The rescue mission continues with the Victoria Theatre Association, live theatre

By Joyell Nevins

Photo: Richard Benedum, chairman of the UD Department of Music, conducts ‘Handel’s Messiah’ in December 1983; photo: D. Altman Fleischer

In the early 1970s, the Victoria Theatre in downtown Dayton, known then as the Victory, faced extinction due to lack of income. Rising expenses and sinking attendance was going to force the then owners to close the doors. Thanks to a grassroots group of citizens, prominent faces, and investors willing to take a chance, the Victory stood its ground. It even gained a listing on the National Register of Historic Places. But the “Save the Victory” campaign was just beginning. A decade of struggle and experimentation was to follow to get the theatre back on safe ground.

The “Save the Victory” campaign raised $15,000 in less than a year to rent the Victory building for one year. The group founded the nonprofit Victory Theatre Association (VTA) in early 1976 and brought in volunteers to help run and maintain the building. They also turned their sights towards restoration.

Vincent Bolling, who, with his wife Elana, founded the longstanding Vanguard chamber concert series, became the first board chair of the VTA. The Vanguard series and the Bollings bridged the gap to several private investors, such as the Siebenthalers and the Haddicks. Winters Bank and Lorenz Williams Architects also became interested in the project. A Community Development Block grant from the city of Dayton, contingent upon the VTA purchasing the building, funded the much-needed roof repair.

“That was the biggest shot in the arm,” says Fred Bartenstein, original member of the Save the Victory campaign and the VTA. “It was more money than we could have raised, but absolutely essential.”

The VTA put a down payment on purchase of the Victory building in 1978. By the time VTA came into existence, the Victory was only playing films (in the 1950s and ’60s, it was affectionately known as the “Disney House”). Bartenstein explains their dream early on was for the Victoria to produce live theatre. The Human Race didn’t exist yet, and the renowned Kenley Players were a touring company.

Enter Kent Anderson, who worked with Rike’s Department Store and the Dayton Chamber of Commerce. He came on board as the first executive director.

“Kent really got excited about producing our own theatre,” Bartenstein says.

He brought in Ed Stern, who later became the artistic director of Cincinnati’s Playhouse in the Park, to direct in-house theatre. But the Victory was still hemorrhaging money.

By the early 1980s, Anderson was leaving and the theatre was more than $1 million in the hole, according to Bartenstein. There was a meeting in Mead Tower to determine the future of the Victory and the VTA. Several influential Daytonians and groups attended, such as Anne S. Greene, Mrs. Kettering, and the then city manager.

“It was like the Roman forum—they were ready to give a thumbs up or thumbs down [to decide Victory’s open or closure],” Bartenstein says.

But then something unexpected happened, something VTA members called miraculous.

“Mrs. Greene said, ‘We need to raise a million bucks, and I’m the only one who can do it,’” Bartenstein recalls. “She added, ‘But the city has to lend us Fred Bartenstein as managing director.’”

They did, and she did. Greene stripped down production costs, later serving as managing director herself, and partnered with movers and shakers like Suzy Bassani. Bassani was from South Africa and came to Dayton through her husband, a National Cash register official.

“She came to Dayton with big, big ideas,” Bartenstein says.

Bassani helped found the Muse Machine in 1982. Later, she also worked with Caryl D. Philips and Sara Exley to form the Human Race Theatre Company, Dayton’s first permanent professional theatre. The Human Race’s first show, “Count Dracula,” was performed at the Victory in 1986. The Human Race continues to perform at the renamed Victoria Theatre.

“We gave our hearts, our souls, our nights, our weekends,” Bartenstein says of those early years. “The most important thing to do was to keep the doors open, no matter what.”

Victoria Theatre’s history notes that in 1988, the Arts Center Foundation acquired the theatre from the Victory Theatre Association and began a $17.5 million renovation project. In 1990, the Victoria Theatre went through its last name change and reopened as it is today.

“We knew it would become so familiar and so beloved that Daytonians couldn’t imagine Dayton without it,” Bartenstein says.

And they were right. When the Victoria Theatre celebrated its 150th anniversary and asked the public for favorite memories and moments, the comments and stories poured in. The Victory/Victoria has embedded itself in the heart of the Gem City and will remain for years to come.




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Joyell believes in the power of the written word, a good cup of coffee, and sometimes, the need for a hug (please, no Tommy Boy references). Follow her on her blog “Small World, Big God” at or reach her at

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