The long-dormant theater at 319 N. Central Ave. in West Duluth had presented its last family-friendly titles in the late 1960s. A notorious state pornographer took over the place and screened a dubious film schedule through the 1970s. Then the theater went mostly dark until 1997 when it was remodeled for small businesses, including a quilt shop which placed advertising on the chimney.
Building owners removed seats, added walls and junked the popcorn machine. The theater even lost its marquee.
But this week the silver screen will shine again at the West Theater.
Boone and a group of investors have spent nearly three years and more than $1 million bringing the property back to life. The public will get its first glimpse at the nearly completed project during grand opening events with food, drinks and a classic film on Friday, June 21, and live music Saturday, June 22.
The historic theater restoration has been an epic tale worthy of its own feature-length film.
Boone said the project stalled last summer after he purchased a neighboring building — the former Alhambra Theater — and ran out of money. Work restarted under a new project management firm, Kraus-Anderson Construction, but budgets ran dry again as new building issues were discovered this spring.
Boone estimated final costs will run between $300,000 and $500,000 over the initial $1 million restoration plan.
Asbestos removal, corner foundation work and a concrete floor repour were some of the latest construction problems. The new building issues jeopardized marquee completion, curtain installation and final restroom work among other things.
“You only have one chance to make a good impression,” said Boone. “It’s a historic theater. I would rather poke my eyes out than put up half of a marquee.”
Miraculously, marquee work has continued, a valance will decorate the stage and bathrooms will be functional but not complete when doors open Friday for a screening of David O. Selznick’s original 1937 film A Star is Born. Blues guitarist Bernard Allison will be the first artist on the new performance stage Saturday night.
Events this weekend launch a new chapter for the small West Duluth theater.
Workers and volunteers have revitalized the building both inside and out, bringing back its original Art Deco design. The theater will seat 250 people and use a sound system purchased from a Minneapolis nightclub. New lights, new carpeting, new tile work and building infrastructure have all been added. A rear entrance was changed to direct patrons to the newly restored Central Avenue box office.
The theater will screen mainstream, foreign and classic films. It will also stage live music, theater and other entertainment as well as host recitals, meetings and receptions.
Boone said he hopes to raise money for final project work through a theater membership drive. Independent theaters across the country raise money through memberships that offer film buffs ticket discounts, free popcorn and special screenings, he said.
For example, said Boone, a theater in Omaha, Neb. offers multiple membership levels between $50 and $5,000. “The only difference between the $1,000 a year member and the $2,500 a year member was free popcorn,” he said. “People do it because they want to support the venue.”
Boone plans to announce the West Theater membership plan sometime after its opening.
Meanwhile, a Go Fund Me page has been set up in an effort to raise $50,000 in theater assistance. Carla Blumberg, an owner of At Sara’s Table Chester Creek Cafe, put the fundraiser together after she heard Boone, an old friend, needed funds to complete his project.
“I think it will be a real nice thing for that neighborhood,” said Blumberg. “I know how difficult it is for a person to do something without public money and I just wanted to support him.”
Blumberg said she loves the 1930s, its glamorous movie stars like Jean Harlow and the beautiful art deco buildings of the era. Recent photos of the restored West Theater look beautiful, she said.
“He doesn’t have enough money and I can’t get him to concentrate on that problem,” said Blumberg.
Boone said he appreciates the Go Fund Me project and hopes it will generate some interest.
“I nearly was bankrupt while this was dithering and figuring out,” he said. “And I’ve still got endlessly stupid compromises that, well I haven’t even get on top of, I just cut out of the budget.”
Operating as Paladin Properties LLC, Boone received project financing from Park State Bank and three nonprofits including Northeast Entrepreneur Fund, the Northland Foundation and Arrowhead Regional Development Commission. The city of Duluth also supplied a $50,000 loan through its Advance West redevelopment program.
Boone said after lengthy delays last year, investors eventually supplied more funding to complete the theater renovation. A plan connecting the neighboring Alhambra Theatre building next door for lounge space is on hold due to city permitting issues.
“Well, (the project) is going, but we’re definitely opening up without the curtains,” he said.
Park State Bank Vice President/Commercial Lender Bryan Lent said the West Theater project has been long and difficult but the end result will be good for West Duluth. The new theater will open on the same block as a bank branch.
“We’re happy to see something happening and moving forward,” he said. “And we’re a part of it, too.”
Lent said the restoration has made big progress in the past few weeks but a lot of finishing work remains.
“We’re excited to see it get completed and we’re excited to see where it goes in the near future,” he said. “How it fits in the neighborhood and what they end up having there, I think that’s created a lot of excitement and buzz.”
“It’s a big deal,” Lent said. “It seems like there’s always a pulse in (the Duluth arts scene) and this will obviously be a big part of it.”
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