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.
For more information or to reserve your seat for the Sunday brunches, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
To donate, please visit omahafoundation.org/givenow
The Historic Benson Theatre is located at 6054 Maple St, Omaha, Ne. Sunday brunches run April 8th, 15th, 22nd, 29th and May 6th and 13th from 10a-2p at P.S. Collective, 6056 Maple St.