A Screen of Dreams

 A Screen of Dreams

Miamisburg’s historic Plaza Theater reintroduces classic movie-house style.

By Jennifer Patterson Lorenzetti

On Christmas Day in 1919, the Plaza Theater in Miamisburg opened its doors for the first time. On Christmas Day 2015, it opened its doors once again to show the Dayton area a completely refurbished classic movie house intended to help make Miamisburg a destination for those in the area hoping to shop, eat and be entertained. Appropriately enough, the first movie shown in the new Plaza Theater was Field of Dreams, because the renovation is a triumph of belief in that movie’s iconic tag line: “If you build it, they will come.”

Recapturing History

According to Doug Sorrell, one of the committee members charged with the renovation of the Plaza, the theater operated as a movie house for over 40 years, finally ceasing to show general audience movies in the 1960s. At the time, there was a rumor that the theater might be purchased by someone who wanted to use the property to show adult films, so Sorrell’s father stepped in and bought the property. Sorrell’s Western Shop operated in the space from 1969 until 1993. “We filled the low spot with pea gravel and poured a new slab” before beginning operation, Sorrell says.

After its time as a Western apparel store, the building went through a variety of owners and was vacant until 2002, when Miamisburg’s Joe Harrison bought the building. “When old buildings came available, he would buy them so they could be renovated,” Sorrell says. The time was right for the Plaza to join the other buildings being renovated to contribute to Miamisburg’s revival. This revival is turning Miamisburg from a somewhat-dated small town on the Dayton periphery into a lively destination spot filled with interesting shopping, unique food, multiple entertainment options and all the character that one might expect from a small river town with a big history.

The Plaza Theater project could not have happened, however, without a committee of 10 local residents and a solid plan for what the property would become. The first plan—to restore the theater into a venue showing first- and second-run movies—didn’t excite Sorrell. “I didn’t think it would work. We’d just be seeing how cheap we could sell tickets,” he says, noting that the theater would be in direct competition with a variety of area multiplex theaters as well as the various discount and dollar-saver theaters.

However, Sorrell got excited when the plan changed to the Plaza Theater showing classic movies. “People are attracted to nostalgia,” he says. Some armchair marketing research bears this idea out. The television dial is filled with channels dedicated to classic TV shows and classic movies, and first-run cinemas are filled with remakes and reboots of old favorites. The time seems to be right for a theater showing classic films.

Putting the Plan into Action

The first thing the renovation needed, of course, was money. That’s where Sorrell’s talent came in. Working through Downtown Miamisburg Inc., a 501(c)(3) nonprofit corporation, he could raise money from donors who could make tax-deductible contributions, in some cases spreading their commitment over five years. In December 2014, the project found its first two donors, who contributed a total of $600. Today, the project stands at contributions over $400,000. Some 23 donors contributed a bulk of the money, around $373,000. 

Even with the donations, the project needed a construction loan to be sure that cash was readily available during the renovation. Since this was a local, Miamisburg project, Sorrell went to Farmers & Merchants Bank, a locally owned financial institution that was pleased to back a community project. Other Dayton-area businesses were happy to help provide data and advice. For example, the Little Art Theater in Yellow Springs gave information about budgeting that formed the basis of the Plaza Theater’s business plan. Finally, it was time to start work.

When construction began, the old theater was far from impressive. “We had an empty box with a sagging truss and a slanted floor,” says Sorrell. In fact, the sagging truss was one of the biggest problems to overcome. However, installation of some support poles restored the truss to proper alignment and allowed the building to be saved. 

For all that the project is about honoring the historic past of the town and its theater, visitors will find much that is state-of-the-art about the Plaza Theater. It offers 285 seats, full digital projection onto a 34-foot screen, and IMAX sound, all combining to make the experience of watching classic movies like Gone with the Wind or Casablanca a unique experience.

The Plaza will be open Thursday through Sunday as it begins operation, with possible expansion into other days for special events or to meet demands. Admission will be $5 per person, and the concession stand will be decidedly old school, selling, Sorrell says, “popcorn, soda pop and a couple of kinds of candy.” This stripped-down concession menu is a deliberate response to the full-scale meals available at some of the multiplex theaters. The purpose of the Plaza Theater is not to be a one-stop experience, but to entice visitors to come to Miamisburg. “Our intent is to break even and get people to shop downtown and eat at our restaurants. We’re not competing with any of our local businesses,” Sorrell says.

The re-opening of the Plaza Theater comes as something of a dream come true for Sorrell and his committee of locals who combined time and talents to see a classic business back in action in Miamisburg. The choice of Field of Dreams as the first film shown is, indeed, a good one. Like the hero, who built a baseball diamond in his cornfield, Miamisburg has invested in a somewhat unlikely renovation, hoping that, if they built it, Dayton area visitors would come.