Sep 14, 2017
INDIANAPOLIS -- The Rivoli Theatre has been through a lot.
Built in 1927, the theatre at 10th and Dearborn streets started out by showing silent films, then became the first in Indiana to show movies with sound. In the 1960s and 1970s, it hosted rock concerts. After that, the building fell on harder times, and the theatre turned to showing pornography, until it became vacant in 1994.
It's taken a few years, but there is a project underway to bring it back to its former glory, led by Jim Kelly of the Rivoli Center for the Performing Arts, Inc.
"A lot of people don't see that we've made any progress," Kelly said. "They say 'Oh, you've been talking all this time.'"
The auditorium is done. The roof is nearly done. The marquee needs to be removed and rebuilt. The next steps are windows and doors. Then electrical. Then heating and cooling.
In 2011, when Kelly got involved in the restoration process, the inside of the theatre hadn't been touched since the doors closed in the early '90s.
The building was trashed, with curtains, string, roping, wiring and a quarter of the roof all over the floor.
"If you walked in five or six years ago, it would be as light as it is outside," Kelly said.
He saw a mess, but he also saw potential.
Kelly's plan is to create an arts district from Rural Street to Sherman Drive. He's partnering with other community organizations to help make "Inspire East 10th Street."
The area surrounding the theatre, as it is now, is difficult to sell as an arts district. There have been four fatal shootings this year, and another five in 2016.
"Whatever walk of life people have there now, if they're the least bit decent, we're going to reach out and hopefully teach them," Kelly said. "Give the kids and some of the neighbors things to do and a place to call theirs."
That's why Kelly wants it to be a community building, with classes and activities for students.
The other day, Kelly said, he was at the theatre and a third-grader came up to him, looking at the work being done on the building.
Kelly asked the boy what he does when he goes home. Just some homework, the boy replied.
"Kids in that area have nothing to do, except potentially get in trouble," Kelly said. "We want to give them something to do. We want to give them a voice."
He has grand ideas of not only keeping local talent in the area, but drawing new talent to central Indiana through the theatre. His passion for the project is audible in every word about it.
"We literally have a slate, or a canvas, that is almost blank," Kelly said. "If you've driven through that neighborhood, open your eyes. A lot of people see only the negative, I see that there's so much you can do."
Once the theatre is finished, it will have "everything but pornography," Kelly said. That means marriages, public speakers, church services, conferences and (Kelly's vote) old sci-fi movies.
Kelly, 61, grew up half a block away from the theatre.
"In the '70s, going to rock concerts, I realized how really cool that building was," he said. "I had enjoyed so many movies as a child, and a teenager: the concert series."
At the Rivoli, Kelly saw bands like Kansas, REO Speedwagon, Lynyrd Skynyrd and Spirit.
He heard about the restoration plans for the building, but didn't feel like it was moving as fast it should be.
"I come from the view of 'Do something, and then worry about it,'" he said with a laugh. "If you're doing nothing, the building falls. What harm can we do by doing something?"
The organization has raised $607,000 for the renovations -- some through federal grants, others through selling T-shirts for $20 each.
The City of Indianapolis has also been involved in the reconstruction, releasing the following statement:
"The City of Indianapolis worked with community partners to install a new roof on the back side of the Rivoli Theater in 2013, and we have since issued grant funding to assist with the stabilization of the front of the building. We truly believe in the power of the arts as a catalyst for growth and redevelopment in our neighborhoods and look forward to what a thriving arts community along East 10th St, with the Rivoli Theater as a centerpiece, could contribute to our city."