Robins Project seeks to reuse former theater

WARREN – The former Robins Theater on East Market Street could become a jazz club. Or a dinner theater. Or even an aquarium. Whatever transformation takes place, one thing is certain: It will be a community effort.

On Saturday, Warren G. Harding and Howland high school students – natural rivals – played on the same team as they cleared out boxes, tiles, tubes and other things from the front of the old building.

Melissa Holmes, an area resident and a graduate of The Milano School for International Affairs, Management and Urban Policy, a division of The New School, is co-organizer of the Robins Project. She calls it a grassroots effort to renovate the beloved site.

“It’ll be really cool stuff if it shapes up the way we want,” she said.

About 15 students, including several coaches from both schools, participated in Saturday’s cleanup.

“I actually never knew it was here,” Harding student Victoria Woods said.

Holmes said many people in her generation and younger don’t know about the theater, which is one thing she is trying to change. By spreading the word about Robins Theater, generations young and old can have a part in what the theater will become, as it will likely play a role in the lives of their children.

“We’re gathering community input of how we should reuse this space,” Holmes said.

Over the years, there have been numerous discussions about bringing back a theater to downtown. Revitalization of the Robins is part of the Poggemeyer study from which the city’s 10-point strategic plan was developed.

Holmes called the Robins Project the “catalyst” to revitalizing downtown Warren.

Built in 1923 by Dan Robins, the theater flaunted an ornate staircase, three tear-drop chandeliers and giant curtains as the biggest facility of its kind between Pittsburgh and Cleveland. Much of the theater, which closed in 1974, remains intact.

The Robins theater was purchased by the Phillips family in the early 1980s.

New School students, some of whom have already visited the Mahoning Valley, are working to develop connections with local young people in an effort to transform the Robins complex into a creative hub of the downtown area.

Holmes said the effort will also be supported by volunteers, skilled laborers, community leaders and organizations. The project is being approached in three phases: phase one involves the marquee; phase two, the lobby; and phase three, the larger theater.

The hope is that the majority of the work will be done by volunteers or skilled laborers, and several federal grants are also being targeted to fund the project.

The new building likely won’t become a movie theater, as research suggests the economy won’t support a single-screen movie theater in Warren. But that doesn’t mean it won’t be able to function as a theater at least in part, she said.