The Emery? Again?

"11/11/11" screamed the posters. "REVIVAL," they promised.

Sounded like a lot of hype. But then November 11 rolled around and the show at The Emery Theatre was everything the promoters promised. The buzz was palpable. The house was packed with a who's who of Greater Cincinnati's under-40 movers and shakers.

Momentous. Optimistic. Exhilarating. The show was all of that and more. From the moment it started, there was a sense that something important was unfolding in front of you.

Over the decades, Emery Auditorium "” now known as Emery Theatre or, to the cool kids, simply The Emery "” has become one of those things editors refer to as "evergreens" "” stories that never seem to go away.

It's true. Every few years someone comes along and proclaims the Emery, fallow for most of the past decade, a national treasure. They talk about the pristine acoustics, about how it was the Cincinnati Symphony's home, how Leopold Stokowski conducted there, Anna Pavlova danced there, Bette Davis acted there, and . . . well, you've heard the stories before, so you know.

Now, like clockwork, the Emery has another potential savior. Two of them, in fact. Tara Lindsey Gordon and Tina Manchise.

The pair met in New York City when Gordon signed up for Manchise's Pilates class. They became fast friends and later, artistic collaborators. Their goal? To create what Manchise calls a teacher development center for the arts.

But in 2008, Manchise's mother Lynn died unexpectedly. When Manchise returned to her hometown of Cincinnati, she found it hard to leave.

"I couldn't make sense of what happened to her," says Manchise, who holds a BFA from CCM. "And I couldn't make sense of my own life."

In the end, Gordon joined her here in Cincinnati, saying that "maybe what we're supposed to do is looking for us here."

Later that year "” on Nov. 11, Lynn Manchise's birthday "” they stumbled across the Emery.

They didn't see chipping paint or years of disuse. They saw a place that could house everything they'd dreamed of in New York and more.

A year later "” to the day "” they signed a long-term agreement with the Emery Center Corporation to manage the theater.

"We agreed to do everything," says Gordon, "meaning maintain it, book it, promote it "” everything."

Never mind that the theater has no heat, no air conditioning. Never mind that there's loads of lead paint there. And no functioning bathrooms. And, and, and "” the list seems insurmountable.

Oh, and did we mention that Manchise and Gordon have no money to speak of to make all this happen? Never mind.

What they are selling is a dream, a vision.

Before you start snickering too loudly, you should note that Manchise and Gordon have already accomplished what many people thought was impossible.

They've recruited noted architects to their team; Cincinnati's John Senhauser Architects and Cleveland's Westlake Reed Leskosky, a firm renowned for its ability to help reopen abandoned arts venues.

They've put together an advisory board filled with arts world notables, including Andrew Hamingson, former executive director of New York's Public Theater; David Fleming, former executive director of the League of Historic American Theatres; and Bill Cunningham, principal of the Cunningham Group and a director of the Greater Cincinnati Venture Association, among others.

And then, of course, there was the show.

It was an out-and-out Cincinnati lovefest. Over the Rhine (the band), Exhale Dance Tribe, ensembles from the Cincinnati Symphony and concert:nova composer Peter Adams working with choreographer Heather Britt and dancers from the Cincinnati Ballet, a curated art show including work by famed rock "¢n roll photographer Michael Wilson. And, like the heavy-hitting architects, every one of the artists donated their services.

In a recent e-mail, Gordon describes the event as "a concert, a collaboration, an awareness campaign, a community investment, an opportunity to allow and highlight what the arts can do, an opportunity for the community to co-create a venue of cultural and educational import ... and cross-pollination of artists."

In short, 11/11/11's performance was intended as a catalyst to show what can be done, even without massive capital.

Don't misunderstand. Bringing the Emery back up to speed will take money. Gordon and Manchise won't speculate until they have seen studies from the architects. But figures ranging from $14 million to $20 million have been reported in various media outlets, though a number of $3.5 million has been noted as enough to get the theater up and running with heat, water and other amenities.

But Manchise and Gordon don't flinch at such numbers. Driven. Tenacious. They have answers for all questions. Sometimes short on specifics, mind you. But they are more than salespeople. They are forces of nature who demand to be believed.

It's a Different Place

Besides, this is 2011. And in this little corner of Over-the-Rhine, it's a different world than it was a decade ago. Suddenly, Manchise and Gordon's ideas, which might have been ridiculed in 2001, don't sound so farfetched.

Vine Street is bustling with restaurants, clubs and new development that just a few years ago would have been unthinkable. Ensemble Theatre of Cincinnati is no longer the fresh-faced new kid. It's a full-fledged arts institution with a past and a future. Know Theatre is nearby, too.

The area is filled with A-list condos and apartments. Young professionals now populate streets whose names their parents probably never heard of: Republic, Melindy, Clay, Jackson.

3CDC is in the picture, too. That means that real money, real developers.

It is this Over-the-Rhine that Gordon and Manchise stumbled into. Suddenly, the idea of the Emery as a real venue, a place with a future seems less of a pipe dream than it did when all those other would-be saviors tried their hand at it.

It's no coincidence that the pair's noprofit organization is called The Requiem Project, named in remembrance of Manchise's mother, of course.

But in many ways, it speaks to their dreams for the Emery. And of Over-the-Rhine, as a whole.

Yes, they're dreamers. And sometimes it's a little hard to follow their artspeak. But Gordon and Manchise did cobble together that incredible concert, one that is likely to enter local lore.

Whether it will be just one more of those grand events that sparkles in the Emery's past or the beginning of something more substantial, it's hard to say.

But maybe, just maybe, 11/11/11 sparked the fires of rejuvenation for the Emery.

It still may be a long shot. But spend a few minutes in the presence of these two impassioned powerhouses, and you'll think perhaps you ought to pay attention to what they have to say. They might just be dreamers with answers. Stay tuned.

Photography by Erin Thompson