Tracie Shearer, manager of the historic Royal Theater in Danville, struggles to keep its doors open amid the Hollywood movie hiatus due to the global pandemic
By Stephanie Dolan
Every small town has that place that just seems to hold everything together and acts as the anchor of the community. For Danville, the Royal Theater on the Downtown Square holds that place.
According to history passed down to current manager Tracie Shearer, the building the historic theater occupies was constructed in 1927 but has operated on the Square since 1914.
Shearer, 56, has been involved with the Royal Theater since 2001.
“When we moved to Danville, we had four children in school, and the theater was closed, only occasionally operating for civic theater,” she said. “We were bummed that we had this awesome theater, and it was closed.”
But Shearer heard local attorney Lee Comer had purchased the building and wanted to resume operations as a movie theater. The Shearers and Comber formed a partnership to figure out the reopening, renovations and getting the business operational for the public.
“When I owned the Royal, Tracie ran the theater in a community-minded and expertly done manner,” Comer said.
Until March, for the last two decades the Royal had a steady stream of customers ushering in to see shows.
“We didn’t know what to expect when we started, and we’ve been able to increase business over the years,” Shearer said. “It’s been well received by the public. We’ve done good, steady, solid business.”
In early March amid the coronavirus pandemic, life, including business operations started to take a turn.
“We saw that schools were closing,” Shearer said. “We weren’t at the point that shutdowns were starting to happen yet, but we decided to close fairly early on just to be safe. We had an idea that if schools were closed, it wouldn’t be a good idea to have children congregating somewhere else. We decided to be proactive. Within a couple of weeks after that things started to shut down, and it was mandated we would have to stay closed.”
The Royal maintained a presence in the community and offered a sense of normalcy selling movie concessions for pick up several times a week for at-home movie nights.
“Concessions went pretty well, especially at the beginning,” Shearer said. “We let people know that we were open to have people come in and get their concessions. People were willing to help small businesses where they could.”
In the meantime, employees followed the Gov. Eric Holcomb’s reopening, preparing and scheduled to open back up again in stage three, but then reopening plans shifted.
“We decided to close concessions and do a big push for people to come back and see movies,” she said. “In late May, they took movie theaters and moved us into stage four, so that was a blow. We had to put all of that on hold. We had to go back to just selling concessions.”
When Indiana’s reopening plan hit stage four in mid-June, Royal employees were beyond ready to open to the public. The timing lined up with a free summer movie festival the theater hosts each summer.
“We get sponsorships from local businesses to show free movies every Wednesday,” Shearer said. “We went ahead with that and added another evening so that we could push fewer tickets at each show for social distancing.”
In addition to the free shows, Shearer started booking previously run movies, called “repertory films, for movie goers once the doors reopened since studios are not releasing new shows.
“We weren’t sure what to expect,” Shearer said. And then we opened, and people really just didn’t come.”
She speculates that some people don’t want to be in public spaces but others are venturing outside instead of to indoor spaces while the weather is warm.
“Then maybe some have no strong desire to come in and see a movie they could watch at home,” she added.
In an effort to bring in business, Shearer reduced the cost of a movie ticket from $5 to $3 and is promoting using the Royal for private events.
Despite the lag in business, Shearer still loves having this theater in Danville.
“It’s the community that’s the best thing about this theater,” she said. “A movie is just a little bit funnier in a big room with everyone laughing, and it’s a little bit more exciting when everyone is on the edge of their seats.”
Shearer believes historic one-screen movie theaters like the Roya are special gathering places for the community to come together and enjoy an experience.
“They’ve always been a place in a town where people could come and spend time together,” she said. “I’ve heard stories over the years of people telling me they’d remember going to the Royal when they were a kid or had their first kiss or their first date here. It has history and longevity for our town. When you have an empty movie theater on your downtown square it becomes something depressing instead of something alive and serving the community.”
Local author and pastor Philip Gulley can’t imagine Danville without the Royal.
“I was fortunate to have grown up with the Royal Theater, and moved back to Danville as it was finding its second life, just in time for my sons to enjoy it,” said Gulley, Danville resident and pastor at Fairfield Friends Meeting in Camby.
“I’ve sat in its seats, stood on its stage and let its movies transport me around the world. If it were to go, the soul of Danville would go with it.”
Today Shearer is just trying to hold on to keep the doors open and the lights on long enough for Hollywood to start releasing new movies again.
“Our success is dependent on what happens in Hollywood,” she said. “That’s what everyone is holding their breath and waiting for – for these new releases to come out. We hope that the public will continue supporting us now so that we can still be operating when the movies start to come back.”
Even with the struggles Shearer appreciates the continued support of the community.
“Over the years, since I’ve been involved with the Royal Theater, and even in these last few months, we still see support from the community and we appreciate that,” she said. “The sponsors, Downtown Danville Partnership, the Danville Chamber of Commerce, the ICON, the Republican, the people who have sent in random donations and those who have come in for concessions, the community has always come through for us, and we really appreciate that.”
Getting to know Tracie Shearer
Family: Husband Danny, four children and 11 grandchildren
What is your favorite movie? “Overboard” with Goldie Hawn and Kurt Russell. I also love the classics and classic musicals, but “Overboard” is just one that if I sit down and turn on the TV and it’s on, I finish it.
Do you have pets? A maltese/yorkie named Lola.
What is your favorite Hendricks County charity? The Rotary Club Foundation of Danville
What was the last good book you read? “The Family Fang” by Kevin Wilson
Who or what inspires you? I’m inspired by history. I always love things that have been around for so long and the stories they could tell.