By CANDACE BEATY, Daily Journal of Johnson County staff writer

Decades ago, theatrical productions and musicians graced the stage of the Artcraft Theatre in downtown Franklin.

If the nonprofit organization that owns the theater now has its way, live performances will once again attract crowds of people.

Since Franklin Heritage bought the Artcraft in 2004, the preservation and restoration group's goal has been to restore the building to its 1940s glory.

Neon lights circle across the ceiling in the lobby, and hundreds of people munch on popcorn during classic movies shown twice a month.

People who come and buy movie tickets and concessions each week got the restoration project going, but a $500,000 campaign is what will make the theater better than ever, Ted Grossnickle said.

Grossnickle, chairman of a Greenwood philanthropic consulting company, is leading the capital campaign.

The money will help finish restoration in the lobby and make the theater ready for live performances.

The group also will be able to pay off the building and have a fund for future fund-raising efforts.

Gifts are already rolling in as the group is targeting top companies, executives and local philanthropists.

About $170,000 is committed to the project, and another $180,000 in donations have been proposed, all split among about 20 donors, Franklin Heritage executive director Rob Shilts said.

The fund-raising effort is not a public call for donations yet.

Instead, the organization is focusing on certain companies and individuals and hoping for leadership donations first, Grossnickle said.

A broader, public approach for smaller gifts may come in the future, he said.

So many memories are associated with the theater for longtime residents, and the goal is to bring memorable performances back to the venue, Shilts said.

After its transformation, the theater will look as if little has changed since the 1940s, he said.

Since the Artcraft reopened in June 2005, 25,000 tickets have been sold for movies.

While success of ticket sales has helped fund restoration, the goal is to attract national performers much like in the Artcraft's heyday. Traveling play casts would stop in Franklin for performances on their way to Louisville from Indianapolis, Shilts said.

Friday marked the three-year anniversary of Franklin Heritage's ownership of the building. The theater is just one of the organization's preservation projects, which currently includes three historic downtown homes.

Shilts has purposefully taken restoration efforts slowly. Clues about how a building once looked will be missed otherwise, he said.

"The building will tell you," Shilts said. "It will let you know how things are supposed to be."

For example, a scrap of carpet conserved by a maintenance worker who worked in the theater since the 1930s will be used to reproduce the original flooring.

The piece of carpet to lined a shelf in the man's workshop. He placed it face down on the shelf, which preserved it almost perfectly, Shilts said.

That scrap can be scanned, and a computer can reproduce the original design. Once all other work is done in the lobby, the carpet will be installed, Shilts said.

Removing layers of paint revealed Art Deco murals on columns inside the lobby. A local artist repainted the same murals on the walls.

Old blueprints will be used to redo elaborate wood wainscoting, he said.

Some aspects of the Artcraft won't be restored, but that's because the new set-up is better, Shilts said.

The concession stand once was further inside the lobby, but its newer location near the ticket booth makes more sense, he said.

Also, an office has been converted to a handicap-accessible restroom.

The $500,000 campaign is Phase 1 of the restoration. More work later could include new seats for the theater. Dressing rooms below the stage will eventually be useable again.

When restoration is complete, the theater will be used as it originally was intended, for live performances.

"There is no reason Franklin can't have its own jazz festival," Shilts said.

Franklin Heritage is saving a landmark, but it could also lead revitalization of downtown.

Think of downtown as a shopping mall. The Artcraft is an anchor store, Shilts said.

People would come early and eat downtown, catch a show and then go out for coffee or wine. Shows would bring people downtown for the evening, he said.

Eventually people will come downtown to the Artcraft for events more often than movies every other weekend, Shilts said.