Last week, an exhibit I’ve been working on for a number of years opened at the Buskirk-Chumley Theater. “A Thing of Beauty and a Joy Forever”: The History of Bloomington’s Community Theater recounts the history of a nearly-century-old venue just off the downtown square in Bloomington, Indiana. Today, the building is known as the Burkirk-Chumley Theater, a six-hundred-seat performing arts venue that has played a significant role in the revitalization of downtown Bloomington over the past fifteen years. Before that, the building housed the Indiana Theatre, an 1,100-seat movie palace built in 1922.
The roots of the current exhibit go back about ten years, when I conducted preliminary research into the history of the building, which is part of the Bloomington Downtown Square National Register District. From this project came a much more basic exhibit designed to answer some common questions from visitors about the history of the theater, which–after a period of decline–was renovated to reflect its 1930s heyday as part of its conversion into a contemporary performing arts hall.
A few years ago, the theater received funding from Indiana Humanities to conduct further research into two aspects of the Indiana Theatre’s past: the desegregation of the theater in the 1940s and the immigrant history represented by the Indiana Sweet Shop, a candy store housed in one of the building’s storefronts, which operated for over sixty years. The effort involved the expansion of the original history exhibit to include both the new research and more of the original research than made it into the first exhibit.
I was brought on as the project historian, performing documentary research, conducting oral histories, and creating the text for the ultimate exhibit. Jennifer Hottell, a Bloomington-based graphic designer, joined the team to reconceptualize the visual presentation of the information. The final result–incorporating my research, Jenn’s design, and oversight and input from the Buskirk-Chumley’s executive director Danielle McClelland–is a multi-media exploration of this theater, Bloomington history, and the movie palace era in general. It will be on permanent display at the Buskirk-Chumley until the theater’s hundredth anniversary in 2022.