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Bringing back the silver screen

September 12, 2014
Jim Krajewski ( ,

The silver screen of the Webster Theater has been dark for about a year and a half, but on Sept. 19, the efforts of organizers, volunteers and donors will bring the movie

house roaring back to life.

Community members began creating a plan to save the theater in the late weeks of spring in 2013. In a meeting held on June 6, 2013, visitors were told by Jim Davies, volunteer manager of the Windsor Theater in Hampton, that it could be done.

Article Photos

— Photos by Nick Woolley
HERO board members pictured, from left, are Jeff Pingel, Jake Pulis, Zach Chizek, Holly Stroner, Kay Ross, Cindy Schieber, Deb Brown, Jerry Kloberdanz and Tyler Abens.

From the outset, organizers knew that such a project would require a lot of work. At that meeting, Deb Brown, executive director of the Webster City Area Chamber of Commerce, said other small-town theaters were sustained only by the hard work of volunteers.

"It took a very dedicated group of individuals to decide that they wanted to make a difference and save these old theaters," Brown said.

Webster City would find that group in the Help Entertain and Restore Organization. HERO was named by a group of students in an entrepreneurship class at Webster City High School in November of 2013. As the year neared its end, Brown and Jeff Pingel, now the president of the HERO board, presented a three-stage fundraising plan to community members at Kendall Young Library.

Their first goal was to purchase the theater. At that meeting on Dec. 20, 2013, Brown said HERO would seek to raise $23,800 before Jan. 31. The group had made an agreement with Wells Fargo, who owned the building, that if HERO could raise half of the money need to buy the theater, they would match funds. With about a month to purchase the theater, Brown was undaunted.

"We're all in," Brown said. "Failure is not an option."

Just 10 days after the meeting, HERO raised enough money to buy the Webster Theater. Fundraising continued at a fast pace. HERO hosted a seat adoption fundraising campaign that sold out. Local businesses, service groups, school classes and individuals all gave their time and money to the project.

Cleaning and renovations were quick to begin. A digital projector was purchased and installed. New lobby carpet, restroom flooring and roof repairs were among many projects the group took up. Now, the iconic Webster Theater marquee is one of the last projects to be completed before the theater reopens. HERO board member Kay Ross said she has mixed emotions as the theater nears its rebirth.

"I'm really excited, but my heart is very full. It really touches me how very generous members of the community have been," Ross said.

The community will have its first look at the new Webster Theater on Sept. 19 when HERO hosts a "Red Carpet Affair." Ross said this formal event, set to begin at 6 p.m. that day, will be a truly grand reopening of the building.

"It is basically celebrating the opening of the Webster Theater by thanking all of our major donors and also inviting anyone else who would like to come by buying tickets," Ross said.Those who receive or purchase tickets to the event will get a first-class visit to the movies. Ross said those attending will park in downtown areas and will then be picked up by one of two limousines which will deliver them to the red carpet at the Webster Theater. A photographer will be taking photos of visitors in their formal attire. Those photos will then be available for purchase.

Once inside the theater, Ross said attendees will have a chance to enjoy champagne and heavy hors d'oeuvres. Then, visitors will get to watch the first film showing at the newly reopened theater.

Tickets for the Red Carpet Affair are $50 each and can be purchased by contacting Ross at (515) 297-1758 or by visiting Seneca Street Saloon or the Webster City Area Chamber of Commerce Office.

Until the Red Carpet Affair, HERO is keeping the look of the refurbished theater under wraps. The doors and windows of the building are obscured as work continues. Ross said that, even though she and other HERO members are excited to show off what they've done, they also want to surprise visitors when they walk in the door.

"We want there to be a little bit of mystery," Ross said.

Those who don't attend the Red Carpet Affair won't have to wait long to see the new Webster Theater. The first public movie will be shown the day after the event on Sept. 20. Currently, the movie is planned to begin at 7 p.m. that day.

All visitors to the refurbished Webster Theater won't be greeted with the same old building they might remember. Keri Rojas, general manager of the Webster Theater, said the movie house is being redesigned in a classic art deco look stemming from the 1920's and 1930's. That style, Rojas said, will be reflected in the wall colors, the carpet and the artwork on the lobby's walls. Also, employees of the theater will be in uni- form. In addition to fitting with the new, upscale look of the theater, Rojas said the uniforms show a commitment to customer service which was common at the time.

"We're going to look people in the eye, we're going to call them "sir" and "ma'am," we're going to be neatly attired and we're going to be focused on the customer," Rojas said. "We're not going to do things a cer- tain way just because it's easy for us. We want to rediscover a level of serv- ice and cleanliness that has been lost to this industry."

For the full experience, and more surprises, Rojas said community members will have to visit the Webster Theater when it reopens.

Since that spring of 2013, HERO members have been working to bring the Webster Theater back to life. However, HERO board member Zach Chizek said the group won't dissipate once the theater reopens.

"HERO, as some people may not understand, is not just the theater," Chizek said. "The theater is just the first project of HERO. The Help Entertain and Restore Organization was set up for what the acronym stands for."

Chizek said the Save the Webster Theater project was a good test run for the organization. It showed members that they could raise the money needed to complete a project. In talks with the Main Street Iowa

program, Chizek said people were amazed that the group has raised such a large amount of money in a relatively short amount of time. What also interested them, Chizek said, is how HERO has a unique opportunity to continue working in Webster City.

"We are helping to not only grow Webster City, but make life here bet- ter for myself, my future children,

that's the direct product. This is one of the only organizations where, I feel, the direct product helps your community and stays in your com- munity. What's interesting is that there's really no other group like us in the state."

Once the theater is sustainable, Chizek said HERO will look at other large projects. HERO members have dis- cussed creating a community center or convention hall where activities, events and live shows could be held. However, they're being careful to not spread themselves too thin. As the theater reopens, it will still be their main focus.

"Truly, if the theater fails then HERO fails," Chizek said. "That's not something we or the community want to see. We don't need another 'for sale' sign in Main Street."

As the group is entirely supported by community members, Chizek said HERO's fundraising efforts won't end with the opening of the theater. In order for that project and future ones to have a long-lasting impact on the community of Webster City, Chizek said the public and members of HERO will have to be continually commit- ted to improving the area. In the meantime, HERO invites everyone to come to the Webster Theater soon to see the fruits of their generosity.



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