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Business & Economy

The 14-year, $7 million bet to revive one Ohio city’s downtown

Scott Dressel faces a maze of red scaffolding that is set up on the deteriorating stage.
Kendall Crawford
Ohio Newsroom
Bit by bit, Dressel is working on bringing the Grand Theater back to its original state.

Scott Dressel knows his way around the maze of scaffolding that crisscrosses the Grand Theater’s floor. He’s become familiar with the theater’s peeling walls, the steel rods peeking through holes in the ceiling, and the once-gilded proscenium that now sits faded and chipped.

“This is all going to have to come down and be rebuilt because it's just too badly water-damaged,” he said, pointing toward a section of falling plaster.

To most, this building might look like a lost cause. But Dressell, the man driving the theater’s restoration, can see the value underneath all the decay.

Since the 1950s, Steubenville has lost around half its population and many of its historic buildings, including theaters that once housed acts from all over the country. The Grand Theater is the only remaining artifact of its performing arts era.

To lose this is tragic, actually,” Dressel said. “Because then you lose that whole last big chunk of this really amazing, vibrant history when the town was just booming.”

An illustrious past

The Grand Theater opened in Steubenville in 1924. It was one of five downtown theaters at the time that showed silent films and hosted vaudeville performers. They thrived into the 1940s, showing “talkies”. A few even brought in national acts like Duke Ellington, the Three Stooges and Ella Fitzgerald into Steubenville.

The Grand Theater used to be major draw in downtown Steubenville.
Historic Steubenville
The Grand Theater used to be major draw in downtown Steubenville.

The small city owed much of its big-act attraction to a nuance in Pennsylvania law, according to John Holmes, who wrote a book that detailed this dazzling period in Steubenville’s history. He said theatrical productions couldn’t take place on Sundays there, due to so-called “blue laws”.

“Ohio didn't have those laws,” Holmes said. “And so, being only an hour away by rail, the Stanley Theater in Pittsburgh could book their national name acts, but for their Sunday show, they would simply ship them to Steubenville.”

The Grand went on to focus on movie screenings and even became one of the first theaters in Ohio to offer air-conditioning. It closed its doors in the late 1970s, and, gradually, fell into disrepair. One by one the historic downtown movie theaters were demolished. Dressel and his team of volunteers stepped in to spare the Grand from the same fate.

It is just sort of like dominoes,” he said. “You need to make a stand somewhere. There's all this cool history here that's gone.”

An economic tool

While preserving that history is important, Dressel said it’s not the only reason he wants to save the Grand.

“It's also convincing a town to save itself,” he said.

Dressell said having a functional theater in Steubenville is an economic development tool the city badly needs. Matt Wiederhold, executive director of Heritage Ohio, an organization that supports historic preservation, said many towns are using the same strategy: focusing their restoration efforts on theaters and music halls.

“Those are the buildings that we're seeing getting more attention now because it's key to turning that downtown around and getting people to come back down there and shop and dine and go to the theater,” Wiederhold.

The Grand Theater hosted hundreds of spectators when it opened in the 1920s.
Historic Steubenville
The Grand Theater hosted hundreds of spectators when it opened in the 1920s.

Still, Wiederhold said the state has lost many of its performing arts spaces. Ohio used to have more than 1,700 theaters, opera houses and performance spaces, according to Wiederhold.

“Almost half of those have been demolished and only 240 some are still open and presenting. So it's been a huge loss,” Wiederhold said.

Setting the stage

Logan, Marietta and Lima are all amid pushes to bring back historic theaters, but it isn’t easy.

Dressell has spent fourteen years restoring the Grand, spending endless hours bringing in grants and donations to get the seven million dollar project across the finish line.

Picturing opening night in the theater keeps him going, he said.

“Like a lot of steel towns, people get disheartened. I just can't wait to have all those happy faces in the audience and to see what we have and then be able to do things here,” Dressel said.

The wall in the lobby of the Grand Theater boasts black and white photos of past movie starts.
Kendall Crawford
Ohio Newsroom
The lobby of the Grand Theater in Steubenville carries mementos from its performing arts past.

Bit by bit, that dream is coming closer to reality. Dressel hit an important milestone this month: he and some volunteers finished reassembling the theater’s long-silenced organ. They breathed life back into the massive instrument that served as the soundtrack for silent films a century ago.

Dressell hopes the theater can do the same for the city.

“You need to do something to make your town come alive.”

Kendall Crawford is a reporter for The Ohio Newsroom. She most recently worked as a reporter at Iowa Public Radio.