Yet for all its blemishes, the theater retains a luster of spirit, one nurtured by the residents of Collinwood. Leased by St. Jerome's Catholic Church, the building hosts parent meetings, drug and alcohol rehab sessions, youth basketball practice. Every Saturday, the church's bingo night draws 200 people. Proceeds help fund St. Jerome's elementary school.
"The Commodore is a foundation in Collinwood," says Rosemary Luksic, the church's bingo organizer since 1968. "It can't be broken up."
The Reverend Arthur Rucker thinks otherwise. A Pentecostal pastor with a fledgling ministry, Rucker signed a management agreement on the hulking theater last month. Among his first moves: booting the church. St. Jerome's, which has rented the Commodore since 1984 and spent $200,000 to refurbish it, will be evicted in June.
"The folks who've come here, we're an extended family," Father Thomas Haren says. "A lot of people are hurt."
Rucker hopes to acquire the Commodore outright. He's in negotiations with the current owner, who bought the 1940s theater in September at a sheriff's sale, after a previous owner let $30,000 in back taxes pile up. The pastor dreams of converting the building into a community center or a home for his Highway and Hedges Outreach ministry.
Portraying Collinwood as an urban DMZ split along racial lines, he regards his plan as the neighborhood's last, best chance to save itself. He also claims another purpose. Accusing St. Jerome's of dividing whites and blacks, Rucker says he wants to throw out the church "to rescue Catholics . . . and bring the community together."
The Cleveland native says his mission comes on the highest order -- the word of God. He's used that rationale on three previous real-estate projects that went nowhere. In each case, he bulled ahead with a business plan short on details but long on a singular conviction: "The Lord told me to buy it."
Such ambiguity worries Haren. "If he can do what he says he's going to, it'll be a good thing. If he can't, then we get one more empty building."
Rucker, 73, took on his self-appointed role as God's Realtor in 1996. That year, saying the Almighty told him to bid $40,000 at auction, Rucker acquired purchase rights to the closed Lafayette Elementary School. But his plans to develop a charter school fizzled a year later. He revived the idea in 1998, when he bought an old skating rink at East 127th and St. Clair Avenue, only to sell the property after making minor renovations.
Then, last year, Rucker stirred up a maelstrom by putting a down payment on Memorial School in Collinwood. The Northeast Shores Development Corporation had long sought to build homes on the land, lining up $8 million for the project. But when the group let its purchase option lapse, Rucker swooped in with $50,000 to snatch the property away.
After struggling to gain support for a proposed community center, he reluctantly sold the property to Northeast Shores in February. "He's kind of a mystery to all of us," says Micah Kirman, the group's executive director. "No one was sure where he was coming from."
If Rucker's track record suggests a series of divinely inspired debacles, the retired post-office clerk says he's simply followed orders from above. "Each time the Lord told me to do something . . . it didn't pan out like I thought it would. But it wasn't for me to ask him, 'Is this it?'"
Rucker's critics feel no similar restraint in lobbing questions at him, chief among them why he's banishing St. Jerome's. City Councilman Mike Polensek, whose ward includes the theater, wonders how sending one church packing in favor of another serves anyone -- whether average citizen or supreme being.
"Reverend Rucker entered the fray on Memorial and almost destroyed that. Now, here we are with the Commodore, and he's told St. Jerome's it must vacate. Where's the good in what he's doing?"
Sitting in his Richmond Heights home, Rucker launches into an extended theological riff on why the Catholic Church "is the church of the Antichrist," his arms churning like the levers on a taffy machine. He explains that St. Jerome's has done little to quash drug and gang activity in Collinwood and has failed to reach out to minorities. He believes his Highway to Christ Church would fare better. "We want to unite Collinwood before it disintegrates completely."
It's a bold statement for a minister with a 10-member flock that attends services at a house he owns on Garfield Avenue. Or who, when asked how he'll fund his project, says only, "The Lord is good, brother."
Father Haren offers the mildest of rebuttals to Rucker's views on Collinwood: "He lives in Richmond Heights."
Polensek is less reserved. He argues that the neighborhood has reawakened over the past five years, thanks to block clubs, a growing number of homeowners, and the steadying influence of St. Jerome's. With the church so far unable to find new space to rent, he fumes that Rucker is "evicting one of the finest institutions in the neighborhood."
Rucker's supporters believe his ministry would salvage the area. Joseph Prude, who oversees Justice Fellowship International, calls transforming the Commodore "an absolute necessity for Collinwood's survival." James Grayer, head of Macedonia Ministries Church of God in Christ, says, "As time goes on, people will see that he's trying to help the community."
Yet even Rucker's allies betray concern. Geraldine Chapman, whose late husband Robert ordained Rucker in the early '90s, has told him to make the Commodore his last stand. "It just doesn't look good to keep saying the Lord was telling you to buy this building, and then a year later you're gone." Rucker understands the doubts -- he's had them himself. At the same time, he says he must listen to a voice other than his own. "If it had been up to me, Collinwood's not a place I'd have picked readily. But this is where the Lord wants me to be."
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