The curtain’s gone up on new curtains and a host of other aesthetic improvements at Oglebay Institute’s Towngate Theatre & Cinema in Wheeling.
The interior renovations were unveiled Thursday, May 30, during a fund-raising event for the project. Dubbed “An Extraordinary Evening with Craig Karges,” the event was presented by the Friends of Towngate, a group of volunteers dedicated to supporting the theater, and was sponsored by Spilman, Thomas and Battle, PLLC and Drs. Presutti & Derosa Family Dentistry of St. Clairsville.
Oglebay Institute officials said the work was the first major renovation undertaken at the community theater since the early 1990s. The institute has owned and operated the former church-turned-theater in Center Wheeling since 1970.
Kathleen McDermott, Oglebay Institute president, spearheaded the project to enhance the quality of the productions and the comfort of audiences. Kate Crosbie, director of performing arts, pointed out that while prior work involved structural renovation to the building, this project provided aesthetic improvements.
The upgrades and improvements were funded, in part, through a Cultural Facilities and Capitol Resources Grant from the West Virginia Division of Culture and History. Just under half of the renovation costs were provided through the grant, officials said. Additional funding was secured through a “Have a Seat” fundraising campaign and special event fundraisers.
“Some extraordinary partnerships made this long-anticipated project become a reality,” McDermott said.
“Grant funding, individual giving and corporate philanthropy all played an important role in renovating this iconic community theater.”
Crosbie added, “We are grateful to our board for supporting us from the very, very beginning.” Recalling the Whitaker family’s initial vision for the theater over 40 years ago, she said, “It is pretty exciting to take their dream and see it turn into something really kind of wonderful.”
Observing that “there is a lot of vitality in the theater,” the president said, “We felt that the environment should match the vitality and enthusiasm. We did everything that we intended to do,” she added.
McDermott said a major component of this year’s project was the complete renovation of the first-floor reception room. Visitors will notice immediately that the large room has been transformed from a bohemian, shabby chic-looking space into a bright, airy, contemporary area.
“The space has been transformed into a much-needed multi-purpose room, conducive to holding pre- and post-receptions as well as serving as a quality secondary performance space,” McDermott said. She explained that renovations to the main room included insulating walls, hanging drywall, painting, installing a new ceiling, upgrading the lighting and refinishing the wood floor.
The walls of the multi-purpose room are done in blue and cream colors, with wooden blinds used as window coverings. Small round tables and blue fabric-cushioned chairs are to be placed in the room for seating. Photo montages are to be mounted on either side of the room’s rear walls, McDermott said.
The middle section of the room will be used as an additional performance space. An overhead bar has been installed between the pillars to hold extra stage lighting fixtures. A curtain can be placed at the rear of the stage area. The overhead lighting can be adjusted to suit the type of performance being presented, McDermott said.
A big-screen television will be affixed to the room’s back wall for recording performances and for marketing purposes, McDermott said. A small kitchen located behind the reception room also was renovated; improvements include new cabinetry.
As visitors head upstairs to the second-floor theater and cinema, they will notice that new carpet has been installed on both staircases and that wallpaper has been removed and the walls have been painted.
McDermott said the main performing area has been designated as the Harold G. O’Leary Stage, honoring the theater’s founder and longtime director.
The theater also received improvements, including floor lighting in the aisles, new aisle carpet and the replacement of the theater curtains. The subtle floor lighting illuminates the steps and the landings, but does not interfere with the theatrical lighting, Crosbie said.
Towngate Theatre director Tim Thompson is pleased with the new synthetic stage curtains that are easier to move and are expected to last longer than the old fabric curtains.
The quality of productions also will be enhanced with new stage lighting, sound equipment and a new transmitter for assisted listening devices, McDermott and Crosbie said.
Reflecting on the renovation, McDermott commented, “It’s a space the community can really be proud of. It’s a a source of pride for the actors on the stage and for the volunteers, to the Friends of Towngate and the kids taking classes.
“With increased attendance and use of the facility, particularly with the expansion of the children’s and youth theater programs, coupled with the fact that more than 210 productions and more than 330 films have been on the Towngate stage and big screen since the renovations of the early ’90s, it was again time to consider some improvements to the facility,” McDermott said.
Crosbie agreed, saying, “It’s a nice, intimate place. I think people love the experience, and we hope more and more people will come.”
The renovation project, however, did not include conversion from film to digital projection for Towngate Cinema. “We still don’t have enough research. That’s not something we’ve pursued yet,” McDermott said regarding the costly prospect of digital conversion.
Discussing the impact of the newly-completed improvements to Towngate, Thompson said, “The renovations will certainly enhance and create new programming. Classes and camps will probably increase in numbers because parents will love the space for their children. It is not only very pleasing to the eye, it is clean, spacious, safe and very family friendly.
“When interest and participation increase, the class sessions will also increase. We now have four instructors. I hope to double that, as well as the number of classes being offered. There is also an opportunity to have classes in technical theater because of our new equipment. Our weekends at the Towngate could become a small theater school.”
Thompson said other new programs being developed as a result of the renovations include tours and classes for school groups, additional audience engagement programs such as receptions before, after and during intermission of productions and an enhanced “Second Season” series.
“We can now accommodate 50-60 students who can have a tour, classes in acting and technical theater and then lunch in our reception area. The cafe tables and chairs can easily be added or removed so the space can serve as classroom and lunchroom.”
Thompson added, “We will have a very enhanced Second Season in the downstairs space utilizing a small stage and curtain, improved lighting, sound and seating and a low price of admission. Our Second Season is designed as a very informal and intimate production of play readings, improvisation, music and poetry. The renovated reception room will make these show like the old coffeehouses. The audience will be more comfortable, and lighting and sound upgrades improve the overall experience.”
Walt Smith, chair of the Friends of Towngate, commented, “Towngate provides affordable, quality entertainment to people of all ages in the form of live theater, movies, readings and music. It provides both children and adults a safe environment to learn and explore what they have to offer creatively. It provides us an opportunity to support Oglebay Institute that truly offers the best that Wheeling has to give.”
Karges, the well-known illusionist and performer from Wheeling, said he was honored to present the special fundraiser for Towngate.
Karges said, “Oglebay Institute is one of the real treasures of our community. My wife, Charlotte, proudly sits on the board of trustees. OI offers so much, and I try to support the organization in any way that I can. With the formation of the Friends of Towngate, it came to my attention that Towngate was probably the OI-owned and operated building that needed the most attention.”
Built in 1850, the facility at 2118 Market St. was constructed as a Congregational church and remodeled for use as a Lutheran church in 1852. It is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
When Oglebay Institute purchased the property in 1970, it was renovated to become a community theater. Subsequent renovations took place in the late 1980s and early 1990s to preserve the exterior, refurbish the interior, rebuild the stage, upgrade lighting, make accessibility improvements and allow cinema screenings.