The Tivoli Theatre opened on New Year’s Eve 1928 with the world premiere of the motion picture Shopworn Angel, starring Gary Cooper and Nancy Carroll. According to local papers the Tivoli received congratulatory letters and telegrams from Hollywood stars including Cooper, Norma Shearer, Lon Chaney, Joan Crawford, and Clara Bow, and more than 1,200 people visited the Tivoli during its opening night over the course of two shows.
Spencer artist Ernest Moore “Dick” Viquesney commissioned the theater at a cost of $45,000 and designed the Tivoli with the help of architect Horam Callender, Jr., of Greencastle, IN. Upon its grand opening, national theater publications described the Tivoli as one of the finest small town movie theaters in the country.
The exterior of the Tivoli is Mission Revival Style, with an atmospheric auditorium elegantly designed to resemble an enclosed Spanish garden that features a midnight blue ceiling with twinkling stars, giving the effect of an outdoor theatre. As part of the 2013 restoration this starlight effect was recreated with a detailed constellation pattern matching the star alignment just as it would’ve appeared over Spencer at 9:00 p.m. on December 31, 1928 to pay homage to Viquesney’s vision and the theatre’s history.
During the Tivoli’s early years it showed movies and live stage performances, including vaudeville and concerts. Originally the Tivoli was equipped with a Wicks organ and a piano to accompany the silent movies and stage performances. However, by 1929 most theatres had transitioned to “talkies” and the Tivoli was no exception.
Several people managed the Tivoli over the years, including longtime owners and operators Claude and Edith Flater. After the Flaters sold the Tivoli around 1963, it changed hands a few times before John Walker and Ron Reed purchased it in 1971. The theater underwent renovations in the 1970s including the addition of an extension to the stage, making it more versatile for live performances. Walker and Reed successfully operated the movie theatre for many years.
Two fires damaged the Tivoli in the 1980s. A 1981 fire destroyed the neighboring old armory where it started, and decimated the Viquesney Block to the south. The Tivoli received extensive smoke damage and Walker and Reed spent nearly $50,000 repairing the building. Spencer businessman Norman Dunigan purchased it in 1983, although Walker and Reed continued to operate the theatre. A 1985 fire started in the Tivoli and caused extensive damage to the front part of the building, including the main lobby, foyer, shops, upstairs apartment, marquee, and exterior facade. Although the auditorium escaped catching fire, it once again received smoke damage. The Tivoli reopened after each fire and continued to operate, changing hands once more before finally closing in 1999.
By the time the Tivoli closed in May 1999 the structure had begun to deteriorate. Although owner Mike McCracken extensively repaired the building after the final fire, it never fully recovered from the damage sustained and the theatre continued to fall further into disrepair over the next several years due to a leaky roof and vacancy. A “Friends of the Tivoli” group attempted to restore the theater in 1999 but were unable to purchase the building. However, the campaign was successful in increasing public awareness of the theater’s significance and the importance of saving and restoring it as a community auditorium. With the help of an emergency loan from Indiana Landmarks, Owen County Preservations purchased the Tivoli in 2005 to prevent a scheduled demolition. OCP was able to put protective covenants on the building and took steps to prevent further deterioration, including rebuilding the support system of the roof over the stage area, repairing the roof, and rebuilding the stage. Even though this refurbishment helped preserve the structure, there was still much interior and exterior deterioration. It was apparent that a large financial investment would be required to restore the Tivoli to its former grandeur.
In April 2012 Cook Group Inc. announced that they would sponsor the restoration project on behalf of all employees of Cook Medical in Spencer. Thanks to their generosity, the historic Tivoli Theatre is being fully restored to its former elegance and charm.