Bringing Back the Benson Theatre <h2>Group Aims to Restore Benson’s Historic 1920’s Theatre</h2>

Bringing Back the Benson Theatre

Group Aims to Restore Benson’s Historic 1920’s Theatre

April 30, 2012  |  Recent Posts  |  No Comments

The roaring 1920’s meant a lot of new things in America. It was a coming-of-age era which saw flappers redefining modern womanhood, jazz music flourishing, and the rise of community theatres. That nationwide liberation appeared locally as well, with the foundation of what was then known as the Benalto Theatre in Benson in 1923. In 1927 it was called the Benson Theatre, and belonged to a chain of neighborhood theatres operated by the Epstein Bros. At that time, the building was an assembly space that featured films, community events and vaudeville performances.

As the decades came and went, the building changed with the times as well, going from cinema house to ceramic shop, and most recently being used as a warehouse for Rick’s Fitness. As ownership changed hands, the years of gradual neglect took their toll on the historic theatre. It lost its vintage marquee lettering somewhere along the way, but it never lost its place in the hearts of those who grew up in the community.

Enter Amy Ryan, owner-operator of Pizza Shoppe Collective, which sits next door to the theatre. She is working with a team of entrepreneurs through the Omaha Community Foundation to restore the Benson Theatre back into a viable community fixture.

“Restoring this space is so important to Benson,” Ryan says. “People have been coming in with pictures and stories about the old theatre. It’s really amazing getting to hear their stories.”

Her passion for this project was obvious when I spoke with her. Ryan’s life background has helped build her up towards this moment, blending social activism with keen business skills as owner of the pizza shop and community jam space known as PS Collective.

“As a social worker who inherited a restaurant 17 years ago, I came from polar opposite fields. Social services was completely different than the business model, so I had to completely rethink what I was doing,” she explains.

Her new model for Benson’s historic theatre offers solutions to the current problem. Ryan will introduce corporate-sponsored educational workshops to be able to train and set up a self-sustaining economy, to show people how to keep this model going.

“My goal is to make things easier for people to succeed,” Ryan says. Those people she mentions will range from musicians, to actors, artists, filmmakers and community activists.

She envisions the revamped theatre as part of a non-profit community development project for the Benson area. “This will be a physical space for artists to bring themselves to,” Ryan says, “And the theatre will seat 215 people when fully restored.”

The renovations needed are extensive though, with new electrical, HVAC, plumbing, flooring, seating and a sound booth all on the to-do list. The contractors will make a concerted attempt to modernize the building without losing sight of its historical architecture.

Ryan mentions the need to excavate the stage area and orchestra pit to restore it to its original state. “It actually has a sloped floor that will reveal a stage below the current stage,” she explains.

Ryan and her group of entrepreneurs that are spearheading the project have broken it down into three phases. The first step involves securing $50,000 for rent, overhead and various fees by May 15th. I mention that this date was coming up quick.

“No kidding,” Ryan laughs, “I’m feeling it.”

The restoration group would then need $250,000 for acquisition, and another $1 million for the actual renovation, which will be done by Lund Ross and Alley-Poyner Architecture. If all goes well, they will remodel on an 18-month timeline that aims for a completion date of September 1, 2013. Or sooner, she says, if the money comes in quicker.

I asked her if there was anything the public could do to help out.

“Yeah, they can go online and make a tax-deductible donation if they’d like, or come check out one of the Sunday Brunches.”

Ryan is hosting a series of fundraising brunches from 10-2, each Sunday until May 13th at PS Collective. The cost is $20 and includes a delicious breakfast buffet and drinks. The brunches also feature a guided tour of the renovation area, jam music, and an art sale to help raise support.

“We have raised about $8,400 so far, thanks to very generous donors and the guests who have come to support the theatre through the brunches,” Ryan says. “We also need volunteers though, because it’s a monster project.”

I recently stopped by the theatre, which sits nestled on a revitalized block of Maple Street in the heart of Benson. I peeked in on the ongoing renovation, much of which involves getting the money to come in first. The sidewalk bricks in front of the theatre are worn and cracked from the footsteps of our past, and it’s missing the old sign that once proclaimed “BENSON” in proud shining letters. Despite that, I still felt a sense of rustic charm from the building. Under those floorboards is an old stage waiting to be rediscovered. Between those walls is a familiar character, waiting to be brought back to life. The Benson Theatre has many stories to tell, and hopefully many new ones in the years to come.

Group Aims to Restore Benson Theater

April 4, 2012  |  Recent Posts  |  No Comments

A group of Omaha entrepreneurs hopes to raise $1.3 million to restore a former Benson movie theater and transform it into an arts performance space and education center.

The Benalto Theater, 6054 Maple St., was built in 1923 as a combination vaudeville house, movie theater and community space. From 1927 to 1953 it was the Benson Theater, part of a chain of neighborhood movie theaters, seating about 400. It has been vacant for five years.

Amy Ryan, owner and operator of the Pizza Shoppe next door, is spearheading the project, which she sees as part of a self-sustaining community development concept for Benson.

The revamped theater would join a number of restaurants, bars and other businesses that have opened in the neighborhood in the past nine months or so, including Ella’s, Lot 2 and Ethel Mae’s restaurants and Krug Park bar. Beercade, a bar and arcade, is opening April 13. Another restaurant, Mantra, is expected to open soon, and a brewpub is in the works.

The Benson Theatre Project, a project of the Omaha Community Foundation, will try to raise $50,000 in the next 50 days to pay for 18 months of rent, insurance and overhead to secure the building, Ryan said.

Phase 2 would be raising $250,000 to buy the building from a development partnership, which purchased it two years ago. A deal for rental and purchase of the building is still under negotiation.

The final phase, about $900,000, would be the actual restoration. Alley Poyner Macchietto Architecture has begun work on restoration plans.

The Pizza Shoppe will offer $20 brunches for the next six Sundays through Mother’s Day, each from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., to help reach the initial $50,000 goal.

Ryan said strong community support could lead the restored building to open as early as fall 2013.

“I’m so excited to learn how many people love Benson as much as I do,” Ryan said. “So many who have gone to Benson High, or they grew up here, or some relative lived here, they have a lot of love for this community.”

Ryan envisions the theater being used as a workshop center during the day, offering classes on business education, finance and strategic planning for artists and startup entrepreneurs.

“Entrepreneurship is the new art form,” she said. “People can learn these processes to succeed in business. We’re hoping for corporate-sponsored classes offered free.”

At night, the 200-seat sloped-floor theater, complete with an orchestra pit, fly space above the stage and state-of-the-art sound and lighting systems, would be booked for whatever the community needs, Ryan said: live theater, comedy, concerts, presentations by local filmmakers and more.

Ryan said the building will need new electrical, heating, cooling and plumbing systems, flooring, seating and a concerted effort to restore its historic architecture. No photos of the theater’s interior have been found.

Most recently, Rick’s Fitness used the building as a warehouse.

Other key activists in the effort, according to Ryan, are Raechel Achelpohl, Jesse Stanek, Sarah Wengert, Marq Manner, David Codr and Monty Eich.

The Omaha Community Foundation is providing fiscal sponsorship until the Benson Theatre Project secures its own nonprofit status for donors. Money donated now will be funneled through the foundation and is tax deductible.

“We think the plans for the theater are a great combination, visionary,” said Mike Leighton, president and chief executive officer of the Omaha Community Foundation. “We have a great deal of confidence in the people behind the project.”

Leighton said the plan fits the Omaha By Design initiative, which has promoted conservation and development in established parts of Omaha.

“This is part of the re-emergence of Benson as a thriving community,” he said.

City Councilman Pete Festersen, who represents Benson, endorsed the project in a Monday letter to Ryan.

Jay Palu, an architect at Alley Poyner Macchietto, said projects that have a chance to help an emerging neighborhood take special attention and time.

“We’re still exploring the capabilities of the building,” he said. “Amy’s intent is to go back to the original as much as possible. With buildings this old, it usually turns out to be a mix of what it was and what’s feasible today.”

With extensive renovation over the years, and incomplete records of what once was, he said, patience takes precedence.

“The goal will be to once again have a building that serves as a center of the Benson community,” he said.

Ryan said Benson already has a lively music and bar-band scene. The Benson Theatre Project is a way to make sure all art forms are represented in Benson, she said.

“This vision for Benson as a cultural and entertainment district is really coming to fruition,” said Shelley Kiel, manager of the Benson Business Improvement District. “This could be the crown jewel in the future of the Benson area.”

She said there has been an outpouring of support for the project since it was posted on Facebook over the weekend, with more than 200 “likes” within 24 hours.

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