Theater at Fort Benjamin Harrison finds new life

The theater at Fort Benjamin Harrison is a ghost of what it once was.

Thousands of soldiers and family members once viewed films from the theater's plush red seats. Its stage previously held performances from bands and other entertainment.

The theater has offered a different vision in recent years. No performers have graced the stage in almost a decade, and a burst pipe last winter caused severe damage backstage.

This October, the theater will come to life again. A collaboration between a local arts organization, Partnerships for Lawrence, and the city of Lawrence, which is paying for repairs, is making it possible.

The goal is to become a cultural destination.

"The performance groups are coming out of the woodwork," said Judy Byron, executive director of Partnerships for Lawrence. "Everyone wants to do something in that little theater."

Located on North Franklin Road, Partnerships for Lawrence is the only arts organization in northeast Indianapolis. It's offered visual art programs and summer camps for its students for years.

With its relocation to Fort Benjamin Harrison, the organization can finally begin to offer new entertainment for the community. The theater will become Lawrence's only space for staged productions. Local sculptor Gary Schmitt also will relocate from the current office to the theater.

Partnerships for Lawrence envisioned the theater as an office and performance space for several years. Its current location isn't accessible for people with disabilities, and otherwise couldn't adequately support arts programming, Byron said.

She hopes the theater will allow more people to participate in the arts. The organization plans to continue to bus in students who don't have access to transportation.

Fort Benjamin Harrison has a rich history that began with its construction in 1906 and continued through the Cold War. It's named after Benjamin Harrison, the 23rd president who lived in Indianapolis during most of his political career.

The theater was built in 1929. It showed movies and hosted band performances for soldiers and their families during its heyday.

The fort and its theater were decommissioned in 1996. Until this year, the 38th Infantry Band of the Indiana National Guard used the building as a practice space.

The resurrection of the theater is an extension of other redevelopment efforts in the area, said Bruce Northern, public works director of Lawrence.

"It's gotten a lot of community support," he said.

Partnerships for Lawrence will pay $400 in monthly rent plus utilities, Byron said. The organization is funded by donations, advertisements and ticket sales, she said.

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