The Fulton County Courthouse holds the distinction of being one of the most recognized structural landmarks in the downtown area, but the iconic marquee of The Times Theater is surely a close second. Though the distinguished signage has seen better days, it has been a fixture on Main Street since the 1940’s, a neon beacon for a vintage movie-house whose history stretches back to the Roaring Twenties. On Valentine’s Day, 1924, the Char-Bell Theater opened to a packed house in Rochester. Though not the town’s first theater, it quickly proved to be the most popular. An 800-seat capacity venue, the Char-Bell featured the silent films and vaudeville acts of the day, in addition to other live performances over the years. In 1941, the theater changed its owners and its name, becoming The Times Theater, and the new marquee followed soon after. The Times remained almost continuously in business afterwards, changing owners periodically, and remodeling and updating their equipment and amenities as the era and the viewers’ tastes changed through the years.
The Times Theater continued to feature live events, such as dance recitals, through the 1960’s, and in the 1970’s, the auditorium was divided in order to have two active screens to offer movie patrons more choices. The new century brought new challenges as audiences’ entertainment choices began to expand. Cable television, home video, and the internet led to less interest in paying for something that could be experienced in their own living rooms. The movie industry responded by introducing and utilizing new technologies, but the cost prohibitive updated equipment and the dwindling audiences were a one-two punch that The Times was unable to recover from, and the theater closed its door for good in January of 2014.
In 2016, The Times Theater Revitalization Project was born when a group of Rochester citizens agreed that the Main Street mainstay could be restored as a nostalgic venue for live music, movies, and community events. After organizing as a not-for-profit entity, the group began some of the preliminary work on the venue’s interior, and have been exploring ways to attain the funds to make their dream a reality via donations, grants, and other fundraising initiatives.
Much has been happening behind the scenes of the Times Theater these past couple of years. Thanks to the Northern Indiana Community Foundation and to the many gifts from generous donors like you, work continues by local contractors and volunteers. Some of the progress that has been made includes replacement of the roof over the theater portion of the building and proper abatement of all asbestos in the building. The iconic stage has received new structural support so it now meets all State requirements for occupancy and use. Wall stabilization also now secures the brick and concrete walls on one side of the building.
Plumbing systems in the existing restrooms have been updated and work is underway for the addition of an ADA accessible restroom for our guests. Both furnaces have been serviced and found to be in proper working order (although one of the units is very old). A concrete curb was added around the perimeter of the building to halt the penetration of groundwater from downspouts and the separation of brick from the building and the asphalt in the alleys. We are also in the process of replacing all exit signs and adding new emergency lighting as required by local code. Once the restroom and new lighting is in place, we hope to receive our certificate of occupancy. After receiving the certificate of occupancy, we will be able to allow additional volunteers and the community at large to come in to assist us in additional cleaning, paint work and other tasks that need to be performed before the facility is ready for use.
We have so much to look forward to this year. The Main Street Revitalization Program has returned the façade to its historic appearance. We’ve welcomed a new tenant in our north property, The Native Nook. Marquee restoration research is underway and the ticket booth restoration, lobby, and concession stand are soon to follow. Here’s to a wonderful and exciting 2022!
“Our goal is to ‘inspire interest and participation in theater and other arts by providing diverse and artistic experiences for all ages,’” Frenger said, quoting the project’s mission statement. And with history at its back, and people devoted to seeing it through, there are surely brighter Times ahead.