May 15, 2023

Muncie Civic Theatre to fly high with new main stage rigging system

MUNCIE, Ind. − A 119-year-old stage-rigging system, which once supported visiting vaudevillians, including the Marx Brothers and Red Skelton in the early 20th century, is being removed this summer from Muncie Civic Theatre downtown.

The system is being switched out with a modern one, replacing sandbags and muscle with computer-driven electronics.

Also being replaced at the historic venue, located in the Boyce Block building on Main Street, is the original fire curtain at the theater. It remains beautiful, said Laura Williamson, executive director of Civic, but it no longer meets fire codes and contains hazardous asbestos. Fire curtains are used to stop the spread of flames should a blaze break out back stage or in the auditorium.

The roof over the theater was well maintained over the years as was the general upkeep of the facility, which allowed the old rigging system to continue to be functional. The venue spent time as a movie house after Vaudeville. Civic took over the theater in 1961.

Williamson said the work removing the old system that serviced the theater was needed, but in some ways the changes were sad.

The "fly system" of ropes and pulleys and sand-bag counterweights was replaced in many theaters in the 1940s and 1950s by systems using steel plate counterweights. Such a system never came to the local theater. The pre-World War II methods of hoisting curtains, lights, scenery and other props, stayed in place for reasons that included the cost of upgrading.

"Now is our time to replace the last echoes of Vaudeville," she said.

The theater was built in the Boyce Block Building in 1904. The rigging is arrayed in a 40-foot tall fly loft that soars above the stage. In recent weeks, work has been ongoing dismantling the old system, which Williamson said was able to support more than 20 line sets that can be quietly and safely raised and lowered by the old fly system.

"Theaters have a rigging system like a sailboat; in fact, there is a lot of overlapping terminology," said Angelus Kocoshis, a local attorney and volunteer at Civic. "It's used to raise and lower curtains, lights, speakers, and other 'flies' − props such as signs or even people … think Peter Pan flying."

Williamson said the old system requires a lot of physical strength to handle. The use of ropes gives theaters that use the old system a certain nickname, "hemp house." The new system will be much easier. When in place, the person in charge of manipulating the system need only be able to handle a computer laptop.

Experts from the East Coast who specialize in installation of the equipment will be working in the next several weeks on the project. S.A. Boyce Corp. in Muncie is building and will be installing a new steel frame above the stage.

"The wooden rafters are being replaced by steel beams," said Kocoshis.

And the electronics will require a new transformer to be installed. The cost of the project is estimated at $1.3 million.

"Muncie Civic Theatre has been thoughtful and deliberative in its spending and fundraising since the major renovations of 2017, knowing this rigging was a necessary upgrade that would have to be pulled out for a second phase" said Williamson. "The local foundations and private supporters have really stepped up to make this a reality. As with all projects today, the cost of materials has increased and unforeseen quirks of an older building have driven up the costs involved."

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She said Civic continues to ask the community for its donations toward completion of what is the final phase of renovation.

With its main stage out of commission until November, some productions will take place at other venues around Muncie, she said. When the conversion is complete, a piece of the old fire curtain will be saved and and placed on display at the theater to preserve a piece of local history, Williamson said.

David Penticuff is a reporter for The Star Press. He can be reached at [email protected].