Theaters across the nation get a little lift

Monday, May 19, 2008 | 5:32 p.m. CDT; updated 6:40 a.m. CDT, Sunday, July 20, 2008
Before the restoration: Paintings on the original soundboard were severely damaged.

COLUMBIA — When the old Missouri Theatre reopens this week as the Missouri Theatre Center for the Arts, patrons might find themselves wondering how a building so old can look so good. She looks fabulous for 80. Of course, she’s had some work done.

Nationwide, communities big and small have undertaken projects to reinvigorate their arts scenes by rehabilitating their towns’ treasured old theaters. After $10 million and nearly a year of labor, the Missouri Theatre will join the ranks of restored theaters across the country that have — thanks to community involvement, fundraising and elbow grease — been given some serious face lifts.

About the opening

About 200 tickets for the reopening gala on Wednesday at the Missouri Theatre Center for the Arts, starring Tony Bennett, were still available on Monday. Champagne and hors d’œuvres will be at 6:30 p.m.; the performance begins at 7:30 p.m. At 10 a.m. Wednesday, the theater will have a ribbon-cutting and unveil a 3-D art naming wall created by sculptor Sabra Tull Meyer and watercolorist Kate Gray.

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Here’s a look at three of the Missouri Theatre’s restored cousins from across the nation:

Coronado Performing Arts Center

Rockford, Ill.

Originally opened: 1927

Restoration: May 1999 to January 2001

Restoration cost: $18.5 million

A real restoration is all about the gritty little details, said Michael Goldberg, executive director of the Coronado Performing Arts Center in Rockford, Ill. To be included on the National Registry of Historic Places, he said, you have to restore or replicate — not just refurbish — a set percentage of various theater elements.

“When you look at current pictures of the theater, you’re seeing what the theater used to look like,” Goldberg said. “In technical terms, a restoration is very specific.”

It’s so specific, he said, that even settling in to enjoy the show is a historical experience for Coronado patrons — if they sit close to the stage. Original, restored chairs more than 80 years old comprise the first eight rows of seats. The rest of the theater’s seats are replicas of the originals.

Historical trappings aside, Goldberg said much of the Coronado’s budget went to updating production capabilities, making the space “viable for contemporary performances and presentations.”

Much like the Missouri Theatre, the Coronado saw its estimated budget climb as the project wore on. Goldberg said that’s pretty common. The Coronado was in relatively good shape to begin with, but Goldberg’s experience with other restorations has taught him that any project can be full of surprises.

“When you actually go delving into the plaster and woodwork,” Goldberg said, “sometimes you find horrors you couldn’t have foreseen until you got there.”

The Coronado was free from scourges common to old buildings such as asbestos and termites, but the building’s old pipes were quite a surprise.

“There were some plumbing where the lines were original,” Goldberg said. “We’re talking about pipes that were put in when the building was built in 1927. The piping was just ancient.”

More than seven years after the final historical flourishes were finished, one of Goldberg’s main concerns is keeping the Coronado financially afloat. The theater is an integral aspect of Rockford’s cultural life, he said, as are performing arts centers nationwide; Rockford contributes money to the theater to help pay operating expenses.

Goldberg said most performing arts centers, new or restored, can hope for theater revenue to cover 60 to 65 percent of operating costs at most. The rest has to come from contributions and — if the place wants to stay open — the city.

“No performing arts center can live on earned income alone, and you can’t rely on contributed income either,” Goldberg said.

To keep theaters thriving, Goldberg added, “it’s really important that the city continue to be a participant.”

Bijou Theatre

Knoxville, Tenn.

Originally opened: 1909

Restoration: Fall 2005 to June 2006

Restoration cost: $2.5 million

Compared with the Bijou Theatre in Knoxville, Tenn., the Missouri Theatre’s restoration has been a quick face-lift. For about three decades, the Bijou Theatre has repeatedly headed back under the restoration knife, undergoing renovation after renovation. The most recent adventure wrapped up in 2006.

It started with a big overhaul in the 1970s, said Tom Bugg, the Bijou’s general manager, followed by another renovation attempt in the 1980s. The theater’s former owners shut the whole place down for refurbishing in 1998 — the year they finally installed air conditioning.

Before that, shows held on Knoxville’s hot, summer nights could get downright stinky.

“Everyone was just covered in sweat,” Bugg said, recalling a Ramones concert.

Debt forced the Bijou to close in 2004. But after Knoxville’s larger Tennessee Theatre reopened in January 2005, following a year-and-a-half, $29 million restoration, the Bijou found a glimmer of hope.

Bugg said Knoxville Mayor Bill Haslam made it his mission to bring the old theater back to life. With his own resources (Haslam’s family owns the Knoxville-based Pilot chain of convenience stores and gas stations) and a little “twisting arms” in the community, Bugg said, Haslam raised $2.5 million.

The money was enough to pick up where the 1998 restoration left off.

“(In 1998), they re-did it as best they could,” Bugg said. “They put in a new sound system, refurbished the lights, refurbished the seats, got a new curtain.”

But the restoration team soon realized that termites are a renovator’s worst nightmare.

“They hadn’t replaced the roof,” Bugg said. “It’s wet, very moist under the theater. That’s where termites have fun.”

The critters consumed more than just wood, devouring a sizeable chunk of the Bijou’s restoration budget. Workers had to replace the roof and several structural support beams instead of redoing the Bijou’s office as had been planned.

Knoxville urban legend suggests the termites were not the only terrors lurking in the old theater. The Eastern Tennessee Paranormal Research Society investigated the Bijou for ghostly activity in 2006.

“I won’t say I believe in ghosts,” Bugg said. “But I won’t deny it, either. I’ve witnessed some odd occurrences.”

Haunted or not, the Bijou’s construction team wasn’t taking any chances. “During the renovation, we couldn’t get the construction workers to turn off the lights at night,” Bugg said, “because they refused to come into the dark building the next morning.”

Colonial Theatre

Pittsfield, Mass.

Originally opened: 1903

Restoration: 2004 to August 2006

Restoration cost: $21 million

Hillary Clinton hit Pittsfield, Mass., on the campaign trail — 10 years ago. In 1998, the former First Lady visited the Colonial Theatre, then a shell of its former glory, on her “Save America’s Treasures” campaign.

Clinton’s visit fueled an already growing grass-roots movement to restore the Colonial, said Jessie Virgilio, manager of public relations and education at the theater.

“It gave a jump start to the fundraising,” Virgilio said. “Having her name behind this project was a good thing. It was a monumental step.”

With a $21 million price tag in a relatively small community, Virgilio said the Colonial relied heavily on donors and volunteers who bought the project early. The community’s intense involvement in the project helped keep the restoration in check.

“It was such a visible project, we couldn’t afford a slip-up,” Virgilio said.

Slip-ups might have been easy to encounter because the restoration was, in the Colonial’s case, a complete overhaul. Shut down since 1952, Virgilio said the theater “was kind of in a cocoon for 50 years.” There were no seats inside. When they ripped up the foundation, they discovered two tanks left behind by an old gas station.

“There were tree trunks holding up parts of the building,” Virgilio said.

Once restoration was complete, the Colonial faced a new, ongoing challenge: keeping the theater thriving. The Colonial relies on donations and grants for about 45 percent of its income and generates about 55 percent from theater income. Since the community fuels the theaters by buying tickets and buying into the theater itself through donations, Virgilio said it’s vital to keep patrons happy.

“It is so important to recognize the businesses and individuals who supported us from the beginning,” she said. “We are lucky to have such a dedicated community.”

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