Perhaps there’s an inverse formula at work: The longer and tougher the struggle to make a dream reality, the shorter the speeches when the finish line is reached. Maybe that’s why there were just a few brief remarks and salutes Friday before the ribbon was cut and the reborn Tower Theater was officially open for an hour or so of snooping and perusing before the kickoff of a week of special grand reopening events.
By contrast, the Southern Crossing, a span that prompted controversy for a few years, opened last fall with a fairly subdued, relatively short ceremony, followed by a timber carnival. But that helium-balloon and ride-your-bike day was a bit fancier, compared to the simple event that marked completion of the Tower Theatre’s redo. That’s probably because the real fun is the wide variety of performances theatergoers will get to see in coming days, weeks and months (the schedule for the opening week events and more can be found at www.towertheatre.org).
It’s been more than a decade since Act III Theatres shut the last downtown movie house, which first opened 64 years ago. After a $4 million fund-raising effort (about 10 percent of that public funds), Friday’s ribbon-cutting event occurred before a dark, empty stage (before preparations’ for Friday night’s debut performance by Body Vox) and with even less folderol than most Bend Chamber of Commerce ribbon-cuttings (the food stayed wrapped up behind the new lobby’s glass counters, and no wine or bubbly poured.)
Most of the 450 or so seats were filled on a snow-swirling Friday afternoon by folks wanting to see how it all turned out. This was the public’s first chance to sneak a peek, after a private affair Thursday night, where the people who had shelled out $750 a pop over the years got to seek out and take a seat beside the shiny gold plaques inlaid in the wooden armrests of the plus velvet chairs.
Tom Karren of the investment firm D.A. Davidson welcomed everyone and handed the mike to Gary Capps, former Bend Chamber executive director Gary Capps. He thanked those who sold the building to the city in 1994, and recalled how the first effort to save and restore the building fell through.
After that, he said, the chamber and then-city councilor (now Deschutes County Coimmissioner) Tom DeWolf did a feasibility study and asked the city not to sell the building, but to give supporters of the idea of a community performing arts center a chance to make it happen.
“They said fine – if you raise $300,000 in the next two weeks,” Capps recalled. That was the start of a bid to raise $4 million, and a renovation that has “taken a little longer than we hoped,” he said.
“What we have here is quite a little jewel,” Capps said, turning to Marie Hutchens Easter, who owned and operated the theater for 15 years. “She told me she spent 24 hours a day and slept down here,” he said.
Capps thanked DeWolf and Charlene Dempsey, co-chairs of the Tower Theatre Foundation and years-long fund-raising effort.
“Tom has been the spiritual leader, while Charlene and the committee did the interior design work,” Capps said, introducing DeWolf, who began with a typical DeWolf kind of remark:
“How cool is this?” he said, with a beaming smile, to a cheering response from the theater’s first real audience since the movies of the early `90s rolled on the big screen. “It is such a thrill.”
DeWolf said the private function the night before went alright, and “we believe we have 75 percent of the bugs worked out.”
‘It took a lot of prayers’ to pull it off
Calling out to various VIPs who helped make the theater project happen – the architects, the contractors – DeWolf also ribbed Marty Brazil, formerly Marty Smith, founder of Designers Fine Jewelry downtown, whom he noted recently got married on the same day, and next door to Britney Spears in Las Vegas.
Capps got the mike back for a few moments and said DeWolf’s remarks made clear why he’d called him the “spiritual leader” of the crusade to save the Tower: “It took a lot of prayers.”
Before the ribbon was cut, however, came a piece of original music – a “Fanfare for the Tower” — performed, performed by Clyde Thompson and performed by the Cascade Brass Quintet. The cameras flashed and the crowd clapped as the red chamber ribbon was cut by DeWolf and Dempsey, and pretty soon, everyone got to get up and scamper around the facility while the brass group played.
The downstairs bathrooms got a special look-see, due to the colorful art deco murals done by David Kinker, commissioned by the foundation. Numerous other wall murals cover the walls upstairs, in the halls behind the balcony seats, all harkening to the past, of showgirls and guys with pencil-thin mustaches.
“It’s gorgeous – so cool!” said visitor Dale Van Valkenburg, who planned to return with his two kids Sunday for the Tears of Joy Puppet Theater’s presentation of “Rumpelstiltskin.”
The week features just about every kind of music and performance imaginable, from the play “Love Letters,” with Eva Marie Saint and her husband, to cowboy poet Rudy Gonzalez and a special showing of DeWolf’s favorite flick, “It’s a Wonderful Life,” complete with a visit by Karolyn Grimes, who played the youngest Bailey child, Zuzu, in the 1946 movie.
DeWolf went on KBND radio Friday morning to talk and answer questions about the theater. He said parking will be a challenge, but that most events are in the evening, when it’s a little easier (and noted that there are probably 150 fewer seats in the place than when it showed movies).
The big givers in the fund-raising effort were JeldWen, which contributed $500,000, and the Meyer and Murdock trusts, at $350,000 each. As for public dollars, the feds provided $225,000 (DeWolf frequently notes that Rep. Greg Walden suggested the idea to him, not vice versa) along with $200,000 from the Bend Urban Renewal Agency and $35,000 from Deschutes County (being commissioner helps).
Theater opens debt-free, `on solid ground’
DeWolf also insisted to Bend.com that the city did not “forgive” the debt for the foundation’s $4455,000 purchase of the facility – a majority of the council didn’t favor that. So instead, $145,000 was paid in cash and there’s a $300,000 long-term lease agreement. That involves holding city council meetings at the theater, but it’s unclear yet how much the council may take advantage of that, depending on how a tryout of the theater as a meeting site works out in coming months (and whether a similarly sized, more utilitarian meeting space at the new state-county office building works and pencils out better).
Among the folks on the aisles, checking it out Friday was Mayor Oran Teater, a member of the Tower’s advisory board. “I grew up in the theater business,” the Klamath Falls native said. “My dad ran movie theaters.” Park board member (and former city council colleague) Suzanne Johannsen had a big hug for DeWolf, and said she would have forgiven the debt, had her view prevailed at the time.
Some have asked, and more will ask: Will the facility cover its costs, without the need for more public dollars? Many performing arts facilities around the country, despite the best of intentions, don’t have that kind of track record. But DeWolf said they are off to a good start, opening the place without any debt and with money in the bank.
“Assuming the remaining pledges come in timely,” he said, “we won’t need a `bridge loan’ for operations. We have $200,000 for operating reserves and $300,000 for endowment (to help small groups cover the rental fees, already discounted for non-profits).”
“We believe this will be more than sufficient to ensure that the Tower will operate in the black long after you and I are pushing up daisies,” DeWolf said. “There will be continued fund-raising by the foundation to bolster these funds, for repairs and maintenance, for the purchase of the Steinway piano we’ve acquired, and for additions to our sound system down the road.”
“The Tower is good to go, and on solid ground,” he said.
Time will tell, of course. But it was hard to find anyone Friday who didn’t like what they saw, and hoped it would help strengthen downtown, Bend’s arts scene and all that. (Presumably, anyone who disagreed wouldn’t show up at such an affair – and if they did, would keep such talk to a whisper, or to themselves.)
It’s not just the inevitable doubters, critics and naysayers who have their eyes on the bottom line.
“I think it’s just great,” said Tower volunteer Shirley Ray, who’s lived in Bend for 55 years and greeted folks as they entered. “I’m just hoping they can make money.”