Saving the Victory

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Growing with the grassroots Victoria Theatre movement

By Joyell Nevins

Photo: Patrons leave Dayton’s Victory Theatre in March 1980 after a performance by Vincent Price as Oscar Wilde; photo: Dayton Daily News

 

R. Buckminster Fuller once said, “And never forget, no matter how overwhelming life’s challenges and problems seem to be, that one person can make a difference in the world. In fact, it is always because of one person that all the changes that matter in the world come about. So be that one person.”

Or in this case, seven persons. Seven unknown Daytonians who came together to fight for and preserve a widely recognized Gem City icon—the Victoria Theatre. At one point in downtown Dayton, there were 18 booming theatres that boasted plays, concerts, and movies. Today, the Victoria Theatre is the sole remaining building of that era still used for its theatrical purpose.

However, the Victory Theatre (as it was once called) did face demolition in the early 1970s. Rising expenses and sinking attendance was going to force the then owners to close the doors. The Save the Victory (STV) campaign spurred a city-wide movement and ensured the survival of this piece of living history.

“It was really terrific, but it was never easy,” says Fred Bartenstein, one of the original seven behind STV.

Surprisingly, Bartenstein isn’t originally from Dayton. He had just moved to the city in the winter of 1975 to work as a civilian with the Dayton Police Department. But his upbringing on the East Coast had given him an appreciation for music and the arts.

When he saw on local media in the fall of 1975 that the owners were going to tear the Victory down, Bartenstein was dismayed that Dayton would lose its primary theatrical venue.

“Memorial Hall’s acoustics were so bad; it was not built as a concert hall,” Bartenstein says. “But the Victory’s acoustics were terrific. It had a great sound.”

At that point, the Victory was being rented by James C. Burt and John D. Silken through the Victoria Opera House Association. They had come on board in 1972 to save the Victory from extinction then, but the income was not matching the rent and renovations needed, and the theatre was on its last leg.

The landlord, Jack Keyes, was trying to find another buyer or tenant for the theatre, but the only one interested was an X-rated movie company. Across the street, Loew’s Theater was undergoing demolition to become a parking lot, and it appeared that same fate would meet the Victory Theatre as well.

So, Bartenstein called a friend at Dayton Daily News, who put him in touch with Jim Latham. Latham was then a projectionist at a drive-in movie theatre, and was also disturbed by the news of demolition.

“Jim was the ‘spark plug’ of the movement,” Bartenstein explains.

Latham and Bartenstein pulled together Tom Gabriel, Peter Hess, Rick Berry, and Terry and Dee Friesenborg. The group approached Keyes, who said he could lease the building to them for $15,000 a year.

“That was a lot for us, but that was a manageable number for the community to do,” Bartenstein says. However, “none of us had any visibility,” he continues. “We just put our heads together and figured out what we could do.”

Bartenstein notes that many of the “heavy hitter” foundations and major corporations were not willing to support the cause. This was largely due to a recently completed feasibility study that determined it was “not feasible” for the Victory to remain open.

But in my years as a journalist, I have never ceased to be amazed by what a group of passionate people can do. The original STV campaigners started making noise—they held fundraiser concerts, bake sales, and met with civic groups. Being near the American Bicentennial, Bartenstein notes history was already a popular interest.

Maribeth Eiken Graham organized the “Pay a Dollar and Ring the Victory bell” drive. She made little red bows with small bells that she would give to people who donated. WHIO’s DJ Carl Day actually initiated a “pirate” radiothon in conjunction with that campaign.

Without getting permission from the station, he started announcing that people could drive by the theatre and make donations. Donors were given the pin with the bell.

And people started to ring that bell. According to the book “When Dayton Went to the Movies” by Curt Dalton, the radiothon brought in $7,600 in pledges. Other contributions began to come in, including pledges from the Rike’s Foundation, the local chapter of the American Institute of Architects, and the Oregon Historic District. An air-conditioning repairman from Kettering mortgaged his car in order to donate $1,000.

The Montgomery County Historical Society (now part of Dayton History) had already gotten the Victoria Theatre listed on the National Register of Historic Places and now served as the fiscal agent for STV. Dudley Kircher brought the resources of Dayton Area Chamber of Commerce and Dayton Development Council. Josephine Schwarz of the Schwarz School of Dance (now Dayton Ballet Company) also became influential in the movement.

“Miss Jo wanted her ballet dancers to dance on the stage [consequently, they now do],” Bartenstein says. “Miss Jo became an important spokesperson—she was beloved in the community.”

Thanks to these organizations and many private citizens, STV raised the $15,000 needed, created the Victoria Theatre Association, and saved the building from demolition.

But that was only the beginning of the fight to “Save the Victory” and keep it still showcasing theatre today.

 

The Victoria Theatre is located at 138 N. Main St. in downtown Dayton. For more information on the Victoria Theatre, please visit VictoriaTheatre.com.

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Joyell Nevins
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 swbgblog.wordpress.com or reach her at joyellnevins@daytoncitypaper.com

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