ELKHART — When the Lerner Theatre opened more than a year ago, its schedule was mostly blank.
Now, more than a year later, the theater is bustling with activity, from legendary country singers to community events. More than 100,000 people have attended events there.
The city of Elkhart renovated the former Elco Theater and added to the building starting in 2009 after city officials agreed to undertake the massive project. It cost $18 million.
The Lerner opened in May 2011 and the grand opening was held in June with a number of events. Since opening, the Lerner has featured War, Kansas, George Jones and Willie Nelson. General manager David Smith points to the Nelson concert as one of the key milestones in the Lerner’s first year after the renovation.
“This venue is capable of supporting headline performers,” he said of the sold-out performance.
The theater is bringing country legend Merle Haggard in August and tickets have been selling well so far.
When most people think of the Lerner, they think of the theater. But there’s more to the space. Premier Arts, the resident theater group, works in the lower level area, while the Crystal Ballroom also hosts performers and rents out the space to other groups. They host numerous weddings and other private events, while the Cittadine Room seats smaller crowds.
“For me that’s when it kind of clicked,” said Smith, who is an Elkhart city employee. “That so much can be going on at any given time.”
In the year since its opening, the facility has been busy — busier than its organizers thought it would be. Jack Cittadine, project director of Lerner construction, said he thought the theater had been holding up well considering the amount of traffic it has seen. After a recent one-year inspection, there was only a small list of things that needed to be fixed.
“It’s a tribute to the Lerner staff that the maintenance has been superb,” he said.
In late April, it was announced that Indiana Landmarks, a nonprofit group that promotes historical places in the state and works to restore them, was awarding the city of Elkhart the Cook Cup for Outstanding Restoration for the work they did on the Lerner. Even Cittadine, who was heavily involved in the Lerner’s construction, said that he didn’t think the theater would look as good as it does.
“Sometimes those things don’t turn out as well as you think looking at a blueprint,” he said.
Since the theater has been open for more than a year, they’ve seen a few repeat events, including the YMCA dance recital and the proms for Elkhart Central and Memorial high schools.
“It just gives you a reassurance that you’re doing things right,” Smith said.
Officials are hoping to expand the endowment program, which will help with the expense of running a theater the size of the Lerner. Downtown Elkhart will work to promote shows as part of a fund created by donations.
They will have a pipe organ installed in August with a celebration for it planned in October. There will be no events in the theater for three weeks during the installation, but the rest of the theater, such as the Crystal Ballroom, would be available.
The Lerner is more than a theater in downtown Elkhart. To many, it’s a symbol of how a city that has faced extreme hardship could still create something successful.
“Certainly the grand opening was a terrific milestone,” Cittadine said. “Because it showed that we could do a first-class, world-class theater in Elkhart at a time when a lot of the country had counted us out.”