The Tecumseh Theater sits on the site of the former O’Bear Hotel, fashioned from the farm house that on the farm property purchased by the New York Coal and Iron Company to form the boom coal mining town of Shawnee in 1872. The hotel hosted such prestigious guests as William McKinley and William Jennings Bryan as they courted the vote of miners in the 1896 presidential election.
The three story Tecumseh Theater was known as a “skyscraper” when it was built in 1907 by the Improved Order of Red Men, one of the many fraternal organizations that existed in the Little Cities of Black Diamonds Coal Region at the turn of the last century. Its early use of steel I-beam construction was rare in rural America. Its height made it Perry County’s tallest building, a distinction it holds to this day. It took two years to build the structure, utilizing iron, clay and brick from the nearby Rock Run brick plant. This iconic building was known as the Red Men’s Hall during its early years.
The building’s main theater spans the middle two floors of the four story building. It was called the Indian Theater. Complete with a professional sized stage and balcony seating, its unique flat floor that never contained fixed seating made it a multi-purpose building. The relatively new game of basketball was the first event held in the space with baskets mounted on the balcony and the edge of the stage. Barnstorming teams from the east were known to have visited the theater to play local teams as well as college teams such as Ohio University. Vaudeville shows, plays, musical concerts, boxing matches and high school graduations were also common occurrences in the theater during the early days. During the 1930’s and 40’s the theater became a popular place for dancing as big band and swing music became the rage. The flat floor was also popular as a skating rink during the 1950s.
The two storefronts on the first floor of the building provided income for the building’s owners during the early years. Among the tenants were a ten-pin bowling alley and a barbershop. Dressing rooms were located in the rear of the first floor and reached the theater stage above by a stairwell. A cistern located under the first floor not only provided water to the building, but also was vented to the stage to provide cool air during the summer months.
The top story of the building was built as the headquarters for the Red Men’s Lodge, complete with small office rooms and a large ball room where the organization’s meetings and ceremonies were held. Unfortunately, the organization only stayed in the building until 1912 when they went bankrupt from debt incurred building the structure.
The building was purchased from the Red Men by area businessman, Mr. David Lewis who converted the left hand storefront into a silent movie theater called the Linda Theater in the early 1920’s. He eventually sold it to Mr. Louis Hatem. During the early 1930’s Mr. Hatem remodeled the theater with elegant seating and décor and installed the first talking movie projectors in the Hocking Valley, bringing movie patrons from all over the region to the town. He converted the right hand storefront into an elegant lounge and confectionery for his movie operation, and named it the “New Linda Theater.” The first floor dressing rooms became an apartment for his family as stage shows in the Main Theater were fading from the entertainment scene. Mr. Hatem successfully operated the movie theater here until 1959. Several generations of Shawnee citizens have fond memories of attending the movies at this location.
After the movie theater closed in the late 1950’s the Hatem family vacated the building, with Mr. Hatem using the Main Theater for storage. A fire in the building adjacent to the Red Men’s Hall in the 1960’s severely damaged the theater roof. Unrepaired, water began to pour through the structure causing excessive damage to the building’s floors and plaster walls.
In 1976 Mr. Hatem agreed to sell the building for $500 to a demolition company who wanted to salvage the valuable steel I-Beams in the structure. Local citizen Skip Ricketts who was operating a diner down the street from the theater overheard their plans. Alarmed at the loss of this town landmark, he approached Mr. Hatem and offered him $500 for the building. Mr. Hatem agreed to sell it to him. Ricketts had to borrow $500 from his father to make the purchase. He then joined with three other of the town’s younger citizens to form a non-profit organization to own and save the building. The group renamed the building the Tecumseh Theater in honor of the great Shawnee Indian chief Tecumseh and those who supported it became known as the Tecumseh Theater Group.
The first project of the group was to completely replace the building’s roof and repair broken windows in 1977. Several dozen idealistic young adults took on this project with the help of a local roofer as their foreman. Then dozens of truck loads of rotted debris and plaster had to be removed over the next several years, a project completed by summer youth workers. Failing roof trusses became the next project, followed by engineering studies and architectural plans. It was clear that the task of restoring the building was much larger and more expensive than ever dreamed, but the job of “mothballing” the building had been accomplished.
The financial reality of owning a building and paying the debt incurred by repairs led to the institution of a number of annual fundraising events. These activities became part of the local culture. A Concert in The Park series was started in 1977 and ran through 2006 featuring local musicians and homemade ice cream in the Saltlick Township Memorial Park down the street from the theater. The Walter Harrop Classic adult men’s basketball tournament ran from 1977 until 2001 held first at the Shawnee School and then Miller High School raising substantial funds for the building’s operating expenses. It was replaced by the Sis Norris Classic, a youth girl’s basketball tournament which ran until 2011. These events not only helped the theater but honored two beloved Shawnee citizen athletes, Walter Harrop, the dean of coaches in southeastern Ohio who coached many successful Shawnee High School Indian teams from the 1920’s to the 1960’s, and Alice “Sis” Norris Harbarger, a star girls basketball player at SHS during the 1930’s who is now a member of the Ohio High School Basketball Hall of Fame.
In addition to the above activities, the Tecumseh Theater Group has become known for being a reliable food vendor at various community events, including the annual Little Cities of Black Diamonds Day held each October.
While fundraisers paid the bills, funds raised via grants and loans to Sunday Creek Associates have also slowly brought life back into this landmark building. In 1984 water, electric and temporary sewage services were installed. In the late 1980’s a new rubber membrane roof replaced the 1976 version. In 1992 the group formed a relationship with Sunday Creek Associates, a non-profit community development organization. With Sunday Creek’s support a grant from the National Trust for Historic Preservation matched with a new loan led to the first occupant returning to the building in over 30 years. The Shawnee Branch of the Perry County District Library made the left hand storefront its new home in 1993. A year later a loan financed the renovation of the first floor apartment, bringing a second tenant to the building.
In 1993 Sunday Creek Associates began management of the property and its tenants, while the original theater group continued to raise funds to pay loan debt, property taxes and insurance on the building.
In 2008, a $400,000 restoration to the exterior of the building was funded via matching grants from the U. S. Department of the Interiors Save America’s Treasures program and the State of Ohio’s Governor’s Office of Appalachia to Sunday Creek Associates. The project installed new exterior windows and doors to the building, tuck pointing, fire escape repair and return of the exterior of the first floor left hand side storefront facade to its original state.
In 2009, Sunday Creek Associates was able to trade a lot in town for the series of lots next the theater building providing space for development adjacent to the park.
In 2010 the Perry County District Library board abruptly closed the Shawnee Branch at a time when contracts were being let to renovate the left hand side of the first floor to expand the library. This action was taken due to cuts made in state funding to libraries. Faced with contract obligations and a strong desire to maintain progress on the building, loans to finance the renovations were utilized and the left hand side renovation was completed in late 2011, including installation of historic pocket doors that connected the two storefronts. The connected first floor was renamed the Tecumseh Commons and the space was made available to the public as a multi-purpose space complete with a visitor’s information area and wireless internet cafe.
In 2012, the original theater group disbanded as a non-profit organization, turning ownership of the building over to Sunday Creek Associates. The group remains intact as “Tecumseh Theater Friends” supporting activities at the Tecumseh Commons. Skip Ricketts and Judy Fankhauser, Diana and Roger McCauley, Cindy Hartman and John Winnenberg, and Sandra Landis have voluntarily anchored this group since the 1980’s and remain involved in the theater’s operation to this day.
Today, the Tecumseh Commons provides space for a variety of cultural programs, rentals for weddings, parties and conferences, a visitor’s center and the voting place for the village of Shawnee. It provides the momentum needed to continue the journey toward the challenging, but doable task of restoring the splendid second story opera house located above and making Shawnee the center for entertainment in the Hocking Valley coal fields as it was during the boom era of over a century ago.