Benson Theater Project
On a beautiful summer evening in 1939, a young man proposes to his best girl after taking her to a screening of “The Wizard of Oz” in Benson. She says yes. During the decades that follow, he keeps a page from the local newspaper containing an ad for the Benson opening of that now revered American classic, a memento from that magical night. When he learns that his theatre – their theatre – is destined to become a theatre once more, he brings the yellowed yet carefully preserved page to Benson entrepreneur Amy Ryan for safekeeping.
“There are a lot of stories out there like that one,” said Ryan, owner of The Pizza Shoppe and Pub at 6056 Maple St. and the driving force behind the restoration of the theatre that quietly rests next door to her business like a veteran thespian between acts. “It was once an important part of the community, and it can be again.”
Ryan and an interested group of preservation advocates have launched The Benson Theatre Project, a 501(c)3 nonprofit to “foster the success of artists, philanthropists, entrepreneurs and underserved populations within the historic community of Benson.” The goal is to acquire and restore the theatre at 6054 Maple St. to serve as a shared community space for business education and artistic performance.
The Benalto Theater, as the Benson property was originally known, is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and is considered “demolished.” It was built in 1923 when vaudeville acts toured the country to perform. Operating as the Benalto until 1926, the theatre could seat 400 for performances, film screenings and community events. From 1927 to 1953, it operated as part of a theatre chain owned by the Epstein Bros.
After 1953, the building housed a series of retail businesses in between periods of vacancy and was purchased several years ago by The Lund Company. Ryan’s group has raised $125,000 to date – half of the current purchase price – and has until April of 2015 to raise the remaining half. Once the building has been purchased, fund-raising for the restoration, estimated at $850,000, will begin, she said. The group also will begin raising funds for the theatre’s first two years of operating expenses. “Once we’re open, we will be fully self-sustainable,” she said.
Although the bones of the theatre remain – the original stage, the orchestra pit and a delicately gilded archway on one side of the stage – the structure has been slowly poached over the years so that little else remains. Ryan did manage to unearth six original art deco wall sconces that will be used during the restoration process. “If anyone has anything that was part of the theatre and would be willing to donate it back, we would love to see what’s out there,” she said.
The nonprofit is working with Alley Poyner Macchietto and Lund-Ross Constructors to complete the restoration. The laundry list of chores includes installing new electrical and HVAC systems, preserving the original stage, digging through layers of concrete to expose the original sloped floor, constructing a new projection booth and staff offices, and reconstructing the original theatre lobby. Ryan, who installed solar panels on the roof of her shop next door to the theatre, is also pushing for the use of energy efficient construction techniques and sustainable materials and equipment.
Once completed, the Maple Street entrance will be emblazoned with an iconic vertical Benson sign, beckoning patrons from throughout North Omaha and across the city. Inside, the 225-seat theatre will become home to theatre and film presentations (it’s the future home of the Omaha Film Festival), performing arts organizations, private events and business workshops for artists, philanthropists, entrepreneurs and underserved populations. “I’ve already had people tell me they want to get married in the theatre,” Ryan said.
The project seems destined to happen, taking the growing entertainment district back to its roots and the vision of its founder, Erastus Benson. An investor, land speculator and philanthropist, Benson invested in Thomas Edison’s Kinetoscope. This invention created the illusion of movement by reeling a flexible, perforated strip of sequential photographs past a light source with a high speed shutter.
The rest, as they say in the movies, is history.
To donate to the Benson Theatre Project or schedule a tour of the facility,
contact Ryan at firstname.lastname@example.org.