Misner: White elephant or community asset?
Glencoe 12/13/12 Central School principal Dr. Ryan Mollet sits inside of Misner Auditorium, a 912-seat theater that predates the school. | Michelle LaVigne ~ Sun-Times Media
The District 35 School Board recently approved the preparation of bid documents for a geothermal heating project at Central School, but it’s unclear whether they will pay for the inclusion of the Misner Auditorium.
For more on the story turn to page 33.
Updated: February 12, 2013 2:21PM
GLENCOE — Whither Misner Auditorium?
The venerable, 912-seat theater, built through Jazz Age public donations, was intended as a community venue for meetings and entertainment.
Those days seem long gone.
As the Glencoe School District 35 Board struggles over whether to include the building, attached to Central School, in a plan for updated heating and cooling, others want it returned to its status as a community focal point.
They include Glencoe Trustee Larry Levin, just slated by the Glencoe Caucus as its village president candidate, who said Dec. 13 that the school district was entrusted with the auditorium’s care after receiving it as a gift almost 85 years ago.
“Once I am president, I expect to initiate discussions with the School Board about how best to facilitate the maintenance of Misner as a village asset,” he said.
He said the district should consider starting with the $300,000 estimated to include Misner in the planned $4.8 million geothermal heating and cooling system.
“If you’re about to do geothermal, about to make major changes, and you can do so (for Misner) at a nominal cost, you should,” Levin said. “What remains is lighting, seating, structural, to work on all those things going forward.”
The auditorium seemed far from a School Board priority Dec. 10, when members put off a decision to include Misner in the low-cost energy project, which would bring centralized air-conditioning to the school for the first time. Some board members questioned whether it was even worth it to drill enough geothermal-exchange holes in the school’s back yard to accommodate adding the auditorium at a future date.
The hesitation prompted an audience comment from Laurie Morse, a member of the village Sustainability Working Group.
“If it’s left out of this proposal, I would expect there to be a proposal for a demolition permit 10 years from now,” she said of Misner.
She added later, “If it continues to decline in use, continues to fall to the bottom of the building priority list, like any other facility, if neglected, it will no longer be safe to use.”
The 1928 auditorium appears attractive and relatively comfortable.
“About half the seats wobble,” District Business Manager Jason Edelheit said Dec. 11.
“Wherever you sit, you’ve got about 50 percent chance of wobbling from one side to the other when you shift your weight.”
He also noted that the stage lighting system is fixed and outmoded.
He said the district received an estimate of $3 million in 2009 to completely refurbish the auditorium, including modernization of stage lighting, but the district didn’t budget it because it wasn’t an educational priority.
“We use it very little academically,” he said. “They use it for the play (the annual Glencoe Junior High Project production) and about three assemblies a year.”
It’s actually used a few more times a year than that, mainly for concerts, Central Principal Ryan Mollet said.
“Misner is an amazing facility, a terrific space, that allows us to bring our students together,” Mollet said Dec. 12.
Levin said that some consider the theater’s long-term maintenance outside the responsibility of the school district, because of its provenance.
“I agree that thought is out there, and that thought is incorrect,” he said.
“It was a gift to the school system, and part of the gift is the responsibility to maintain it.”
Misner was home, in recent years, to both the Highland Park Players and the Glencoe Actors Company, both told by school administrators to leave.
“We started out in Glencoe, and all of a sudden they decide, ‘No, we’d rather it sit empty,’” said Marlon Barden, founder of the Glencoe stage group, which changed its name to The Actors Company. “As the man said when he kicked us out, ‘This is not a theater. This is a school auditorium.’
“It was built originally as a theater for the community of Glencoe, and lo and behold, they attached it to the school.”
It’s not a typical grammar school auditorium. It’s closer to what one sees in a high school or in the public sector, with significant space backstage and a towering area behind the curtain in which to raise sets.
“It’s got nice wing space, and great fly space,” Barden said, adding that the only problem she had with the venue was the necessity to bring in expensive light and sound equipment for musicals.
The troupe used Misner between 1997 and 2008, paying $5,000 annually for four weeks, Barden said.
“It’s a beautiful facility,” she said. “If they really wanted to make money, they could rent it out for a whole lot more if they fixed it up.”
She noted that Writers Theatre, seeking funds to build a new building north of uptown, is unlikely to ever welcome community theater into its venue, since its top-quality productions demand use of the stage throughout the year.
“There are very few places that can hold this number of people,” Levin said of Misner. “It could be used for a variety of purposes. Many performing companies would like to use it, and many school or park district programs could use it.
“To do that effectively going forward, you need to maintain it.”
Even as it is, it’s in demand.
“If you could get them to let me in, I’d love to come back,” Barden said.