The Indiana Theatre – or simply “the Indiana,” as it is known to Bloomington residents – has been a downtown attraction and anchor since its creation. In 2001 it became the Buskirk-Chumley Theater.
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A Downtown fixture Since 1922
The Indiana Theatre – or simply “the Indiana,” as it is known to Bloomington residents – has been a downtown attraction and anchor since its creation.
More information about its history, and the history of downtown movie theaters in general, can be found in our Textillery Gallery exhibit on the top floor of the theater. Stop in for a visit during box office hours or check out the exhibit when you’re here to enjoy a show!
In 1922, when Bloomington’s Indiana Theatre was built by Harry P. Vonderschmitt, he was tapping into a national trend. Stemming from an effort to attract middle-class viewers and enhance the on-screen world of fantasy, movie theaters of the 1920s emphasized luxury. By the late 1920s, Americans were buying 95 million movie tickets each week, and theaters with seating capacities of 5,000 were not uncommon. Rich or poor, young or old, for the price of admission anyone could dream of a better life—more opulent, more romantic, more adventurous—at the movies.
The Storm, starring House Peters and Virginia Valli, was the first movie to play at the Indiana Theatre when it opened its doors on December 11, 1922. A crowd of 1,300 people—nearly 10 percent of Bloomington’s population at the time—turned out on a cold Monday night to celebrate the theater’s opening.
In November 1933, the Indiana Theatre burned nearly to the ground in a fire that destroyed much of the surrounding block and at one point threatened to spread to the Courthouse Square. In all, the blaze caused $200,000 worth of damage ($3.7 million in 2016 dollars), but amazingly, the Vonderschmitts were able to rebuild and reopen within a few months.
Theater fires were common in the early twentieth century, because projection equipment produced a great deal of heat and film was made of highly flammable material. A snagged film could easily start a flame. However, the Bloomington Police ruled the Indiana Theatre fire arson. The mystery of who started the blaze was never solved. Was it a local pyromaniac, as the police suspected, or local union agitators, as the theater’s staff believed?
Hoagy Carmichael, a twentieth-century piano player and composer whose songs include “Georgia on My Mind” and “Heart and Soul,” was born and raised in Bloomington. In the 1920s, his band “Carmichael’s Collegians” used to play at the Indiana Theater, providing live music between the films.
In the 1930s, he moved to Hollywood and began writing songs for—and often appearing in—movies. In 1944, he played the piano player in To Have and Have Not, which also marked the film debut of actress Lauren Bacall. In all, Carmichael acted in fourteen motion pictures.
In 1950, the Indiana Theatre hosted the “Hoosier State Premiere” of Young Man with a Horn, starring Carmichael alongside Kirk Douglas and Doris Day. Most likely, the Vonderschmitts were able to arrange this coveted marketing opportunity because of Carmichael’s early associations with the Indiana.
For the first twenty-five years of its existence, the Indiana Theatre was racially segregated. African American patrons were only permitted to sit in the theater’s balcony, while white patrons could sit anywhere.
This situation changed in 1948. The theater’s manager, A. B. Clark, made a phone call to George Taliaferro, a popular African American football player at Indiana University. Clark invited Taliaferro to bring a date to the Indiana Theatre and sit wherever he liked. Because of Taliaferro’s status as a sports hero, no one challenged his right to sit anywhere in the theater. The next week, he sat on the main floor again, this time with another African American football player and their dates. Again, no one challenged them and thus the Indiana Theatre quietly became racially integrated.
In the late 1960s, College Mall Cinema opened on Bloomington’s east side, creating suburban competition for the Indiana and other downtown movie theaters. This was a period of general decline for the city’s downtown, and the future of the Indiana became even less certain when the last of the theater’s original owners, Nova Vonderschmitt, died in 1974.
The Indiana was spared a closing when the Illinois-based movie chain Kerasotes Theatres stepped in and bought the theater in 1976. Under Kerasotes Theatres’ management, the Indiana continued to show movies for another twenty years.
In January 1995, Kerasotes Theatres closed the Indiana Theatre, two months after expanding the company’s east-side Cineplex from six to eleven screens.
The fate of the downtown building was in question until December 1995 when Kerasotes donated the theater to the Bloomington Area Arts Council (BAAC) for use as a performing arts center. Garnering support from the entire community, the BAAC received donations from many prominent citizens, and the Indiana was renamed the Buskirk-Chumley Theater in honor of a local family’s generosity to the project.
Beautifully restored and outfitted with state-of-the-art technical equipment, the theater’s management was turned over to BCT Management, Inc., a private nonprofit organization with a volunteer Board of Directors, in 2001.
Today the Buskirk-Chumley Theater is the primary venue for the Lotus World Music & Arts Festival, Cardinal Stage Company, the PRIDE Film Festival, and Indiana University’s African American Arts Institute, along with many other local and regional favorites. Nationally-touring acts, including Regina Spektor, Arlo Guthrie, Indigo Girls, Keb’ Mo’, Punch Brothers, and John Mellencamp, grace the BCT stage every year. Local performers, from a child in his first ballet recital to a circus arts showcase featuring Bloomington performers also bring their love of the arts to this historic building.
The theater continues to depend on community support and appreciation of the role this theater has played in downtown Bloomington and south central Indiana. Please consider becoming a donor or sponsor today.