Monday, July 21, 2003

'Curtains' for aging theater

Rain does Empire in as its roof collapses

By Brenna R. Kelly and Reid Forgrave
The Cincinnati Enquirer

As he pushed his shopping cart full of car wash supplies past the crumbled fa┴ade of the Empire Theatre Sunday, Tyrone Twiggs recalled the glass chandelier and velvet curtains that hung in the Over-the-Rhine building more than 30 years ago.

The theater - thought to date to the early 1900s - closed in the 1960s, not long after Twiggs saw the 1963 Alfred Hitchcock movie The Birds there.

Since then, Twiggs, 50, has watched the building at 1521 Vine St. fall apart.

"The reason it deteriorated: It was left unattended," Twiggs said.

Saturday morning was the final blow. The roof of the historic building collapsed - much like plans to restore it did earlier this year.

The theater's renovation, which once was touted by city officials as the first step in revitalizing the Liberty and Vine street area in Over-the-Rhine, was derailed in January when the would-be developer spent $184,172 in taxpayer money, then disappeared.

On Sunday, a chain-link fence blocked the sidewalk in front of the old theater, where broken bricks and cinder blocks littered the walkway.

"The whole roof just caved in," said Cincinnati police Sgt. Carol Mock.

Building inspectors think heavy rains Friday night weakened the structure. Workers spent much of Saturday working on finishing the demolition.

Residents of the Joseph House, a homeless shelter next door to the Empire, were evacuated for several hours Saturday while inspectors made sure their building was safe, said resident Bernard Richardson.

While the theater's demise is disappointing, Cincinnati Councilman Jim Tarbell said it could turn out to be a blessing.

"I think we can do a better job just starting from scratch," said Tarbell, one of council's biggest supporters of Over-the-Rhine redevelopment.

"Redoing that building was really a huge, huge challenge. The roof was in a precarious position in the first place."

Given its prime location near the corner of Vine and Liberty, the city now has a unique opportunity for infill development, Tarbell said.

The building's historic value was debatable, he added. The Empire wasn't one of the city's more prominent theaters, Tarbell said.

"This theater was a theater in name only," he said. "We haven't lost anything more than what we had."

The Empire's history is not as well-documented as that of many other theaters.

The theater is thought to have been built in 1907 to show silent movies.

An archival picture of the theater from the Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County shows a brick fa┴ade with statues flanking the entrance. Posters for the movies The Tattoo and The Gypsy Spy hang outside. A 1981 picture shows that the statues had been replaced over the years by a fa┴ade of diamond-shaped tiles and a tall, vertical sign.

Would-be developer LaShawn R. Pettus-Brown, a Taft High School basketball standout who played professionally in Japan until last year, had proposed turning the theater into a venue showcasing comedy, music and karaoke.

Pettus-Brown won approval from City Council in June 2002 for $220,000 in city loans and grants to fix up the theater. Then he vanished.

Last month, federal authorities unsealed an arrest warrant charging Pettus-Brown with wire fraud.

In February, FBI agents raided Pettus-Brown's Vine Street office and seized records and equipment in an attempt to learn more about what happened to him and the money he accepted from the city.

The search warrant for the raid said that nearly $93,000 of the money the city paid to Pettus-Brown is missing.

FBI officials in Cincinnati have been searching for Pettus-Brown, to no avail.

"I sure wish we did have him," said James Turgal, spokesman and chief division counsel for the FBI's Cincinnati office.

Pettus-Brown's mother, Luwanna Pettus-Oglesby of Avondale, did not return phone messages Sunday.


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