Historic Monon Depot

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THEN CAME THE MONON

All through the 70s, Civic people in small groups and more formal settings had voiced their yearning for a facility larger than the cement block workshop—"for a classy theatre all our own." The thirsting mounted into continuous craving. Many contend that the drive for a permanent home was Civic's finest example of community cooperation, organization, and involvement.

This part of the story is fascinating. Russ Howland put it this way: "Studies were done, sites explored, plans made and discarded." Finally in May 1980, Civic found the perfect place: the old Monon Depot, a sturdy old stone building erected in 1901 in downtown on Fifth Street. After much investigation, study, and soul-searching, a leap of faith was taken; a fund-drive began—and the rest is history.

Appreciating the rich heritage of downtown, Civic acquired and remodeled the old Monon depot building, which by 1980 was in its last stages of deterioration. Alice Sullivan remembers from her present Colorado mountain home: "A fun event was the rainy night we all celebrated acquiring title to the old Monon. There was neither heat nor electricity. The inside was a damp, dark, cavernous barn. We had good food, good drink, many happy people, and little light. I think we used flashlights and lanterns. I remember someone taking a picture of Kathy Matter holding an upraised umbrella. The roof was leaking like crazy. What a night."

Immediate Past Board President Susie Essig Moore: "A recent event supports a contention that rain and Civic mesh into memorable nights. At the opening performance of Civic Under the Stars at the County Amphitheater in the summer of 1996, showers resulted in a 20-minutes 'rain break.' We were all herded into the crowded entrance. Charlie Shook, who chairs the high profile task force pursuing the renovation of the Long Center, commented to me after the how: 'The rain break was great! I talked to so many people I hadn't seen for weeks. I'm glad it rained—and the show (Annie, Get Your Gun) was fantastic to boot'."

After acquiring title to the Monon in 1980, Civic launched a fund drive to raise $300,000 needed to convert the old railroad depot into a modern, attractive, and well-equipped small theatre. President Tom Moran (1981-1983) recalls, "Civic was entering its 51st season and had badly needed a good performing facility for years. We became seriously interested in the abandoned Monon Depot about six years before when then-president, Laird Kleine-Ahlbrandt, first recognized it possibilities. He talked the rest of us into it, obtained grants from the Indiana Arts Commission, and worked closely with our architect, Dean Upshaw, to develop the basic design."

O.U. Sullivan, who had served as president for three terms, chaired Civic's fund drive. By the time the remodeling was complete, Marilyn Howland, who was then heading the office crew, could report that the drive has raised nearly $400,000. A third of the money had come from the loyal membership and most of the rest from local businesses, industry, institutions, and individuals. Conversion and modernization began late in 1980. It was also envisioned that the new building could be used as a meeting hall for other events. Van Phillips, Civic's theatrical design consultant on the project described the result as "very nearly an ideal facility for this town and the cost has been a fraction of what it would have taken to build a comparable facility from scratch"

The successful capital campaign, conducted under the triple umbrella of Preservation, Downtown, and Culture, transformed a dying building into an intimate gem of a theatre now seating 189. Many were actively involved in the search for at least the initial funding.

Whom are we most to thank for this benchmark accomplishment? There's an old trite saying that "Success has a hundred parents but failure is a bastard." Different people give varying replies to the above question, but almost everyone involved in the work that led to the acquisition and restoration of the Monon would quickly mention O.U. Sullivan, Jim Stengenga, Tom Moran, and Marlyin Howland as probably the primary catalysts.

In the fall of 1981, Civic people reveled in a weeklong celebration opening the refurbished Monon. No longer folding chairs for the spectators, as in the workshop—there were plush seats! True, there was no proscenium stage, to the disappointment of some traditionalists, but a workable modified thrust stage. Preservationists applauded the remodeling as a classic example of adaptive use.

The Civic restoration achievement was acclaimed in an editorial in the Journal and Courier September 19, 1981: "Members and supporters of Civic Theatre deserve a world of credit for having the imagination, and then the perseverance, to buy, finance, and remodel the old Monon Depot into a theatre for downtown Lafayette. Today's open house marks a new life for the vintage 1901 depot and a remarkable achievement for Civic Theatre on behalf of us all."

For five nights in September 1981, Civic staged a Golden Gala opening. Tom Lee, Kathy Matter, and Dick Jaeger formed the core committee. There was a musical tribute to the Monon, conceived and directed by Dick Jaeger with a cast of twenty-five singers, dancers, and musicians (dubbed the Broadway Showstoppers). The performance was narrated by Dorothy (sic) Harlan, who had enchanted innumerable Lafayette audiences, and after whom the present on-site workshop is named, making what was to be her final appearance on a community stage.

From the printed program, "Welcome to the Golden Gala Opening of the Monon Depot Theatre September 15-19, 1981: A special thanks goes to all our financial contributors. Thanks from everyone who loves Civic. You have given the dream wings."

The first production of the initial season of the Monon was the charming I Do, I Do, which starred Karl Brant and Willie Jean Deutch in a two character show. The show is scheduled to be reprised in the summer of 1998. The latter continued to perform in Civic musicals before moving from Lafayette in the mid-80s. Brant, among numerous on stage appearances, earlier was memorable in Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof and has been a valuable board member.

In 1991, the Monon was given a bit of a face-lift. The seating was stripped out, refilled, and increased by 37 to its present capacity of 189. Much needed office in a small building across Fifth Street was acquired. Regrettably creative minds found no way to expand the woefully inadequate backstage area, the tiny dressing rooms, and the nonexistent fly space. About the same time, Troy Longest, who has directed several musical hits for Civic, created an attractive mural which evokes theater of the east side of the oft-maligned storage/workshop building.

-From Stage Memories and Curtain Calls, by Jim Hanks

The Historic Monon Depot Theatre