Picture it – Bellefontaine, Ohio 1931. You’ve taken a seat inside the new Holland Theatre.
High upon the theatre walls around you is a 17th century Dutch cityscape – rows of nearly life-sized houses, their window boxes filled with tulips that wave in the breeze. Several large, slowly turning windmills are also there and above you, a bright blue sky; billowy clouds float by.
In front of you, the largest movie screen in the state fills the stage. And, as you’re watching the popular films of the day, your brain registers that things are changing all around you. The daytime-sky above falls into dusk, and then into a night-time sky filled with thousands of tiny, shining stars. Candlelit windows on the Dutch houses give the impression of life inside.
In the early days of moving pictures, plush movie houses sprang up around the country. But, the Holland was unique for its Dutch-style theme. In fact, one of the houses included in the interior facade is a replica of the childhood home of its architect, Peter Hulsken, a Dutch immigrant who was then living in Lima, Ohio.
For decades, the theatre flourished. But by 1998, dwindling audiences forced the Holland Theatre to shut its doors.
The same year the theater closed, Kris Swisher, now a retired elementary school teacher, was living and teaching in Bellefontaine. She and some of her sixth-grade students were involved in an international competition called Future Problem Solving, a program designed to develop the problem-solving skills of young people all over the world.
Swisher and her students saw the shuttered Holland Theatre as a problem for the community. So, they chose it as their competition project.
Swisher, they wanted to send a message to city officials.
“Not to let this theatre go, and so we started a public campaign, kids marched in a parade, they wrote a play called As the Windmill Turns and we were able to perform it at the theatre,” she recounts.
Swisher and her students took second place at the international level of the competition and, as a direct result of their efforts, a local advisory board was formed. The board’s mission became saving the theatre.
“Which was our goal,” Swisher says, “that citizens would pick it up as an interest. We knew that wasn’t where we were going to keep going and that citizens would have to step up.”
Step up they did. Soon after, the Logan County Landmark Preservation Board was formed. Swisher is the current board president and in the last few years they’ve worked to restore it to its original glory.
Enter Chris Westoff, the current managing director of the Holland Theatre.
According to Westoff, “In the late 20 and early thirties theatres of this size were built as Vaudeville Houses. They’re built to have really solid acoustics so you could address the audience from the stage without any sound reinforcement. They were showing silent films so there was a Wurlitzer organ that was part of the original install but soon after the Holland was up and running, they were showing talking films here as well.”
Since those early days, the Holland has been through some remarkable changes. In the late sixties and early seventies, movie multiplexes were the new ‘in thing,’ and the 1400-seat Holland Theatre was split into five separate movie theaters. The balcony was walled up and split into two separate theaters. The same happened with the main stage. The historic Holland Theatre became a five-cinema multiplex.
With renovations to the theatre well underway, the walls that created the multiplex have been torn down and the Holland is back to its original configuration. Luckily, the atmospheric Dutch decor and lighting were never sacrificed and are still functioning beautifully.
Yet Westoff is going beyond the brick-and-mortar renovations of the Holland. He says modern-day success also has to come from updating the types of programming theatres offer, including community theatre, film, variety acts and both local and international performers.
“It seems like people are more interested in having authentic experiences in smaller towns and that small towns are becoming more popular as destinations and we know when we have programs here on Fridays or Saturday nights, all the restaurants and local businesses are doing better as well. So, we’re just trying to build the idea that Bellefontaine could be a destination,” the director says.
It seems audiences are responding to the expanded programming.
More than 500 family and individual donors support the theatre through annual gifts. And, several large grants are funding continued repairs and renovations to the site.
To Westoff it means the Spirit of the Holland will endure.
“You know, there’s an idea when you go to the theatre, that you enjoyed the show so much, you left the theatre, you forgot you were even there, and I think that’s built into the design of this room, to have a magical experience.”