In its first incarnation, the Dundee Theatre was a vaudeville house, complete with a stage. But when vaudeville died in the ’30s, the stage was covered by a silver screen. Now that stage is being unveiled once again as part of the theater’s top-to-bottom renovation.
And never has a renovation been more needed. Sitting through a recent screening of “The Forgiveness of Blood,” the theater felt even more run down and musty than usual, generating a burning anxiety that maybe the reason it was being allowed to fall apart was because it had a date with a wrecking ball. Rumors of the Dundee Theatre’s demise have been whispered for years. I was afraid they might finally be coming true.
So I asked Denny Moran, who has owned the theater since 1980. A retired Omaha police officer, Moran said he originally bought the building and those surrounding it with one intention in mind: “To tear them down and make way for a McDonald’s,” he said from a booth inside the Old Dundee Bar & Grill, another of the buildings he’s renovating.
“I didn’t know diddly squat about the movie business,” he said. When Moran took over operations from former owner Dave Franks, the Dundee played “sub-run” pictures, films that had premiered months earlier and were on their second run.
“No one was showing up,” Moran said. “I talked to the kids working there at the time and said, ‘This ain’t working.'”
Three weeks later, Moran switched programming to independent films and people began coming back to the theater for flicks like “Fitzcarraldo” and “Tender Mercies.” A few years later, Moran met his future wife, Janet, who also fell in love with the theater. The two were married in 1987, the same year Janet first remodeled the Dundee and helped open Main Street Movies, the video store that used to be located next door.
Now 25 years later, Janet is remodeling the Dundee Theatre again. Moran said she helped convince him to keep the theater rather than to sell it to developers. “She drove the decision,” Moran said. “She’s always loved the theater. It breaks her heart to see it the way it is.”
The first order of business is returning the stage to working order. “It’s always been there, covered by the screen,” Moran said. “It’s in good shape. All we have to do is sand it and stain the wood.”
To facilitate live productions as well as movie screenings, Moran ordered a massive 40-foot by 19-foot retractable screen from a manufacturer in France — the only manufacturer in the world of such a large device.
“We’ll have live shows at 7 and move screenings back,” he said. Local producer Gary Rockwood will help book the venue, which will initially focus on a ’70s music revue called “8-Track,” similar to the popular “Beehive” productions at the old Howard Street Tavern. However, anyone will be able to lease the theater for one-off productions.
Everything else in the 400-capacity theater will either be repaired or replaced, starting with the seats. Moran said they considered replacing them with modern high-back theater seats, but Janet nixed the idea. “She doesn’t like those,” he said. “They make her think of head lice.”
Instead, the existing American Body Form seats, first installed in 1955, will be repaired, repainted and recovered. “They’re so comfortable because they have coil springs,” Moran said. “I can widen the seats, add cup holders and recover them with mohair fabric, which wears like iron.”
The rest of the theater’s interior will get a fresh coat of paint and all linens will be steam cleaned or replaced. The building’s roof recently was repaired, high-efficiency heating has been added, and all electrical has been updated.
Moran said a “top-of-the-line” Christie 4000 DLP projector would soon sit alongside the existing film projector. The theater’s speakers also will be repaired or replaced. And while all this is going on this summer, the theater will acquire a liquor license to sell beer and wine from its redesigned concessions area.
Only one thing is driving the renovation’s timetable: “First Janet has to pick out the new carpeting” Moran said. “There are carpet samples scattered all over our kitchen floor.”
For a longtime Dundee Theatre patron, it all sounds too good to be true, especially in the face of what could have been a demolition. “It was a big decision in my life to turn down the money — and we’re talking big dollars,” Moran said, adding that over the past few years community support has waned. “It’s not like it used to be. I know the theater is run down, but once we remodel, the patrons will come back.”
For the Morans, running the Dundee Theatre has always been a labor of love. “We never took anything out of the theater,” Moran said. “Whatever money we made we put back into it. And it definitely needs it now.”
Moran said the renovation could be completed by September or October, but you won’t have to wait that long for the theater’s first live stage production. A “one night only” performance by Branson-based music impersonator Bill Chrastil is slated for May 5.
Beyond Lazy-i is a weekly column by Reader senior contributing writer Tim McMahan focused on arts, culture, society and the media. Email Tim at email@example.com