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Ward-Thomas Museum

Ohio Association of Historical Societies and Museums

Five images of buildings and grounds

Robins Theatre

Ward — Thomas Museum
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503 Brown Street Niles, Ohio 44446

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The Butler Theatre on South Main Street would later become the Robins Theatre.

L-The Butler Theatre on South Main Street would later become the Robins Theatre. The Robins Theatre would close in the 1960s.
Photo ca 1935.

By the 1960s all the movie theatres in Niles were closed. All were demolished except for the Robins Theatre which stands empty and unused on Main Street (2023).

R-The Robins Theater is being demolished as of October 2023.


Side view of Robins Theatre end seat with emblem of R for Robins.

Side view of Robins Theatre end seat with emblem of R for Robins.

Robins Theatre Rescue.

In 1974, the Robins Theater closed for the final time. It seemed like it had been struggling for the previous few years–possibly due the new Loews Theater at the recently built Eastwood Mall. Most of downtown Niles was being razed.
As a kid, the Robins Theater was always a special place to me. It was a classic old–time theater with a single large screen, an iconic marquee and a fresco carved into the ceiling. It even had a balcony, which was only occasionally open, though we always tried to sneak into it. It was dark, magical and smelled like popcorn. Also, it was the only movie theater I had ever been to.

When I learned of its fate, to be gutted and built into office space, I felt the need to preserve some part of that experience. Also at this time, my own personal interest in the movie business was growing. Getting some chairs to put in my basement would be a great way to keep the place, and spirit, alive.

Discovering that the theater was owned by one of the Niles city officials (Phil Rickard), I contacted him, repeatedly, to request some chairs as the renovation proceeded. I’m sure I was starting to be a pest, when he finally relented and said for me to meet him in front of the theater.

Being only 15 at the time, I had to enlist the help of my older brother (Tom) to drive and pick them up. He, too, was less than thrilled about this venture. Upon arriving, the three of us entered the abandoned theater with only flashlights, finding our way through the dark lobby and up the steps into the pitch-black balcony. There, against the wall, sat three connected seats that had already been unscrewed from the floor.

“Will these do?” he asked. I said “Oh yeah!”. I was very appreciative. My brother and I proceeded to lug them down the musty carpeted steps and out through the front door to the trunk of my dad’s waiting Nova.

For good measure, I also took the hand lettered sign from the poster case that announced what movie was playing that week. Strike while the iron is hot.

I kept those chairs in my parent’s basement “theater” for years. They remained there long after I went to college and eventually moved to New York City. Periodically, my father would ask me if he could finally throw those “old chairs” away. “No. I will be back for them”.

In 1991, I moved to Los Angeles and worked for Walt Disney Studios designing movie posters. Among the possessions that I relocated across the country were those Robins Theater chairs.

To this day, they sit in my home in Los Angeles, pretty much exactly as they were the day we carried them out of the balcony 49 years ago.— Mark Crawford


Bottom view of original seat #2 from the Robins Theatre.

View of three theatre seats.

 

Sign from movie poster display.

Left: Bottom view of original seat #2 from the Robins Theatre.

Top center: View of three theatre seats.

Bottom Center: Sign from movie poster display.

Theatre seats/sign images courtesy: Mark Crawford.


View from stage into seating area.

Click image to enlarge.

View from stage into seating area.

View from seating area to stage.

View from seating area to stage.

View of ceiling rotundra.

View of ceiling rotundra.

View of balcony.

View of balcony.

View of fireplace.

View of fireplace.

Walking through the vacant building on South Main Street downtown, Mayor Steve Mientkiewicz, flashlight in hand, carefully navigated through the remnants of what once were offices.Warren Tribune Chronicle, October 29, 2023 with permission.

NILES — Walking through the vacant building on South Main Street downtown, Mayor Steve Mientkiewicz, flashlight in hand, carefully navigated through the remnants of what once were offices. But, as the cool, late October breeze blew through several holes that expose the building to the outdoor elements, the offices no longer looked like places of work, but rather areas left behind in an apocalyptic scene. A stench of dampness filled the building. The rooms were lined with buckets and water seemed to drip continuously from the ceiling. Sections of the walls were covered in mold. Floors that once were carpeted now had only a brown muck remaining.“The water infiltration is unbelievable,” Mientkiewicz said. “Even now, it hasn’t rained for a few days, you’ll still be able to hear dripping.”Whether it be the scattered office rooms or plaster melting off the walls, anyone journeying through the building would never know they were walking around what once was the first-level seating of the old Niles Theater Building.“When people talk about renovating it, there’s no theater anymore,” Mientkiewicz said.

The theater, which opened in the 1930s, has sat mostly empty and deteriorating for several years. Now owned by Niles, the city has begun the process of demolishing the building. Asbestos abatement has begun on the theater building, along with the old Reisman’s Furniture store next to it. They will be torn down in the coming weeks. The contractor completing the demolition is Dore & Associates Contracting Inc. based out of Bay City, Michigan. As some residents have questioned why the city did not attempt to salvage the building, Mientkiewicz said that was not a realistic option.“The city is not in the theater business,” Mientkiewicz said. “We would encourage private development or public-private partnerships, but there’s a reason why for 60-plus years, this building sat idle and vacant. I’m assuming, private developers said ‘absolutely not,’ due to its condition of it and the money they’d have to spend rehabbing it.”

HISTORY

At one point, the building was home to one of the best theaters in the city. In 2022, when Niles officials began seeking grants for the demolition, Ralph Tolbert, a member of the Niles Historical Society said “It was considered the best theater and showed premiere movies.” At one time, the stretch of buildings contained not only the theater and Reisman’s Store, but also Ward’s Costume Shop, a tattoo shop, offices for the Ohio Bureau of Employment Services, and a pool hall among other things. Attorney Curt Bogen had offices in the building. Tolbert said the upper balcony was large and hung over the lower level of the theater. He said there was a large movie screen and families went there on Saturday afternoons for children’s specials. Tolbert said following the Great Depression, many people liked going to the movies. He said the theater was popular from the 1930s through the 1950s before closing in the 1960s.

In the 1970s, while the Ohio Bureau of Employment Services had offices in the building, the first floor had wooden framing installed to level the original sloped floor. Mientkiewicz said he was told that in the 1980s, former city auditor Phil Rickard owned the building and used it as a haunted house. Mientkiewicz said the demolition is being completed with a grant through Ohio’s Demolition and Site Revitalization Program. He added the grant went through the Trumbull Neighborhood Partnership, which received over $7 million for various county projects. He said the city had to provide a 25% grant match for the demolition. According to the Trumbull County Auditor website, on Jan. 1, 1990, the properties at 42 through 46 South Main Street in Niles were sold by an unknown seller to Reismans Inc. The listed sale price was $0. Then, on July 31, 2023, Reismans Inc. sold the properties to the city of Niles for $0.

THE THEATER

When Niles officials were given the keys to the building, Mientkiewicz, along with other Niles officials, surveyed the building, searching for any remnants of the actual theater. “I said ‘Where is the theater?’ and they said ‘This was it,'” Mientkiewicz said. “We were looking around to try to get upstairs to the balcony and couldn’t find it.” Eventually, the city officials found the stairwell to the balcony. It was behind a closed door, sealed with metal rods and covered with a tarp. At the top of the stairwell sat a secondary lobby, complete with restrooms and a carpeted ramp which led up to a room filled with complete darkness and no remaining electricity. “When we were first walking through here, not knowing where the theater room was or how to get there or what to expect, when we walked up the ramp and shined the light into the actual theater room, it was like finding the lost city of Atlantis,” Mientkiewicz said.

Climbing the ramp into the dark room, the mayor’s flashlight illuminated the clearest picture of what the Niles Theater used to look like — at least half of it. Stretching from the end of the balcony level across to about the middle of where the stage and screen used to be, a floor was installed directly on top of the offices below. Whereas on the ground level, all remnants of the theater had been erased, on the balcony level, an outline of the theater was still distinguishable.

The stage / screen area, with fireplaces on each side, still stood out at the front of the room, though cut in half. Intricate designs could still be seen on parts of the walls though most were worn down or faded. Looking upward, the room was capped with a rotunda-style ceiling. In the middle of the ceiling was a gaping hole that has existed since ‘however old the Google Earth images show,” Mientkiewicz said.

Below the hole, a tarp along with several buckets and old coffee canisters were placed in an attempt to catch some of the water that falls into the building when it rains. “With the water damage and deterioration, the architecture, the plaster and the intricacy is all wiped away,” Mientkiewicz said. The mayor said there was some evidence that a previous owner had attempted to rehabilitate the theater. The effort was to no avail. “You can tell that people actually tried to clean this up at one point in the 1980s or 1990s,” Mientkiewicz said. “The previous owner on the Trumbull County auditor’s website goes back to 1990, so we’re not sure if that’s when the previous owner took ownership of the building and tried to do something, but there was an attempt to restore it to some degree. Then, it’s my assumption that they finally just realized it was way too costly and there was not a return on their investment, so they just stopped.” The remnants of the theater room have acted as an attic for the offices below for decades.

RELICS

Mural was drawn by Mario Bertolini, a Niles Art teacher.While the theater building will be completely removed during demolition, some of its history was able to be preserved. At the top of the theater, several wooden chairs and sections of the original carpet were still intact and able to be saved. In the projector room, several film canisters were left, though what movies they contained was undeterminable. The largest relics the city has been able to save are two gas-powered film projectors, both of which had exhaust pipes sticking out of holes in the building. Audra Dull, the public services manager at the McKinley Memorial Library, said one of the projectors, along with a few other artifacts, were acquired by the library and are on display at the McKinley Birth Home. “We are going to have on display a projector and some seats from that theater,” Dull said. ‘They will be cleaned up, but they will still be all original.” Dull said preserving local history is important. She said the library looks to partner with the Niles Historical Society and other entities to keep the legacy of the city intact. Mural was drawn by Mario Bertolini, a Niles Art teacher.

“At the McKinley Memorial Library we certainly understand the importance of Niles history,” Dull said. “We really appreciate the good work that the Niles Historical Society is doing as far as preserving our local history and we partner with them whenever we’re able. As a matter of fact, the artifacts will be on display at the McKinley Birthplace Home, and when that display is over, the artifacts will be donated to the Niles Historical Society.” Mientkiewicz said the city is open to discussing a similar agreement regarding the other projector. “The Tyler (History Center) in Youngstown, if they’re interested, they’re more than welcome to it before the demolition,” he said.

AFTER DEMOLITION

Mientkiewicz said that the city will retain the property once demolition has finished and city council will have discussions with Niles CIC to see what’s next. “We’ll try to look towards some sort of redevelopment with a site-ready piece of land,” he said. The available space could be used as an urban entertainment area, which is a factor discussed in the city’s comprehensive plan. “We’re pretty excited about not only taking this down but also having some plans in place as to what this could become,” he said. Down one decrepit hallway of the theater building, a mural showing many historical sites of the city stretched across a white wall. Mientkiewicz said the artist was unknown. The mural contained images of a Niles Firebrick Company plant and the Niles Times Building, both of which have since receded into city history.

In the coming weeks, the remnants of the theater building and the old Reisman’s Furniture store will join them.


View of sidewall.

View of sidewall.

View of auditorium steps.

View of auditorium steps.

View of auditorium steps.

View of auditorium steps.

Close-up view of auditorium steps.

Close-up view of auditorium steps.

One of two film projectors.

One of two film projectors.

Film storage cabinet.

Film storage cabinet.

View of balcony stairway.

View of balcony stairway.

View of second fireplace.

View of second fireplace.

View of replacement seats.

View from stage.

View from stage.

Stairway to balcony.

Stairway to balcony.

View of stairwell.


Reisman's, Robins Theater and the McKinley Research Center are shown in this photo.

Click image to enlarge.

Reisman's, Robins Theater and the McKinley Research Center are shown in this photo.
Photo: Patricia Rickard, October 25, 2023

In late October 2023 the two corner buildings, Reisman's and the Robins Theater, were cordoned off prior to their demolition.

Previously, these buildings housed The Style Shoppe, Loblaws Market, Butler Soda Grille, Dunnigan's Photography, a ceramic shop, Ward’s Costume Shop, a tattoo shop, offices for the Ohio Bureau of Employment Services, and a pool hall and various other downtown businesses.

Robins Theatre 2023

Click image to enlarge.

Studied in the Niles Comprehensive plan, the existing buildings, slated for removal, will make way for a substantial public plaza and green space.

Click image to enlarge.

Studied in the Niles Comprehensive plan, the existing buildings, slated for removal, will make way for a substantial public plaza and green space. Its aim is to serve as a flexible and multifunctional space for a variety of enriching and entertaining program oppor-tunities. Niles residents and stakeholders have been engaged in steering committee meetings and the McKinley Library’s Strawberry Festival to understand the highest priorities and favored design elements.

The result – a plaza which will include generous flexible hardscape and lawn space to support passive uses such as lunch or coffee,
play, a stroll, or small gatherings, as well as set the stage and provide infrastructure for organized event use such as concerts, markets, art walks, wellness programming, and group meetups.

The plaza is surrounded by planting with opportunities to incorporate themed or sponsored gardens, sculptural art, provide pollinator habitat and treat storm water.

The existing historic Robins Theater will have legacy architectural elements salvaged and interpretive signage incorporated to preserve an important piece of Niles past.

Finally, the site will be surrounded by an updated, amenity rich streetscape which will provide furnishings and added safety to cyclists and pedestrians, and provide food truck opportunities to support event programming.

The Niles downtown launch proposed site leverages a wellconnected parcel to strengthen both physical connections and environmental awareness at the riverfront site just below

Click image to enlarge.

The Niles downtown launch proposed site leverages a wellconnected parcel to strengthen both physical connections and environmental awareness at the riverfront site just below
South Main Street bridge into downtown.

Working with the existing topography to maintain least disturbance to the riparian buffer, the plan proposes to utilizes an existing gravel road for watercraft launch with a small riverfront park zone adjacent. A small dock provides opportunity for an accessible launch.

Turnarounds, pull-offs and parking allows for efficient ramp use for individuals and groups. Working with the existing grade, an amphitheater and environmental education center is proposed on the site’s western portion. Pursuant to the river corridor
plan, the education center would house park facilities and infrastructure, but also be an opportune host for nearby school programming about the river’s environment, history, and the nearby wetlands for which a trailhead and trail connections have been provided.

Demolition of Reisman's store next to Robins Theatre.

Demolition of Reisman's store next to Robins Theatre on South Main Street.

Demolition of Reisman's store next to Robins Theatre on South Main Street.

View of the Robins Theatre Building after the razing of Reisman's Store at the corner of South Main and West State Streets.

View of the Robins Theatre Building after the razing of Reisman's Store at the corner of South Main and West State Streets.

View of the Robins Theatre Building after the razing of Reisman's Store at the corner of South Main and West State Streets.

View of the Robins Theatre Building after the razing of Reisman's Store at the corner of South Main and West State Streets.



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