The 1980s continued to be a period of growth and innovation for the International Thespian Society despite a devastating fire set by an arsonist in August 1984 that gutted the society’s offices. Dramatics reported on the aftermath in the month following the fire.

A WEEK BEFORE Labor Day, a fire set by an arsonist gutted the headquarters of the International Thespian Society and the editorial offices of Dramatics, plunging the organization into the most serious crisis of its 55-year history.

Efforts to clean up the mess and restore the operation of the society and the magazine began literally before firefighters had finished putting out smoldering hot spots on the morning of August 28. Reconstruction of the building is expected to get underway at about the time this issue of Dramatics goes to press, but Executive Director Ronald L. Longstreth estimates it will be six months or more — sometime next spring — before things get back to some semblance of normality.

Documenting the damage of the 1984 office fire.

Documenting the damage of the 1984 office fire.

The loss is estimated at $250,000, and that could go higher after an inventory is completed. The building and its contents were covered by replacement cost insurance, which means that this physical facility will eventually be restored to good-as-new condition. And since the organization’s computer records and most paper files, which were stored in fireproof cabinets, were undamaged, there will apparently be no long-term effect on the operation of the society.

But that doesn’t lesson the heartbreak or the hassle for the staff, who have been working under impossible conditions to carry on the business of the society, publish a magazine, and plan the rebuilding of a headquarters, while at the same time conducting a salvage operation in the rubble of their offices.

The building is, in plain English, a wreck. Flames and heat destroyed the roof and buckled concrete block walls through about two-thirds of the single-story structure. Most of the contents that didn’t burn or melt were coated with a thick, greasy film of soot, or soaked with water, or both.

The loss includes virtually all the scripts, texts, and reference books in the Thespian library, some of them irreplaceable. Much of the stock of Thespian clothing, jewelry, and troupe supplies was also destroyed, as were thousands of dollars worth of typewriters, calculators, copiers, and other office furniture and equipment.

Here’s the situation 30 days after the fire: A third of the building is usable, but just barely. There’s no heat, no air conditioning. There’s no ventilation, period (unless you count holes in the roof) because the windows, smashed by the fire department, are boarded up. It smells in here, bad: an olfactory nightmare of burned wood, burned plastic, burned everything, and the foul mustiness of stuff that’s been wet for a month. When it rains, as it frequently does in Cincinnati in the fall, the staff is mobilized into a frantic flood control crew, building little dams and levees, shoving mops and brooms, and using a miniature Zamboni machine to keep the water that pours through the perforated roof from doing any more damage. There are two working typewriters (out of 11), two working calculators (of 13), four working telephones (of 16). This is not a pleasant place to come to work in the morning.

“Staff morale,” Longstreth said, “is at a pretty low ebb.”

As bad as things are, this story is ultimately a comedy, by the classic definition anyway: In the end, everything’s going to come out all right. About half of the staff is moving to temporary quarters (nothing fancy, but there’s glass in the windows, and heat, and the roof works), and the builders will be in here within the next few days. When they’re finished, some months from now, the society’s headquarters will actually be better than new; the building will be not only restored but enlarged and upgraded.

“We were pretty overcrowded, and we really needed to expand the facility before the fire,” Longstreth said. “So, we’re taking advantage of this opportunity to remodel. As our architect said, we’ll never get it done any cheaper. After it’s all over, we’re going to be better off than we were before the fire. But it’s going to be a long road getting there.”

A view of the neighborhood in the doorway of the offices before the fire.

From all over the country, letters of sympathy and support have been arriving in our charred mailbox. George Kon and Walt Dulaney, the school theatre missionaries in Hawaii, sent us $10 to drown our troubles in ice cream. International Director Robert Johnson flew in from Chicago the day after the fire to offer his help, and Assistant International Director Barbara Dusenbury put together a care package of chocolates and tea. Jack Parkhurst’s Thespians in Ralston, Neb., who understand the importance of a sense of humor during hard times, sent us some marshmallows to roast on the coals of headquarters.

“We are most appreciative of the letters of support we’ve received,” Longstreth said. “And I want to say this as nicely as possible. I hope everybody will be sympathetic and understanding when they have to wait for things from headquarters during the next few months.” That is essentially what all this means to Thespian members and troupe sponsors: You’re going to have to be patient in your dealings with headquarters for a while.

To the best of the abilities of its sooty staff, the society will maintain all its major activities and services. Dramatics will continue publication without interruption and on time. Thespian Festival 85 will be held next June as planned, as will the full schedule of state Thespian conferences. The special “Year of the Sponsor” projects, including a series of regional workshops to help state Thespian directors provide more and better services to troupe sponsors, are proceeding according to a slightly abbreviated schedule.

In matters more mundane and routine, the effects of the destruction of ITS headquarters will be more noticeable, at least for the short term. Replies to correspondence, and particularly orders for Thespian merchandise and troupe supplies will be slow for the next couple of months or so. And it will be difficult to get headquarters on the telephone for a while: We’ll be down to one phone line from the normal three. Write, don’t call.

There flat is no Thespian Society library right now, so there’s not much point in ordering books or scripts through the ITS library loan service. The library will be restored as quickly and completely as possible. We’ll keep you posted.

Among the things that weren’t destroyed are the 5,000 copies of the new ITS tech theatre course guide Theatre Technology and Design and the video documentary titled Get Up and Do! Orders for those items, and for some others, will be processed with (almost) our usual dispatch. If you order something that doesn’t exist just now, which includes a lot of troupe supplies and Thespian T-shirts and such, your order will be filled as soon as possible.

“My best advice to troupe sponsors is to continue to send membership reports and subscription orders as you normally would,” Longstreth said. “But expect a longer than normal wait.”

Except for that inconvenience, Thespians and troupe sponsors shouldn’t be much affected by the fire. “The strength of this organization,” Longstreth said, “is in its people. The Thespians and teachers in 2,500 schools across this country and around the world, the state directors, the trustees. And the people who come to work in this building every day. We’ve lost the building for a while, but we’ve still got all the people, and I’m confident the Thespian Society is going to come through this difficult period stronger than ever.”

So far, police have no idea who caused all this grief. The arson at ITS headquarters was one of a series of intentionally set fires that occurred late in the summer in Clifton, a neighborhood about two miles from downtown Cincinnati that includes pricey homes, a semi-chic business district, the University of Cincinnati, and office buildings like ours. A detective called a couple of days ago to report there are no suspects.

The destruction is all the more infuriating because it is so senseless. The arsonist (or arsonists; nobody knows) broke into the building, trashed most of the offices, set the place on fire, and left. Nothing of value was stolen, although the building was full of the kind of small, easily fenced items you’d find in any office. Whoever set our place on fire apparently did it for kicks, if you can imagine such a thing. If the police ever find the sleazoid maggot who did it, there are plenty of people around here who’ll be glad to give him a kick or two.

This story appeared in the November 1984 print version of Dramatics. Learn about the print magazine and other Thespian benefits on the International Thespian Society website.

International Thespian Society 90th birthday logo
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