BY RACHEL MELCER
The Cincinnati Enquirer
-- With a flash of vandalism and the flare of a match, Norwood Middle School's prop room went up in flames.
The ceiling crashed down on Cinderella's pumpkin carriage and an antique couch. Flames destroyed stage flats, signed by students of decades past, that inspired the budding actors of today.
Administrators surveying the damage and students buzzing through halls Thursday morning shared one thought: They couldn't believe it happened again.
In January, two seventh-grade girls set fire to a room filled with costumes -- directly above the scene of Wednesday night's blaze. That fire caused heavy smoke damage to the adjoining, historic auditorium.
More than $150,000 was spent repainting and restoring the room to its original 1917 splendor. Administrators will kick off a $100,000 fund-raising campaign in January to replace the 1,000 seats and complete the renovation.
Principal Gerry Addison shook his head as he led an Enquirer photographer into the blackened prop room.
"You could just use the picture from last year. It looks exactly the same," he said, then paused to reconsider. "Of course, this isn't nearly as bad."
Thanks to hard lessons learned after the January arson, firefighters and school officials knew to keep the door between the prop room and the auditorium closed. That cut down on the smoke damage.
It was a security guard -- hired after the first fire -- who discovered this blaze and sounded the alarm.
He "was in the right place at the right time," Acting Fire Chief Craig Williamson said. "If that fire had not been detected right away, that building very well might not be standing right now."
Before setting the fire, the vandals -- thought to be students -- sprayed fire extinguishers all over the auditorium chairs and dumped paint on the lighting board and stage, Chief Williamson said.
Finding the prop room unlocked, they probably set the fire as an afterthought, he said. And then they fled down a little-used stairway and out the door, leaving it open behind them.
Mr. Addison estimated the damage at $50,000.
Officials hope students who know the culprits will be lured into talking by posters proclaiming a $5,000 reward. Nearly 50 students came forward Thursday to reveal their suspicions. Mr. Addison said that although many were rumors and hearsay, a handful of tips would be passed on to fire investigators.
Chief Williamson said the vandal or vandals would be prosecuted. Although there were no injuries and damage was limited, there is real danger any time a fire is set.
Dave Moss, of Moss Restoration Services in Blue Ash, cleaned up after the first fire and was stunned when he heard the news Wednesday night. Without waiting for a call from the district, he went to the school Thursday morning and offered to get to work.
He said it would take more than a dozen workers about a week to complete repairs. Their first priority is to hand-wash the auditorium seats, stage and floor so the holiday choral show can go on.
The auditorium is the district's largest venue, used by middle- and high school students alike. Awards programs, rehearsals, assemblies and community activities are held there almost every week.
"It's a very beautiful building, architecturally," Mayor Joe Hochbein said. "And it's very important to the community." Students who perform on the middle school stage said they are most hurt by the loss of the stage flats -- large pieces of temporary flooring and walls -- that were signed by pupils as early as the 1930s and sparked a tradition.
Theater arts and speech teacher Janet Powell said she had the backstage walls painted black years ago. During each play and choral production, students are allowed to sign them with chalk that remains until the next coat of paint is needed.
"Props can be replaced. But those old signatures can't," said Norwood High School freshman Amber Ballard, 14. "My mom had signed it. She was in the Silhouettes" show choir.
Other students worry their school will gain a reputation for vandalism and fires.
"People wrongfully judge Norwood. We are a good community and a safe community. We are good students. And this is a blemish on us," said junior Erin Shelby, 16.
Chief Williamson, who graduated from the damaged building in 1971, the last year it was used as a high school, said the auditorium is a community landmark. Everyone is proud of the restoration.
"They really did it up right," he said. "And the thought that someone would go in there and, just for the heck of it, decide to set the school on fire, well, it leaves a bad taste in my mouth."