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Guest Post: Markay Theatre Comes Back to Life

by Barbara Summers, Executive Director —Southern Hills Arts Council 

Saving the best of our past, while creating an arts space to last well into the future, was the main thrust behind Southern Hills Arts Council’s odyssey in renovating the 1930 Art Deco movie house known as the Markay.

In our southern Ohio town of Jackson, there is precious little evidence of the short Art Deco period. While not grand or gaudy, the Markay is a little jewel on Main Street that carries the unmistakable stamp of that era. It was well worth saving.

After many years of neglect, the once lovely lady had deteriorated badly. Southern Hills Arts Council forged a pact with the City of Jackson in 1996 that calls for the Council to renovate, maintain, and operate the facility in return for which we pay $1 per year in rent. A portion of the building opened June 1, 1997. 

We have operated a Gallery, Meeting & Class Room/Lending Arts Library since then. We host nine visual arts exhibits annually and are home to a male voice choir, a knitting circle, and a writers’ guild. Each fundraising success led to another phase of the renovation. 

To date, approximately $2 million has been invested without our incurring debt. On August 1, 2015, we triumphantly opened the theatre for live performances.

Restoring the Past

Bas-relief is a technique that retains the natural contours of the figures, and allows the work to be viewed from many angles without distortion of the figures themselves. Six figures on view in the restored Markay Theatre can be seen in this image. Restoring the six larger-than-life bas-relief figures on the theatre’s walls that depict life in Jackson County in 1940 was one of our greatest coups. They were created by an artist named Frank Boerder, of Indianapolis, when the Markay was purchased by the Chakeres chain of movie houses. Not only do they pinpoint Jackson’s industrial past, but they are WPA-era works, a short but distinct period. In addition, these impressive figures loomed large on the walls, starkly lit in the darkened auditorium. Attention was riveted on them.

People now in their older years have fond memories of that “first kiss” happening right under these bas-reliefs. It was critical for artistic, historic, and personal reasons to restore these figures to their original glory.
These figures are so much a part of Jackson’s history that replicas have been poured into the abutments of a new bridge spanning Route 35, just southeast of Jackson. Thanks to digital scans they are accurate in all detail and have been appropriately painted. Lighting is currently being installed so they will stand out at night. 

The 280 custom-built seats are both beautiful and practical. Four original octagonal chandeliers with 64 panes of acid-etched glass and sand blasted floral/ribbon patterning have been painstakingly restored and now sparkle beneath the acoustical clouds. They provide a finishing touch to the theatre. 

Another plus from our perspective was having so many local craftspeople bring their talents to bear in completing the restoration. Eight layers of paint were painstakingly scraped from the marble stalls in the Ladies Room by a volunteer armed with a single-edged razor blade. Holes were filled and the marble sanded and buffed. They are glorious. The original nickel hardware was stripped and polished. The original terrazzo floor has been cleaned and highly polished. We stripped the doors but they proved to be a hodgepodge of woods. Instead of repainting them, we had them fashioned anew in ash. They’re quite handsome. We could not save the anteroom for the Ladies but we decorated it in a complementary fashion.

Fit for a Modern Audience

Adapting a poured concrete space built to show movies to serve the needs of live theatre proved to be quite a challenge. We suspect there will always be more to do in keeping a 1930 building fit for use in this century and well on into the future. At every turn, the Council has worked to restore those precious parts of our past so they are not lost to us or our children and their children. To the best of our ability, we have created a modern, comfortable space in which to enjoy the performing arts. Today, we look to our accomplishments and are pleased by what we’ve created. Of course, we’re not done yet. 

Barbara Summers, August 2015



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