FAIRBORN — For documentary filmmaker Jordan Terrell, part of his career has been about taking abandoned things and revitalizing them. After spending years making documentary films in places like China, Cairo, and New York City, Terrell returned to his hometown of Fairborn to turn the Fairborn Theater into a proper cinematic venue once again.
A graduate of Fairborn High School, Terrell now lives in New York but remembers going to see films at the theater growing up. The bright colors of the matinee still hang over the corner of Broad Street and Dayton Drive, though the building has deteriorated over the course of the 20 years it stood empty.
Terrell took over the theater while directing and filming a documentary on opioid addiction, taking place in Springfield. Entitled “HEROINOHIO,” the film follows brothers Mike and Chuck Rollins, recovering addicts themselves. The brothers founded Gemini Reliance, a nonprofit dedicated to purchasing abandoned dope houses and turning them into safe, sober, and structured living arrangements for addicts in recovery.
The brothers’ paths weren’t easy, and Terrell’s documentary depicts the excruciating uphill battle that addicts face living in recovery. Mike Rollins eventually lost his battle with addiction, overdosing in September 2017.
Terrell took inspiration from the Rollins’ story.
“They were taking something abandoned and turning it into something productive,” he said. “So I said, ‘I want to do a public screening.’ There’s this abandoned building that everybody used to love, but have turned away from because it’s so much work.”
The theater is one of three properties in Fairborn listed in the US Register of Historic Places, along with the 1924 Bath Township Consolidated School and the 1799 Mercer Log House. The theater had been used primarily as a storage unit since its closure. Previous owners had gutted much of the interior, everything from the seats to the heating and cooling systems.
Splitting his time between Fairborn and his job in New York, Terrell brought family and friends onboard with the project, including his current business partner Chris Morris. Together the two of them created the Fairborn Phoenix Foundation, a 501(c)3 nonprofit dedicated to the restoration of the Fairborn Theater.
Many of those friends and family began cleaning out the place five months before Terrell was able to return from New York. Crews cleared out the junk piled inside the interior, and installed church pews in place of the old seats. Finally, Terrell got permission from the city to host a screening of “HEROINOHIO” Oct. 5, 2019.
“It sold out in five minutes,” he said. “The theater was packed.”
Interest in the screening was so high that they held a second one — which also sold out.
Community interest seemed firmly behind restoration of the theater, as did support from city leadership. Terrell and Morris had planned to start hosting events in April 2020 to raise funds. Then COVID hit.
“All our fund-raisers in the first year were completely shut down by COVID,” Terrell said. “We would love to throw the first big party of the year post-COVID times, but I’m keeping my eyes on the cases, vaccine roll out, etc. to plan accordingly. We had a Halloween party screening planned last year, thinking COVID would have slowed by then, but had to cancel a week prior after Greene County’s numbers skyrocketed.”
Both of Terrell’s parents also fell ill to COVID-19 but have since recovered.
Despite the grueling setbacks, Terrell has used this time to reach out to different professionals about finding ways to continue the restoration in the midst of the pandemic. Terrell’s “A-team” of professionals includes architects Ted Ohl of Schuler Shook, an agency of theater and lighting design experts, and David Bergman, who, in Terrell’s words, “wrote the book” on environmentally sustainable architecture. Terrell also enlisted the help of Dayton native Rick Holmes of the Architectural Group, whose work includes the only LEED GOLD certified building in Dayton.
Terrell says their insights have been invaluable in pursuit of this project. Additionally, their design philosophy may prove helpful in reaching for an even loftier goal: Trying to be the first environmentally sustainable theater in America.
“There’s one blessing in disguise for COVID,” Terrell said. “If we were to start fundraising last year, we wouldn’t have been ready. I wouldn’t have had the team of people working with me. What COVID enabled us to do was pause, not get so excited, and helped us fine-tune our plan of action.”
Reach London Bishop at 937-502-4532 or follow @LBishopFDH on Twitter