Restored movie palace boosts Albion's downtown

John C. Sherwood
Battle Creek Enquirer

Once a faded reflection of American cinematic grandeur, the 85-year-old Bohm Theatre has been the focus of a four-year, labor-intensive effort to return the theater to business.

Albion – — In 1942, on their very first date, Albion College students Warren Mitchell and Jane White went to the movies at the Bohm Theatre.

It seems fitting, then, that their son, Richard Mitchell, is helping to bring the downtown theatrical gem back to life.

"The town has been great to us," said Mitchell as he stood in the theater's newly restored audience space. "It's a wonderful little city, and we're thrilled that the Bohm is reopening."

Once a faded reflection of American cinematic grandeur, the 85-year-old movie palace has been the focus of a four-year, labor-intensive effort to return the theater to business well before the new year.

Restoration work has been underway by a crew of more than 50 workers since April 2013, and Mitchell and others involved said the project actually appears to be ahead of schedule.

Mitchell's Ann Arbor company, Mitchell and Mouat Architects Inc., has handled several restoration projects in Albion.

The company's latest effort means movies might be dancing across the Bohm's screen by Thanksgiving, said Lee-Perry Belleau, who became the Bohm's new executive director in late July.

George Bohm launched his business in Albion in 1915 at another site, then opened a 1,100-seat operation at the downtown location on Christmas Day 1929.

Jeff Wolf of Chicago applies a varnish coating to woodwork inside the Albion theater. It is expected to be finished by the end of the year.

Changes in private ownership led to the Bohm's closure a few times over the years. Then it closed in late 2007 for what seemed might be forever. Unpaid property taxes had prompted foreclosure, and the building reverted to county ownership.

Local residents mobilized and in 2010 formed the group Friends of the Bohm Theatre, which began seeking funds to buy the building from the county.

As new holder of the structure's title, the nonprofit has planned to reshape it as a self-sustaining performing arts facility to support live music, dance and theatrical performances; the screening of first-run and classic films; private events; and the presentation of lectures and seminars.

Led by Elizabeth Schultheiss, the foundation's executive director, the Friends launched a restoration study and began the process of finding the necessary $3.7 million, about half a million of which remains to be acquired, she said.

It's a labor of love for the local residents, but the same feeling extends to out-of-towners such as Mitchell.

Mitchell, a 1973 Albion College graduate, recalls the Bohm four decades after its opening, when it was still an impressive date-night destination. A vastly different Bohm greeted him when he first started work on its renovation in 2010.

"In the intervening years it had been divided into three theaters and was pretty much unrecognizable," Mitchell said.

"It was pretty ugly," said Belleau, a Port Huron-area native with a lengthy background in theatrical management and design.

A 20-foot tree even had taken root on the roof and had to be removed, Belleau said.

"I was surprised by the condition of the building because it had been vacant and not maintained for quite a few years before we got here," Mitchell said. "The roof had gone and there was water and ice damage. The building was pretty close to being lost."