The Apollo Theatre has been a fixture in Oberlin since the first thriller was shown on its screen in 1913. Offering reasonable prices and family-friendly flicks, the theater brought Hollywood to this small, picture-perfect college town. 

But like most theaters of that era, it got a bit tired. So in 2009, theater owners Sandy and William Steel put it up for sale. College Properties of Oberlin, a wholly owned subsidiary of the college, stepped in and purchased it as well as the adjacent commercial and residential space.

Shortly thereafter, the theater was closed for the first of what became a two-part renovation. Jonathan Forman, president of Cleveland Cinemas, the company hired to operate the Apollo, explains the theater was “brought up to code, some cosmetic improvements were made and digital technology was introduced.”

Upon completion of what is being referred to as phase one, the Apollo experienced a jolt in business. “It was definitely gaining momentum,” Forman says.

In the meantime, the college was setting another change into motion, one that would improve the theater for the movie-viewing public while enhancing Oberlin College’s cinema studies program.

Approximately a year after the completion of phase one, Geoff Pingree joined the faculty at Oberlin College as director of cinema studies. Then Pingree and Rian Brown-Orso, associate professor of new media and cinema studies, visited a program at New York-based Jacob Burns Film Center and Media Arts Lab, a nonprofit cultural arts center and college housed in a movie theater much like the Apollo. They also entered into conversations with Jonathan Demme, Oberlin alumnus and Academy Award-winning director of “Silence of the Lambs.” Demme helped the two professors formulate a vision of bringing a similar program to the Apollo, says Pingree.

On Sept. 11, 2011, phase two of Apollo’s renovation — a comprehensive initiative integrating a refurbished movie theater with Oberlin College’s updated cinema studies program — got under way. This phase included the creation of a media education center with a post-production lab, a sound recording studio and booth, an image video correction studio and the addition of a new Apollo Outreach Initiative (AOI) Community Center storefront. The main theater and stage was renovated to create a live performance space for events. Refurbished theater seats and a second screen for showing films and student-produced work were installed. Plus, the historic marquee got spruced up, and space was expanded for the college cinema and media studies department. It will now feature 2D and even 3D movies.

The new Apollo Theatre opened to the public Sept. 28.

“When you think of movies like ‘The Last Moving Picture Show,’ you understand the loss of not having a theater in a community like this,” says Pingree. “People [had] to drive 15 to 25 miles to see a movie. I’m looking forward to having people walk to the theater.” 

The changes also help promote the mission of the cinema studies program. “We can work in our field in the context of broader learning while serving the community,” says Pingree. Students will also be able to collaborate with those attending the Oberlin Conservatory to create original scores for their movies.

“We are excited about the opportunity of having this as our home,” says Pingree. “We envision this as a huge community gathering place that also gives our students new options for programming.”