Bloomington’s Community Theater turns 100 years old this December. As a mainstay of downtown Bloomington for the past century, the Buskirk-Chumley Theater, formerly the “Indiana,” has taken many forms, changed hands, and been inextricably woven into the fabric of this community.
The former Indiana Theatre was built in 1922 as a silent movie house by Harry and Nova Vonderschmitt. On opening night, the theater welcomed a crowd of more than 1,300 people who lined up along Kirkwood Avenue to see “The Storm,” starring House Peters. The Indiana quickly became a popular Bloomington nightspot, and eventually became home to legendary performances by Hoagy Carmichael and his band.
In 1975, the Vonderschmitt family sold the Indiana to Kerasotes Theatres, Inc. who operated it until 1995. In December of that year, 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 the local family generosity to the project.
Since the grand reopening in 1999, the Buskirk-Chumley Theater has been host to a rich variety of films, guest lecturers, and live shows including performances by Arlo Guthrie, John Mellencamp, Richard Thompson, The Indigo Girls, Cowboy Junkies, Andrew Bird, Regina Spektor and many more. The BCT has also become the primary venue for the Lotus World Music Festival, Indiana University’s African American Arts Institute, and Jazz from Bloomington.
“Since the Indiana Theatre opened as a movie theater in 1922, it has been a place for the Bloomington community to gather and share artistic experiences together,” says BCT Executive Director Jonah Crismore. “Just as the theater transformed from the Indiana to the Buskirk Chumley, so did our programming by offering live performances with film. But the core of what we do at the BCT is still providing a nexus and home for the arts in Bloomington, and the community can experience them as one audience.”
In honor of their 100th birthday, the Buskirk-Chumley Theater is kicking off a year- long community celebration this August that will end summer of 2023. This celebration has been dubbed the BCT100 Neon Centennial, named for the beloved dog bone sign and marquee that have illuminated Kirkwood Ave with its neon lights for decades.
Right in the middle of all this excitement will be a special community event this November, welcoming prominent individuals linked to the theater’s history, including: descendants of key historical figures, individuals who helped preserve and restore the building in the 1990s, current and past volunteers, board members, and staff, and members of the Bloomington arts and culture community.
The BCT100 season will feature more BCT Presents events than ever before. The upcoming programming has been curated to appreciate the evolution of Bloomington and Monroe County’s cultural landscape through the lens of the theater’s history. Season programming is supported by four main tent poles: music, film, poetry, & podcasts.
Starting this fall, audiences will get to experience silent films released during the theater’s early days, including works by filmmakers whose work would not have traditionally been given recognition during the Vonderschmitt years. In September, Paul D. Miller, aka DJ Spooky, will perform an original live score for the silent film “Body and Soul.” This film is a masterpiece of the silent screen era, written, directed, and produced by prolific director Oscar Micheaux. Micheaux and his films answered the challenges of racial segregation and provided black moviegoers with an alternative to the mainstream films being produced by a segregated Hollywood. Regarded as a rare work in African American cinematic history, “Body and Soul” boasts biting social commentary on issues of race and gender that went unaddressed by Hollywood for decades and that still resonate today. The BCT will also be featuring silent films such as “The Passion of Joan of Arc” with a live score by L.A. composer George Sarah and a 100th anniversary screening of “Nosferatu,” the first vampire film. Alongside their silent film programming, the BCT will also be presenting its “Hundred Years of Indiana Film” series highlighting films released over the last century with a strong tie to the Hoosier State. All films in the series have a native Hoosier as the director or in a starring role or take place or be set in Indiana.
With support from Morgenstern’s Books, the Neon Centennial is going to be an opportunity for the BCT to introduce styles and genres of performance not typically featured on its stage. Some of the poetry programming the community can look forward to includes a live poetry slam competition, similar to a “Battle of the Bands,” judged by professional scholars and poets and commissioned poems on the historic marquee by artists-in-residence inspiring the community throughout the year.
In spring of 2023, the Buskirk-Chumley Theater will present its first ever podcast festival, with back-to-back live podcast recordings, special panels, meet-and-greets, and workshops. More of that programming will be announced later this year.
Alongside all of this special programming, the BCT’s hallmark music events and concerts will be woven throughout the season to tie everything together. The BCT100 concert series already has an impressive lineup of artists ready to make their BCT debut and help kick off the season. This August alone, the BCT is presenting Grammy® Award winning Christopher Cross, Indy-based Huckleberry Funk, Swedish folk singer songwriter Sofia Talvik, indie rock band Wildermiss, and returning favorite blues guitarist Robert Cray. These offerings are only a taste of the concerts coming to the BCT during its centennial season. Audiences can look forward to these along with a large slate of new announcements coming soon.
Besides hoping to make their new podcasts a regularly occuring event, the theater sees continued growth into the future. “It is my hope we are able to continue to connect the community with the history of the building, so we will expand our ability and capacity to offer more tours,” says Crismore. “It is always a highlight for me to see a small group’s eyes light up when they are backstage and the bright lights in the dressing rooms turn on and they see the signed posters and notes to the theater from all the amazing artists who have graced our stage over the years.”