Area residents showed their enthusiasm Saturday for the renovation and restoration of the Empress Theater.
Digg Site Productions, a nonprofit organization, is raising funds to purchase the Empress building from owners Curt and Lynn Goracke. The event from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday was designed as an open house/sneak peek for the group’s plans.
“The turnout was fantastic,” said Dana Reeves, chief executive officer and executive director for Digg Site. “We were supposed to open the doors at 11 and we had people show up at 10. … We had over 400 people come through.”
Digg Site has already raised more than $300,000 toward its goal of $2.5 million. Plans are to show movies and stage theatrical productions at the Empress. It will also serve as a home base for students who want to learn about filmmaking.
Officials discussed their fundraising efforts during the open house, which also featured free popcorn and hotdogs, and gift bags for the first 250 visitors.
“Obviously we haven’t started renovation or anything like that yet because we’re still in the fundraising phase,” Reeves said. “But folks were able to come in and see what it looks like now and where we’re kind of starting. We had big banners on the wall with pictures from when the theater was first built.”
There were also old newspaper articles that featured stories about the Empress, which was built in 1913, throughout the decades. The building has housed various businesses since the theater closed in 1977.
Reeves said some of the organization’s youth film camp works were on display from the past few years.
“There were photo ops and lots of conversation about what it is going to look like and what it is going to take. Everybody was excited,” she said. “I think the biggest joy for all of us was hearing everybody’s stories. People were sharing their memories of the times they went to the theater with their mom and dad or friends.”
Reeves said one couple shared the story of how they met. The woman was working in the ticket booth of the theater and the man worked as a doorman, tearing tickets. The couple eventually married.
“That was 48 years ago and they’re still together today,” Reeves said.
Reeves said a unique feature at the event was a room that had slat boards attached to the wall.
“We had permanent markers and if you put a dollar or more in the box then you could take a Sharpie and go sign your name on the wall, write a message or share a memory,” she said. “Everybody loved that.”
The event appealed to the gamut of those with memories of the Empress to those who had never been there before.
“A lot of people said they hadn’t been in the theater since the last time it was a theater,” Reeves said. “There were also people who said they had never been in the building, period. For people to see what it can be once again was really cool. It was great to bring awareness to people about the project and what it can do for the downtown area and the whole community.”
Reeves is thankful for the support of the Gorackes.
“This project is happening because of their shared vision that they have with us,” she said. “They see the potential for the Empress. Their willingness to entrust us with the future of the building is an honor and we’re so grateful for their trust in us.”