SHARON, PA. Volunteers clear debris in revival of old theater

A trade school has been asked to have its students do plumbing, electrical and carpentry work.
SHARON, Pa. -- Bob Crosby is looking for volunteer help as the restoration effort on the Columbia Theater resumes.
He's already getting some, from inmates at the State Regional Correctional Facility at Mercer.
Ten inmates from the minimum security prison's Community Work Program have spent the last four Tuesdays at the old theater at 82 W. State St. just cleaning up debris.
They've filled a couple of large trash receptacles and will probably fill a third before the place is cleaned up enough to resume the restoration effort, said Crosby, president and chief executive officer of the Vocal Group Hall of Fame Foundation, which now owns the Columbia.
The foundation bought it from Columbia Theatre Inc. last month for $10,000 after the group, which had been formed with the intent of restoring and reopening the theater as a performing arts center, announced it had given up that effort.
What happened
Sharon native Tony Butala, a member of the singing group The Lettermen and one of the founders of the Vocal Group Hall of Fame & amp; Museum, is spearheading the revitalized restoration effort on the 1,740-seat Columbia.
The theater, built in the early 1920s, has been closed since a fire destroyed its entryway in early 1981.
Years of neglect, a leaky roof and a lack of heat destroyed nearly all of the ornate plaster interior.
Columbia Theatre Inc. put about $1 million into the building and estimated a complete restoration would cost as much as $6 million more.
Crosby and Butala admit they don't have access to that kind of money but they've devised a plan to restore the theater gradually.
The idea is to get it cleaned up enough and satisfy building and safety codes to the point that concerts can be held here, Crosby said during a recent tour of the building.
That may involve draping the unfinished walls with curtains and using portable seats in the auditorium, but a variety of groups honored by the Vocal Group Hall of Fame have offered to put on benefit concerts for the restoration effort, he said.
Complete restoration could take years, he said.
Seeking free help
Getting the place cleaned up is the first step, and Crosby said he has contacted the New Castle School of Trades in Lawrence County, which provides a variety of vocational training programs for adults, to have its students do electrical, plumbing and some carpentry work in the theater.
"It's something that we're looking into," said David McCosby, chairman of the building technology department at the school.
It would be free labor by the students who would work under the supervision of a certified instructor, McCosby said.
Representatives of the school will visit the theater to determine if the work needed to be done is something their students can tackle, he said, noting the school has had students do similar work for other nonprofit groups.
Fred Ruffo, public information officer for the state prison at Mercer, said the Community Work Program consists of three teams of 10 inmates each who are screened and hand-picked to work outside the institution on nonprofit projects.
Sex offenders and murderers are barred from participation, and all of those on the teams are nearing the end of their prison sentences, Ruffo said.
Bob Pinch of Sharon, a former member of the Columbia Theatre Inc. board of directors, has been a key player in making arrangements to get the Operation Outreach and School of Trades teams involved in the theater project.
He's also helped oversee the initial cleanup operations since the Vocal Group Hall of Fame Foundation has taken over.
"We just kept sweeping and sweeping," he said, explaining that the main emphasis was cleaning up the auditorium and balcony areas first.
He said he's recently determined that all of the seats in the theater were stuffed with straw and no longer will meet fire codes. They were to be refurbished but will now have to be replaced, he said.
The theater stage is also seriously deteriorated and will have to be rebuilt, as will the dressing-room floors, he said.
Despite the amount of work to be done, Crosby remains undaunted.
"I'm starting to feel what's here. I want to be here doing this every day," he said.

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