STEUBENVILLE - As the newest board member of the Grand Theater Restoration Project, Dr. Susanne Curn-Escobar of Steubenville finds it easy to put her heart into the effort, especially her role in getting the museum part of it off the ground.
The long-term plan to transform the South Fourth Street theater into a performing arts center also includes a vision for a museum that will showcase Steubenville's theater and performing arts history.
And that makes Curn-Escobar, chair of the museum project, a happy camper, given it's a part of her heritage.
Dr. Susanne Curn-Escobar of Steubenville is the newest member of the Grand Theater Restoration Project and chair of the effort to organize a performing arts museum as part of it. Early theaters in Steubenville are a part of her family history as her grandfather, the late William J. Curn Sr., brought the first nickelodeons to Steubenville and had owned and operated three.
-- Janice R. Kiaski
A retired surgeon, Curn-Escobar returned to Steubenville in 2008 to care for her mother, Virginia Curn. After her mother's death, Curn-Escobar began looking for a local project to get involved in and read about the movement to return the Grand Theater to its hey-day splendor.
"I became very interested in their progress, and when I heard there was going to be a performing arts museum included, I couldn't wait to become involved as theaters happen to be part of my family history," Curn-Escobar said.
"The Grand was always a favorite during my younger years, and I remain an avid movie fan," she added.
When the overall theater project is done, it will be a performing arts center, according to Scott Dressel, president of the Grand Theater Restoration Project.
"We will be able to have events on stage and utilize the dressing rooms, etc., for plays, concerts and other types of theater," he said in offering an overview of the potential of the finished work. "We also will have the capability of showing movies. The two ballrooms will be finished as event space. At this time the idea under consideration is to have the ballroom walls themed after a variety of downtown stores, diners and places that people love to reminisce about."
The museum, meanwhile, will be housed in the storefront just to the left of the lobby entrance, Dressel said.
"It will concentrate on the theater and performing arts history of Steubenville," Dressel said. "We will as well cover other downtown history on the two ballroom floors which will be a part of the museum. Our plan is to have the museum open year-round to generate revenue to cover the costs of utilities and general operation," he said.
"The museum is really there to display and capture the history that people would like to see saved to share with their children and grandchildren. So it's really up to the community what it contains," Dressel added.
The invitation to become a member of the board and chair the museum project prompted Curn-Escobar to do some research.
"I started to investigate the history of theater and the arts that existed in Steubenville's past and have been amazed with what I have been able to discover," she said.
Her grandfather, for example, the late William J. Curn Sr., brought the first nickelodeons to Steubenville and had owned and operated three - the Rex, the Alvin and the Minerva before dissolving his nickelodeon business with the arrival of "the talkies," she said.
The Rex was located at 517 Market St.; the Alvin at 349 Market St; and the Minerva at 110 S. Fourth St., she said of the addresses listed in the 1913 Steubenville Directory.
"As described in the book, 'Father and his Town' by Wilma Baker, he had a huge Victrola horn mounted on the theater facade which played music to draw people into the theater," she said. "We have several photographs of his different theaters with their entrances decorated with large banners describing the movies being shown. Sometimes there were also mules outside, decorated with ribbons and feathers that towed wagons with even more banners that moved through town to attract interest," Curn-Escobar said.
Joseph B. Doyle's "20th Century of Steubenville and Jefferson County," she said, "describes how from approximately 1812 to 1820, families moved to this area whose members made great artistic contributions to this city. Their descendants became known nationally and internationally in all aspects of the arts, and Steubenville artists traveled to Europe to study with the great painters and music teachers of the day."
Among them was the Cole family, she said, that brought the first piano to town, "and people lined up and down the street to hear the music played. Another family's son, although primarily a painter, built several pipe organs from scratch, and one was used for church services in St. Paul's Episcopal Church," she said.
As Curn-Escobar looked further, she discovered that Steubenville had a Philharmonic Orchestra during the 1800s and a thespian society "that performed in Bigelow's Stable located behind the United States Hotel, until the hotel was destroyed by fire in 1885. A member of the Cole family, a known artist, painted the scenery for the stage presentations," she said.
"In 1873," Curn-Escobar continued, "a trio of Steubenville musicians, two of them vocalists, went to Europe to study. One of them, Mr. William MacDonald, with his wife, also a vocalist, brought their opera company to Steubenville for three Grand Opera performances and gave a concert for the Stanton Monument Association."
She said river showboats with their floating theaters stopped here to give performances, and local theaters with vaudeville shows became very popular local entertainment.
"We have also been told that because Pennsylvania was a 'blue' state and stage presentations were prohibited there on Sundays, many famous artists and bands that were performing in Pittsburgh would come here and give shows on Sundays which were quite a treat for the residents of this area," Curn-Escobar said.
It all adds up to great potential for a performing arts museum.
"Steubenville, from its very early years, was a center for the arts and has quite a history," Curn-Escobar said.
"We hope that our museum will be able to showcase detailed accounts of these times and include data and hopefully, souvenirs, from our performing arts' past. Should anyone have any memorabilia or information of Steubenville's artistic story, I hope they will contact us as we hope to include as much data and examples as possible," she said.
The overall restoration effort of the Grand Theater was launched on May 24, 2010, according to Dressel in offering a look at what has unfolded so far.
"It took until July 2011 to raise the funds for the roof, and the main roof was then completed. At Christmas 2011, we were donated the Annex Building to the south of the Grand," Dressel said, noting money was raised to have that roof finished by July 2012.
More than 200 volunteers spent more than 3,000 hours cleaning all the rubbish from old businesses out of the Grand. "The lobby was cleaned up and mold abated in the fall of 2011, and the lobby was mostly completed by March 2012," Dressel said.
Heat was installed in the office room, lobby and museum room spaces in the fall of 2012, he added.
"Thus far we have raised about $300,000 in donations and grants," Dressel said. "This includes $124,000 for the abatement project from the Ohio Clean Funds that is about to be started; $30,000 from the Ohio Governor's Office of Appalachia which was for the roof; $5,000 from the JC Williams Trust for the lobby restoration; and $10,000 from the Charles M. and Thelma M. Pugliese Charitable Trust for matching funds for the Ohio Clean Funds Abatement Grant, and lots of individual donations and sponsorships for events," he said.
"As always we are in need of donations to continue work and are looking for major sponsors who would be interested in naming the theater or various parts after themselves, a loved one or a business," he said. "I would appreciate anyone with contacts in the oil and gas industry who might be interested in naming sponsorships to give me a call or let me know who to contact," he said.
The engineering and architectural design work constitutes the current concentration.
"We are concentrating on completing the engineering and architectural work for the restoration," Dressel said. "We are looking for someone to fund/sponsor that. We are, as always, working on fundraising and grant writing to fund the overall restoration," he added.
Although events are not finalized, 2013 plans are for something to be held the weekend of the Hometown Celebration in June; the Christmas fashion show in the fall; and an open house in December again on the day of Steubenville's Christmas parade.
"We may have something else coming up this winter/spring that is still being finalized," said Dressel.
As for the museum part of the project, Curn-Escobar said it is in the planning and organizing phase.
"We are preparing our fundraising toward that goal," she said. "We are anxious to tell Steubenville's performing art history and who knows, we may even arrange for a few Victrola horns, banners and donkeys of our own to announce our grand opening," she speculated.
Donations can be made to the Grand Theater project by contacting Dressel at (740) 632-2899.
The project office address is 506 N. Fourth St., Steubenville, OH 43952. Information also is available on the website and Facebook fan page.