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FIRE CLAIMS KENT THEATRE: Fire investigation ongoing

February 20, 2012

Cory Herron, at the top of the ladder, coordinates strategy with a fellow firefighter. — Post & Mail photo / Nicole Ott

SOUTH WHITLEY — What remains of South Whitley’s longtime movie theater continued to smolder Sunday while shocked residents stared in disbelief and some harkened back to a day when the historic building hosted celluloid images of Gable, Grant and The Duke.
“In 1947, I sold tickets to the Kent Theatre movies and admission was 35 cents then, along with a big bag of popcorn for 10 cents,” said Donna (Wendel) Thomson.
“On Friday and Saturday evenings there were two movies, one at 7 p.m. and one at 9 p.m. and the theater was completely full with both show times.”
The building, located at 220 S. State St., served most recently as the meeting place for Turning Point Church.
But for South Whitley residents, its days of hosting motion pictures will be how the Kent Theatre will be remembered.
Dispatchers at Whitley County Sheriff’s Department received a call at 11:31 a.m. Saturday reporting the building, built in 1947, was on fire.
Fire crews from Cleveland and Washington townships, as well as Columbia City, responded.
Firemen from Columbia City were hoisted above the building by a ladder truck to douse the roof while Cleveland Township firefighters entered an adjacent building to check for collateral damage. No such damage occurred, according to firefighters.
As smoke billowed from the roof of the brick building, local residents began to recall the theater’s beginnings on the heels of World War II when Don and Vi LeBrun built the cinema in 1947. Don LeBrun, a U.S. Navy veteran, had previously owned and operated the Alni Theater since 1937.
The Alni stood across State Street from the Kent Theater on the corner of State and Mulberry streets.
The investigation, led by county Fire Marshal Mike Vogely, is ongoing. Firefighters at the scene Saturday told reporters from The Post & Mail that it appeared the fire began in the attic. A cause has not yet been determined.
Firefighters from all three departments operated in shifts throughout the weekend.
South Whitley Town Council President Tony Starkey said Monday firefighters were exhausted. He said a meeting was planned with firefighters and Police Chief Dave Wilkinson to determine the best course of action for the building.
In October, 2005, Mark Minick, currently residing in California, took over ownership of the theater. He still owns the theater but has leased the facility to Mark and Michelle Pratt, who use the building as a meeting place for Turning Point Church.
Homemade signs have been attached to the building’s facade directing parishioners to an interim church location.
“Eberly Hall is going to let us conduct our services in their hall,” Mark Pratt said late Saturday afternoon.
For bystander Donna Thomson, the demise of the Kent Theatre was hard to accept.
“When the theater was burning on Saturday, my husband (Jack Thomson) went to watch; but I didn’t want to watch it, just too hard for me, so many memories there,” she said.

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