Renovation Bringing Danville’s Fischer Theatre Back To Life
Work on restoring the Fischer Theatre in downtown Danville has moved from outdoors to indoors. The non-profit group that owns the building at 158 N. Vermilion Street hope to have it ready to host plays and concerts by fall, 2019.
The fall opening date is not considered to be a firm one, due to unexpected problems that can crop up in an extensive restoration, according to Phillip Langley, a board member with the theatre’s owner, the Vermilion Heritage Foundation. The Foundation took possession of the Fischer in 1998, and has working on its restoration since then.
After years of slow progress, Langley says it’s exciting to see the Fischer being brought back to its former glory.
“At this very moment, scaffolding is being erected in the auditorium to go all the way up to the ceiling, to begin restoration work on the original plaster ceiling,” said Langley.
Langley says work on the theatre began last fall, and moved indoors after the completion of exterior work, with restored brickwork and a new roof and windows.
Danville industrialist and philanthropist Julius Hegeler II is funding the restoration of the Fischer Theatre, which was opened under its present name and design by Louis Fischer in 1913. The building originally opened in 1884 as the Grand Opera House.
After decades as a movie theatre, the Fischer Theatre (and an adjoining theatre, the Palace, which was torn down in the 1990’s) had been closed by its last for-profit owner, the Keresotes movie theatre chain, in 1982, and its seating and equipment removed. The building’s ownership passed to the city of Danville, then to the Old Town Preservation Association, and finally to the Vermilion Heritage Foundation, an organization formed expressly to restore the Fischer Theatre.
Langley says past efforts to restore the Fischer had focused mainly on structural integrity, with repairs to its roof and windows. The Vermilion Heritage Foundation showed movies at the theatre when it had access to equipment, operated a gift shop and museum, and opened the building for tours.
A bright spot came in 2017, when the Fischer Theatre kicked off a fundraising campaign by hosting a Danville Area Community College student production of “The Rocky Horror Show”, using bare-bones stage equipment and donated seating. Langley says the production sold over 1,400 tickets, and helped attract the attention of Julius Hegeler, who is donating the money for the current restoration. Langley says he doesn’t know what the total cost of the work will be.
“I’ll be perfectly honest, we don’t have a number,” said Langley. “He’s (Hegeler) just going by what the scope of work is right now. He wants to get the theatre up and running, and make it functioning for live performances, get it ready for potential movie use again in the future.”
Langley says the Vermilion Heritage Foundation plans to launch a “Friends of the Fischer” fundraising campaign in March to pay for further improvements, which could include a full movie-showing capability, covering both motion pictures on film and digital movies.
In the meantime, Langley says the ongoing renovation work at the Fischer Theatre attracts the attention of passersby, who may peek through windows to see how the work is going. Langley says that in a different way, the Fischer’s restoration had attracted the attention of Danville’s business community.
“Because they see this as a real potential to help begin a revitalization of downtown Danville,” said Langley. “And we’re really hoping that we can spark something here by bringing more people downtown. And that may allow other businesses to thrive and additional businesses to open.”
Restoration work on the Fischer Theatre has put tours of the building on hold, and sent the displays in its Arts and Entertainment Museum into storage, until it can reopen in an upper floor. But the theatre’s Stage Presents gift shop remains open in one of the building’s storefronts, staffed by volunteers from 10 A.M. to 3 P.M. Thursdays through Saturdays. Langley says the shop features the work of native Danville entertainers such as Dick Van Dyke, Gene Hackman and the late Bobby Short, as well as local writers and artisans.