Restoring a beauty: Mishler reopens after more than $400,000 of improvements

Mirror photo by Gary M. Baranec Workers began installing seating and carpeting at the Mishler Theatre in downtown Altoona this summer. The set on the stage is for the upcoming show “Porches.”

Altoona residents Ann Benzel and Christopher Cook admit they enjoy people watching at the historic Mishler

Theatre.

“I can tell the first-timers,” Cook said. “They ‘ooh’ and ‘aah’ as they look around and, especially when they look up.”

Benzel said, “I have to admit that I spend a great deal of time watching the audience when I attend a performance. It thrills me when I don’t recognize a large percentage of the faces in the audience. I especially enjoy it when I see someone pointing to the ceiling or some other aspect enthralled as first-time visitors. I have to say I am still in awe of what has been accomplished in the restoration of the interior.

We are so fortunate to have this in our midst.”

After a two-month closing and $400,000-plus in interior improvements, the Mishler reopens Aug. 24 and provides much to admire: An historically accurate refresh of the 1906 theater founded by Isaac Charles Mishler.

This interior project exceeded original cost estimates by $100,000, said Kate Shaffer, executive director of the Blair County Arts Foundation. The carpet cost $48,000 — more than double the estimate and considerably more than the $9,700 spent when first installed 20 years ago. The new carpet picks up the electric red of the metal supports of the seats and is complemented with gold and green tones.

Benzel and Cook are both Blair County Arts Foundation members and have labored with love at the community’s treasured theater albeit in different ways: Benzel uses her business and fundraising acumen while Cook uses his theatrical talents, artistic and restoration skills.

As an apprentice, Cook assisted with the restoration of stained glass panels in the foyer and most recently, he and his employees at Cook’s Painting and Renovation, Inc. replaced flooring prior to carpet installation and refinished the aisle standards installed in 1999.

The plain, white cast iron aisle standards transformed into miniature works of art embellished in golds, purples, pinks and blues under Cook’s efforts, said Shaffer. The colors complement the red legs of the new seats produced by Irwin Seating Inc., a nationally-recognized firm in the theater industry.

Janie Hite of Altoona, a member of BCAF for the 14 years, said, “These renovations are a major hurdle to over come. It’s both aesthetic and practical as the seats were much needed. We’ve tried to be as original as possible in the restorations. It’s a wonderful community centerpiece that allows so many cultural activities to be showcased.”

The mission of BCAF is a historically accurate restoration while upgrading functional aspects. In 1992 a building evaluation and feasibility study estimated a one million dollar cost with an additional $60,000 in professional fees to stabilize and bring the building up to code, said Benzel, who has been intimately involved with restoration fundraising since 1992.

“Those were difficult dollars to raise,” she said, referring to the early days. “People did not get overly excited about contributing to smoke detectors, bricks and mortar or plumbing modifications particularly in a theater that was not well utilized because of all its drawbacks. We remained persistent in our efforts, conducting campaign after campaign, writing grant after grant, and through the efforts of then Senator (Robert) Jubelirer and Representative (Rick) Geist, we were able to scratch all 11 items from our list,” Benzel said.

“However, it was the public that touched me most during that time period, children proudly bringing us jars of pennies gathered in their classrooms, an elderly gentleman from Gallitzin who sent five dollars along with a post card from the ‘girlie’ shows he had once attended, a church Sunday school class who purchased a brick for $25. To date we have raised a total of $3 million in our restoration effort. It’s been a long, long process but so, so worth it in every respect. It has caused me some sleepless nights but I have come to love the Mishler and all it represents. The community has also come to love the Theatre.”

As evidenced, Benzel said, by the public’s support of the seat campaign, dubbed “Funds for Buns,” which has touched her the most. While BCAF is the owner of the Theatre, Benzel said, its stewards “have always believed that the Theatre truly belongs to the people and the community has stepped up in a big way to demonstrate this …”

Earlier plans discussed reducing the number of seats, described as “badly deteriorated” and “uncomfortable” by Benzel and Shaffer, ultimately the renovations retained the original 835-seat capacity. “People were so much smaller when the theater was built,” Shaffer explained. “All the seats have more rear end room and room side-to side,” she said. “We’re doing the best we can to enhance comfort. … We had a wonderfully successful public fundraising campaign. People have responded so generously.” Shaffer said, noting BCAF received a $150,000 grant from the Pennsylvania Department of Community and Economic Development through the awarding of a Keystone Communities Grant.

“Kate Shaffer and I often joke about living long enough to see the total restoration,” Benzel said. “Back in 1992, I recollect someone telling me that the Mishler is a bottomless pit and I was crazy for taking this project on. I suppose in some respect the “bottomless pit” aspect will always be true. With any structure, particularly a structure over 100 years old, things will always wear out and break down. But crazy, I don’t think so! We feel secure at this point that there will be someone there after we are gone to step up in and take are of our beloved Mishler Theatre! We are really proud of this accomplishment and thank everyone for their support.”

Mirror staff writer Patt Keith can be reached at 949-7030.

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