepped forward and made his offer again," says Jay Allred, chamber president.
Boarman insisted that the theater be built in downtown Shelbyville. It was hard to argue with his rationale: Opening it downtown could attract new businesses to the town's proud, but tired heart. And opening a new theater at the site of the old Roxy made the most sense of all.
So chamber officials approached the building owners, Frank Dove, a local lawyer, and his brother, Mike Dove. Once they could square things with the photographer who was leasing the building -- the chamber offered to help him relocate -- the Doves decided to donate the property outright. With the property in their possession, it was time to see what was left of the old Roxy.
Boarman, Allred and others had heard all sorts of opinions about what was still hidden in the old building. "There were rumors that most of the stage curtains and the ancient projection equipment were still hidden beneath the floor," Allred says. "Another rumor suggested that most of the seats could be down there, too. I even heard the original slanted wooden floor was still intact beneath the current floor of the building."
So what relics of the old movie theater did they find when they began tearing into the building?
"Absolutely nothing," Allred says. "We actually knew that early on, because there was a little trap door [at the back of the building] where we could go down and literally walk around beneath the floor. We had some loose flooring covering the cellar, the 1968 remodeled structure sat on top of that, and a lowered ceiling of tiles existed in the photographer's business."
The construction volunteers hauled away truckloads of junk, including the antique air-conditioning equipment from the 1930s and lots of old wood. "And there were years of grime to wash away," Allred adds.
There was at least one stroke of luck, though: The original paint that had been applied to the slanted movie-theater floor was still visible along the sides of the walls, under the regular flooring. That would prove useful later on, when restoration work began.
Boarman and two local businessmen, Michael Murphy and Bob Dennis, became, in effect, the three construction project leaders. Dennis, the publisher of the Daily Union newspaper, was the foreman on the job and the project's official chronicler; Murphy, the semi-retired owner of a construction firm, did the running for the group, picking up parts and equipment.
Given a lack of memorabilia or architectural renderings, Boarman's childhood memories became blueprints for the restoration work.
Gutting the building was the first step, but even that wasn't simple. In addition to removing flooring and drop ceilings, the theater had been subdivided -- and all those walls had to go. The old stage was intact and in good condition, but the wall behind it had a leak, as did the roof. As workers removed the ceiling above the stage, they found vintage movie posters that had been used as insulation. Some of the posters were in good-enough condition to be displayed.
As the construction team began removing the flooring, a huge basement pit began to develop. It was three to four feet deep just in front of the stage, but near the entrance to the theater, near the sidewalk, it reached a depth of 15 feet. The crew had to bring in 100 truckloads of sand to fill the gaping hole. The sand was piled outside the building, and much of it carried into the building by hand.
The old paint lines that had been uncovered during the gutting of the building served as a guide for pouring a new concrete floor. Area contractors -- concrete men and finishers -- volunteered their services; no one at the chamber ever was billed for sand or concrete. The City of Shelbyville also furnished city trucks, backhoes and municipal employees to help with the project.
Once the new floor was in place, curtains were hung along the sides of the theaters. Again, Boarman's memory would serve as a guide -- he told the chamber the ones they found were just like the ones he remembered as a child. The chamber, which owns the theater, put the carpeting job out for bid, and again, the community came through -- two local chamber members made very low bids, Allred says, giving them a huge break.
There was more to be done: The stairway to the balcony/projection room had to be fortified and the balcony had to be rebuilt and reinforced with a huge steel girder. Finding new seats was an entirely different matter. The chamber was prepared to spend $75 to $100 per seat, but by good fortune found a defunct St. Louis theater with a similar floor slope that that was willing to part with its seats for $20 each.
"Early one morning, about six of us went down to St. Louis on a big tractor-trailer truck and a car," Boarman recalls. "Our crew carried all of the seats to the truck an loaded approximately 230 of them in several hours. The locals made sure we didn't make any mistakes or take the wrong things," he says.
Once the seats were in Shelbyville, they had to be cleaned and installed. Over the next few days, students, Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts scrubbed the seats clean. In all, more than 100 people volunteered to rebuild the Roxy. Concrete workers and finishers totaled at least 40. Much of the work was done at night and on weekends -- a typical night shift began around 5 p.m. and sometimes lasted until 2 or 3 in the morning. Wives and mothers who were stuck at home while their husbands pitched in were jokingly referred to as the "Roxy Widows." Shelbyville residents would just show up and Boarman and his buddies would put them to work.
Three trustees from the local jail also pitched in. "They helped us out quite a bit," Boarman says. "They were good boys at heart -- and hard workers like the rest of us. Sometimes, we'd take off to Decatur and leave 'em unsupervised for hours. When we returned, they were doing what we had told them to do."
The inmates weren't allowed to smoke in jail, but they could at the job site. "When they got out, those boys inhaled those cigarettes right down. It was like working with three smokestacks," Boarman says. "I told them I was glad we were getting the building completed: It was costing me $100 a week just to keep them in smokes."
The old Roxy finally reopened on Nov. 6 -- 37 years to the day that it last showed a movie. Recognizing Boarman's persistence and leadership, the theater has been renamed the Boarman Roxy Theatre. Recognizing its tie to the past, the first movie shown in the restored theater was Mary Poppins.
Opening-night admission was free. To mark the festivities, Boarman parked vintage 1950s cars in front of the theater.
Patrons lined the street long before the doors opened. Every seat was filled that night and some patrons were seated in the aisles. Even then, some had to be turned away.
The chamber set up a six-member theater management group to oversee operations; Dennis -- the newspaperman -- serves as the unpaid manager.
The committee decides what movies will be booked -- and given that it's a seven-day-a-week theater, it can show fairly recent titles. At $3 a show, that's a pretty good deal. A recent screening of Elf drew 2,500 customers (in a town with a population of 5,000) -- and seven of the shows were sold out, Allred says.
"We're going to be very selective on the movie titles we run, but it doesn't mean we won't run some R-rated films sometime down the road," he says. "We'll judge each title on what it is about, who is in it, so one and so forth."
The 230-seat theater is equipped with Surround Sound, and the projection booth can play DVDs and hooks up to gaming systems. Dennis says his son recently tried his Xbox football game -- and it seemed almost like watching a real game. That's given theater operators the idea of hosting video-game challenges for the community's kids.
Was all the hard work worth it?
"People are weird in this world today," Boarman says. "If someone wants to do something for their community, there are those who shake their heads and walk away. Others say it simply can't be done.
"But the 'believers' stick together and get the job done. That was the situation here in Shelbyville, Illinois. It took the children coming down to clean off the seats to shame some of the disbelievers."
"I have received over 100 cards and letters from people over 40 thanking me for my part in the rebuilding of the Roxy Theatre. But that wasn't necessary: I dated my wife in that theater."
And when the theater reopened, where did the Boarmans go?
"We went straight to the balcony," Boarman smiles.
The Return of the Roxy
Running time: 6 weeks
Rated R (for remarkable)