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Monmouth College to begin using downtown theatre space

Barry McNamara
Little did these 1910 Monmouth College baseball players know that, a century later, the Bijou Theatre that they passed on their Main Street parade route would be home to a Monmouth College theatre space
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The newest off-campus experience at Monmouth College will be close to home, thanks to a partnership between the college, the firm Frantz-Hobart, which specializes in historic restoration and luxury loft apartments, and the City of Monmouth.
The vacant building at 230 South Main St. that formerly housed the Martha Brown Ltd. department store will be converted this summer to a new Monmouth College theatre space. The college’s current black-box theatre, known as the WIT, closed at the end of the academic year. The theatre had been located in the Haldeman-Thiessen Science Center, which is being mothballed due to the completion of the Center for Science and Business.
“This is a pretty major project, and it should result in a pretty nice space,” said MC theatre professor Doug Rankin. “It is going to be a good-sized black box theatre and will be flexible to different spaces, as black box theatres are. It will be almost twice the size of the WIT Theatre.”
The theatre is part of a downtown renovation project that has the City of Monmouth’s director of community development, Paul Schuytema, excited.
“Bringing a true college presence downtown had been a goal of both the college and the city for years,” said Schuytema. "The relocation of the WIT Theatre is a great first step and is a key cultural component in the city's downtown revitalization strategic plan. The public-private approach is the perfect way to make this happen.”
“They will be gutting the entire structure on the inside and, basically, starting over,” said Rankin, who noted the college will pay for those renovations and will also pay to lease the building. The city is investing in the project as well, utilizing its Building Grant Fund program to provide some gap funding for the renovation of the historic structure, which resides within the city's TIF district.
“For the last several years, the WIT Theatre had been as much of a classroom space as a performance space, and that’s how we will use the new downtown theatre,” added Rankin. “But it’s still a pretty big deal to have it as a performance space, too. In fact, our theatre season next fall will begin there with two student-directed productions — ‘The Four Poster’ (in early October) and ‘The Good Doctor.’”
Rankin said the building was originally a skating rink, then became the Bijou Theatre and, later, the first site of Rivoli Theatre. After serving as a department store and later as a soft drink machine refurbishing factory, “it had been pretty much abandoned the past several years,” he said.
Although the college will be the primary user of the space, Rankin said it will also serve as a cooperative space with other organizations in the city.