Diana Watters

"FUTURE HOME OF the New Franklin Theatre. A multi-cultural community arts center." These optimistic words--painted on the dirty, mint-green doors of the abandoned theater in the Chicago/Franklin area--read like an ironic epitaph following the neighborhood's recent money scandal. "What kind of home could the People of Phillips offer now?" many asked after PoP, Minneapolis's largest neighborhood organization, was shut down January 15 following a state audit that concluded the group had mismanaged its finances. Roughly $300,000 of Neighborhood Revitalization Program funds were left unaccounted for--one-third of which, according to a KARE 11 report, had been allocated to the theater-renovation project.

"That was misleading," says Corrie Zoll, a board member of the New Franklin Cultural Center, Inc. He says his organization split from PoP last summer: that it wasn't shut down, and that the new group is moving full speed ahead with its desire to have the theater up and running by the end of this year.

Zoll's group is certainly well-intentioned, if perhaps a bit over-ambitious, considering the current condition of the space. Frankly, the theater is a wreck: Graffiti covers the walls, stacks of theater seats are piled in a corner, and frosty air blows through its three large bay areas. But as Zoll related the theater's rich history and the NFCC's plans for the space, you couldn't help but understand why someone would want to get this giant-boulder-of-a-plan rolling.

When the Franklin Theater was built in 1915, it was the first silent movie house in the (then-)suburban metro; estimates say it once seated up to 1,000 people. In the '30s, the existing façade was added in order to compete with the theater that is now the In the Heart of the Beast puppet theater. Then, in the '70s, the core audience changed when the infamous Ferris Alexander bought the theater and switched to a repertoire of "blue" movies.

By now, there isn't much left from the theater's glory days. Although NFCC hopes to uncover the building's original, stain-glass façade and salvage some of the intricate woodwork arches, the group must, in essence, start again from scratch. And what they plan to do with the space once it's completed remains to be determined.

"The programming isn't set in stone yet," Zoll says. "But we hope to rent the space to theater companies and we would like to have an art gallery. We've been talking with people who want to rent out part of the space for a coffee shop, and in the future, we hope to provide a dark room and editing facilities."

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