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Award-winning theater a boon to downtown Huntington business

Thursday, November 8, 2012 - 8:53 am

Recently winning the 2012 Business of the Year Award from Indiana Main Street gives Huntington Theatre owners Rich Najuch and Joel Froomkin a sense of approval and their business has spurred others in Huntington to make improvements.

“It's really nice because it helps validate what we do, and the value of the arts in the community,” Najuch said.

The duo, who have renovated the theater they bought five years ago and a building next door, has spent a lot of time trying to convince people that what they have is a real business and not just a frivolous thing, Najuch said.

Najuch was given the award, which encourages economic development and improvements to downtown Indiana cities and towns, during last month's statewide Indiana Main Street Conference, held in downtown Kokomo.

Rose Wall of the Main Street Huntington program nominated Najuch and Froomkin, and within several days of submitting the application, they were chosen to receive the statewide award.

They are trying to start a business that will have a big impact in the community and the award helps to confirm this.

“One of the things Rosie said in her letter was a lot of people in downtown Huntington consider us their economic stimulus package,” Froomkin said.

Both agreed things are going very well. They recently sold their 15,000th ticket since opening the theater. In addition, 17 grants for fašade and renovation work to other downtown businesses have taken place since they began their own project.

The two have owned the theater since 2007 when they relocated from Manhattan. Following their dream, they had searched online and found dozens of old theaters to choose from, they picked 12 to visit. On their 12th visit they went to an old movie theater in downtown Huntington.

The 1904 building at 528 N. Jefferson St. was in good repair, the roof didn't leak and it had no major structural problems. The two liked the building and the welcoming attitude of the downtown merchants.

They have repaired and renovated the theater lobby and the building next to it, creating a cabaret-style dinner theater in the lobby. Now, having renovated spaces in the next-door building for a rehearsal studio and an apartment for the show's music and stage director to stay in, they are working on the old theater space.

standing in the gutted old theater, Froomkin said “The thing we wanted to work on first was this, but if you have this done then you wouldn't have a kitchen or a place for actors to live. Our focus for a long time has been on things behind the scenes. We are reaching a state of visual gratification."

Starting last spring two new walls have gone up in the old Huntington Theatre, and the expanded area where the stage will be is beginning to take shape. Most of the labor has been done by a handful of people, including themselves and Najuch's parents.

“Each section of wall costs between $2,000 and $3,000. We pay for it out of the money we make off shows, so we have to have shows to keep going,” Najuch said.

They have 72 seats a night, and their shows this year have been selling at 92 percent capacity. Their talent is recruited from New York City. Out of 300 auditions they selected three women for the Christmas show. Both men said they haven't heard of a single theater renovation like the one they are doing on their own that hasn't been done by a nonprofit foundation or been something that was a civic theater project.

“It's basically a giant, cavernous Mom and Pop's store; that's what's hilarious,” Froomkin said.

That, Najuch said, is why they got the Main Street Award; they are basically a small business.