Oil City was once the place to take in a show. In the downtown alone, there were at least a half dozen possibilities. For those who didn’t like one venue’s vibe, it was just a short walk next door or down the block to another.
Among those options was the Lyric Theater on Seneca Street.
“This is the last remaining example of a vaudeville theater in town, and there were lots of vaudeville theaters in town at the turn of the century,” said Gary Dittman, one of the originators of the idea to restore the performing space.
In the summer of 1907, a little shotgun-style stage named “Airdome Theater” opened right next to the heart of Rockefeller’s Standard Oil empire.
The theater went through several name changes and architectural updates before it finally closed in the 1950s as a motion picture venue.
The stage and seating area were encased, almost mummified, and the space redesigned into two clothing stores. The Abe Lang Women’s Wear and Ray L. Way Men’s Wear stores would take the building into the 21st century.
To make it a reality, they partnered with the Colonel Drake Cultural Alliance, Inc. in 2006, which assumed management and development of the theater. Since then the project has made some progress in getting ready for the final renovations.
And they are close.
They have a looming deadline next week to raise $106,000 in matching grant funds.
Otherwise, they risk losing nearly a million of the funding for the $2.3 million project.
So, they need some help from some deep pockets, and fast.
The plan for the theater is to tear out the entrance and rebuild the space to include offices and a modern theater entrance design.
It will seat 214 and have a completely renovated stage. Some early work has already been completed, including shoring up supports and dealing with roofing issues.
More recently they have made a lot of strides to pull together the last of the needed money. In the month since putting out their most recent call for support, they have raised $9,000.
“There is such a group of young people who are so talented and I’m afraid of them moving away because they can’t make a living here performing,” Dittman said. “There (are) musicians, actors, tech people that are great at it but they can only fit it in, in their spare time and they have to sling hash or something else. It takes away from their real passion.”
Dittman said that another theater in the region can only increase the potential for the area’s performing artists, and hopefully open the door to more possible stage incomes. “My hope is the theaters can work together, share resources and people.”
The goal of a revamped Lyric Theater is to be more than just a home for the Community Playhouse, Inc. They want to show movies, host parties, concerts and event weekends. All of which, they hope adds to the revitalization of downtown Oil City and other nearby communities.
“It will help all of our downtowns as people come in for a show, maybe shop, maybe eat,” Dittman said. “I think it opens the door for a lot of progress and to bring life back downtown. People on the street at other times than when they are just driving through.”
The next show is November 16 and will feature the Brandon Rae Band. Jesse James Weston will perform on November 30.
Donations can also be made online at https://bbcf.fcsuite.com/erp/donate/create/fund?funit_id=2255.
This story, by Richard Sayer and Eight & 322, was made possible through a grant from Arts Oil City and the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts.