Historic theater patiently waits

Rachel Mummey/The Herald
The Astra Theatre marquee was aglow with a for sale sign Tuedsay evening on the square in Jasper. The theater, built in 1937 by Joseph Gutzweiler, has been closed since 2002. A gallery of photos is here.

Herald Staff Writer

JASPER — While businesses move in and renovate different buildings around the county courthouse, one prominent building at the southwest corner of the square has not encountered such luck.

The Astra Theater has not seen consistent activity since closing 12 years ago. But several people have taken a look at building, on the market for $165,000, and pondered how it could be used again.

“We’ve had a lot of lookers,” building owner Jerry Gutzweiler said, “but no takers.”

The latest lookers were there last week. Gutzweiler opened the building to lead a small group business leaders and members of the Dubois County Community Foundation on a tour. The City of Jasper’s master plan for downtown revitalization includes renovating the theater into a cinema and restaurant. That project is also one of 11 listed in the city’s letter to the state to be considered for the Stellar Community program, which provides grant funding for two winning cities.

So there is community interest in the 77-year-old building.

The Astra was built in 1937 by Joseph Gutzweiler. He also built the Tivoli theater, which was at the northwest corner of the Square and Main Street in the spot currently occupied by Let’s Do Lunch, in the late 1920s. The Tivoli was still in operation at the time of the Astra’s opening. Each theater showed four movies weekly.

When the Astra opened, movies tickets cost 12 cents, and there were no concessions because the owners didn’t want to clean up the mess, Gutzweiler said. A teen-aged Gutzweiler got his first job at the Astra when concessions were finally added. He removed gum from the bottom of theater seats.

“My cousins and I would go in with a knife and bucket and get under the seats, cleaning off gum. We got $1 per pound,” he said. “It wasn’t a get-rich-quick deal. But I never paid to go to the movies.”

In November 1966, an adult Gutzweiler took over the Astra, along with his father, Bernard Gutzweiler. They made renovations over the years — adding cushions to the theater’s seats, buying equipment that automatically switched to a new movie reel when another reel was completed, and closing the balcony to turn it into a second-floor movie room.

They did not change the building’s early-1900s look. The movie screens are still draped by heavy curtains. The first-floor screen has a stage. The deep red and gold decor former moviegoers remember is still there. Fixtures, including the trash cans, are still in place.

“It looks pretty much the same as it did before,” Gutzweiler said.

The Tivoli closed in 1970, after being damaged in a Feb. 3 fire that killed Gutzweiler’s sister Margaret Ann.

Gutzweiler and his wife, Doris (Winkler), left the movie business in 1994, turning the theater over to their then-son-in-law, Tony Ward. The Astra continued on for another eight years, showing its last movie in September 2002.

Since the closing, a few events have been held in the building, including rock concerts in the early 2000s and a 1920s-themed wedding in 2011. The concert attendees damaged some of the seats by standing on them, but the damage was repaired, Gutzweiler said.

In 2013, the Astra starred in a commercial for the Hoosier Lottery’s ad campaign called “Imagine That.” The lottery asked people what they would do if they won the lottery. The answer of Jasper residents Heath Kluemper, Patrick Norris and Kyle Rupert to reopen and restore the theater impressed the organizers, who shot the commercial in January of that year.

To be reopened, the theater would likely need updates. For instance, the lights now have to be turned on a day early so they can warm up. Some cosmetic improvements must be done. And if the new owner would want to operate the Astra as a movie theater, digital movie equipment would have to be purchased. The original movie and sound projection equipment was sold soon after the theater closed.

Gutzweiler hopes that the theater his family started decades ago will get a new owner.

“It’s a beautiful building,” he said. “If someone got in there and did something with it, the Astra would be such an asset to our community.”

Jasper Mayor Terry Seitz said the city has received inquiries recently about the former theater.
“We’ve had about five folks who were interested talk to us about it,” he said. “They didn’t pan out.”

Because the building is an intricate part of the city’s downtown, city officials felt that it should be included in the downtown master plan that was completed last year.

“It is significant,” Seitz said. “Because of that, we also wanted to include it in our letter” of intent for the Stellar Community program.

Seitz said Jasper has no plan to renovate and operate the facility itself.

“The city has never done anything like that,” he said. “But that’s not to say that we couldn’t be a bridge to help someone with the development of the building.”

The community foundation is looking at the Astra as a possible venue for an upcoming “Will Read for Food” event.

“It would be great if we could open the Astra for a night and get people in there to see the inside,” said Nicole Hurrle, communications and engagement manager for the foundation. “I think it’s been out of sight, out of mind. But maybe we could get someone in there who is passionate about historic preservation and the arts to take an interest in the building.”

Hurrle said no definite plans have been made yet for the Will Read for Food event.

“It’s very early-on right now,” he said. “We don’t know if we can pull it off.”

If the details are worked out, the foundation hopes to host the show sometime this spring, she said.
Gutzweiler is doing what he can to keep the building in decent shape, going over to make sure the lights still work, the building stays warm or cool enough and the fixtures inside are maintained. But being 81 and with his wife being ill, maintaining the facility is getting more difficult, he said.

“It’s in pretty good shape,” he said. “But with no one using it and no climate control, it’s harder keeping it that way.”

Contact Candy Neal

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