The home of the old Falls Theater on Front Street in Cuyahoga Falls has come back to life after lying dormant for almost 30 years.
It took two-and-a-half years and a team of historical architects, craftsmen and a family with a dream to turn the 15,000-square-foot space into a new restaurant, bar, and family entertainment center called The Workz. And despite pandemic and economic crisis, eager customers have been flocking in and 63 employees have been hired to meet their needs.
Architects Alan and Lauren Burge of Akron, who specialize in historic reconstruction, purchased the historic theater from the city of Cuyahoga Falls five years ago. Originally built in the 1920s, it had evolved from a venue for stage plays to a silent movie theater and then to a modern movie house (at one point named Leow’s Theater.) It was closed in the early ’90s after falling into disrepair.
The Burges began stabilizing the structure, but they needed tenants. Few could envision making it work for their businesses.
Meanwhile, in a Starbucks on Portage Trail, Tim Frankish and his sister-in-law Kim Green were brainstorming about starting a new business. “We were just thinking of finding a way to put some money into retirement and help with our kids’ college funds. We were going to buy a house and flip it, or do rentals,” Frankish said. “And then we thought it would be kind of cool if we could create some jobs.”
That’s when they decided to create a fun space for children’s birthday parties and family entertainment.
As the idea grew, other family members wanted to get on board. “Before you knew it, there were four of us talking it over and we’re doing it,” Frankish said. The Workz’s team consists of three siblings: Kim Green, Chris Carpenter, Melissa Barnes, and Frankish, their brother-in-law.
Then, of course, they needed a location. Frankish messaged Cuyahoga Falls Mayor Don Walters to ask if he knew of a space on Front Street that might be suitable. “[The mayor] responded that I should look into the old theater, and I thought, ‘What theater?’ I didn’t know what he was talking about.” Frankish is too young to remember when the theater was still operating.
Upon seeing the space, the foursome was sure it wouldn’t work: “We walked in and said ‘There’s just no way.’” The space was long and narrow and they couldn’t envision what they wanted. But after meeting with the Brunswick company for the duckpin bowling lanes and consulting with the Burges, they came up with a layout that worked.
The Workz is aptly named. Three floors of renovated space mean there’s something for everyone. The main attractions are the games and restaurant on the main floor. The three major gaming categories are duckpin bowling (like regular bowling, but on a smaller scale), arcade, and virtual reality area. It is a cacophony of lights and sounds while a full bar welcomes parents on the way in. Two smaller rooms are available for private parties.
“Weekends are absolutely insane,” said Dale Sampson, The Workz general manager.
But wait, there’s more.
Something is hidden in the basement. Something totally different than what’s upstairs. It’s The Speakeazy at The Workz: designer cocktails, hard-to-find mocktails, even servers in flapper dresses. The upscale menu includes things like smoked salmon deviled eggs and a charcuterie board. Drinks are named for classic movies.
“It’s a totally different experience down here,” said Frankish. The theme preserves the era in which the theater was built, the Roaring ’20s. (Reservations are required and hard to get. Seating is currently limited to 24 in the Speakeazy.)
The building is listed in the National Register of Historic Places. The renovation team, historical society in Columbus and the Riverfront and Cuyahoga Falls historic design review board worked to resurrect original design elements. Some include the coral and teal crown moulding, Art Deco light fixtures, stained glass windows and vintage style furniture. “We had to keep it kind of the same because that’s what the building wants,” Frankish said.
The theater is most fondly remembered by locals in their 50s and 60s as the venue for the cult classic Rocky Horror Picture show in the 1980s.
Mark Fetterman was one of those Rocky Horror moviegoers, and now his grandson works at The Workz. He visited for lunch on a recent Saturday with his family.
“I like what they’ve done with it. It’s nostalgic,” Fetterman said. He added that in the Rocky Horror days, the theater wasn’t very well taken care of. “The seats were ripped; the place was in disrepair. It’s exciting to see it’s nice now.”
Sampson said a lot of former employees of the old theater come in just to see the place. “Then you look over five minutes later and they’re at the end of the bar just talking about the good ol’ days.” One gentleman recalled the story of how he met his wife at the theater back when he worked the ticket booth and she worked the snack counter.
Frankish and Sampson get a thrill out of talking to former patrons and employees of the old theater. “Yeah, it’s crazy. It gives me goosebumps every time somebody says, ‘Oh, I remember standing right there, taking tickets’ or ‘I was an usher.’”
Today, a new generation begins creating fond memories in a new incarnation of the old Falls Theater.
The Workz follows strict COVID-19 guidelines including mask requirements. For reservations and to find out more, visit playattheworkz.com.
Photos by Tim Frankish. Used with permission.
Diane Pitz Kilivris is a freelance writer and podcast producer from West Akron. When not working, she can be found on the tennis court or happily knitting in a comfy chair.
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