Saving the World

SOTW-9-05-12TheaterBANNER

A good film, if seen at a time when your mind is unusually primed for its message, has the capacity to bring you back to that exact moment in time when it first had you hooked. How much more, then, are the transportive powers of the brick-and-mortar cinema itself? Old movie theaters were, for many of us growing up, temples of the moving picture, where larger-than-life movie stars fought, sang, wept, and loved on the big screen. In Nebraska, to keep open its cinematic gateway into times past, the Main Street community of Kearney has rallied to save its own downtown theater.

“The World was where I grew up seeing movies. Rocky, Star Wars, The Silence of the Lambs—I spent many an hour in that theater, I have a romantic place in my heart for it.” Jon Bokenkamp, founder of the World Theatre Foundation in the city of Kearney, having been initiated into the love of film at the World Theatre, moved to Hollywood after college, where he wrote screenplays for A-listers like Angelina Jolie, Halle Berry, and Bruce Willis. When he moved back to Kearney with his wife and kids after 14 years in Los Angeles, however, he found the World in bad shape. Run-down and unloved, it was unable to compete with the new multiplex and other entertainment venues.

Jon attended the last screening at the old World in November 2008. “My wife and I snuck in a bottle of champagne, just curled up on the seats and chilled out. When it was over we stood outside watching them turn off the marquee, it was really sad,” he recalled. But as he stood there, he looked across the street and saw the well-trafficked Museum of Nebraska Art, which used to be the old post office and is now the cornerstone of Kearney’s lively Main Street. And he thought, hey, we can do this with the World too.

90 Days to Save the World

The World Theatre was built as a vaudeville house in 1927. At the time, however, it was right on the cusp of the popularization of “talkies.” The subsequent decline in vaudeville led to its transformation into a movie theater. When Jon inquired into purchasing the building in 2008, it was owned by the Masonic Society, which said that it wasn’t for sale. In the end, Jon and the Masons negotiated a 20-year lease with the option to renew.

Jon and his team found themselves in the odd situation of having to raise funds to renovate a building they didn’t even own. Undaunted, they began their fund-raising efforts with a “90 Days to Save the World” campaign. The very first grant they received was an exploratory grant of $3,000 from the National Trust’s Denver Field Office. “When it was just me and a buddy drinking coffee trying to figure out what to do with the World, it was that $3,000 that set us going,” Jon laughed. Then, Suzanne Brodine, the Main Street manager of Downtown Kearney at that time, came on board. With Suzanne’s experience working with the city, the Foundation managed to get their first big grant—a $300,000 Community Development Block Grant (CDBG), awarded under the Nebraska Tourism Development Initiative.

“Jon was thinking at first that he would raise the bulk of the money privately,” said Suzanne. “But securing the CDBG created a snowball effect; it allowed us to take the project to the next level and start requesting … additional funds.” Applying for grants also had the secondary effect of forcing the project team to develop timelines and concrete goals for the rehabilitation.

At the same time, the World Theatre Foundation organized a wide variety of grassroots fund-raising events, which reintegrated the World into the life of the community. Two haunted houses in the basement raised $15,000, and World Theatre t-shirts sold for $25 apiece. Jon’s old professor at the University of Nebraska-Kearney, Keith Terry, wrote a book about the theater called Kearney’s World Theatre: Images of America, and donated half the profits to the Foundation.

In four years, Jon Bokenkamp’s dream of running the World had become a million-dollar project. With money in the bank and the Masons’ original blueprints in hand, the Foundation completely remodeled the theater to be as close to its 1927 vaudeville beginnings as possible.

Promotion and Ballyhoo

Playing with unconventional uses of the theater space has allowed the World to succeed in drawing crowds every weekend. The fact is, the theater had failed as a commercial venture once before, and this time around, the team knew it needed to carve out a new niche in the neighborhood.

The World offers movies at a more affordable price than regular multiplexes. Tickets are $5 a head. Popcorn (made according to 1920s recipes) and soda at the concession stands also go cheap. To keep overheads low, The World is completely volunteer-run, and open only from Fridays to Sundays. During the week, the theater is available for rental. Renovations at the World included an extension of the stage apron to make room for live Q&A sessions after screenings. Couples have also rented the theater for weddings and anniversary dinners—some of whom had their first dates at a movie in those same seats.

To avoid conflict with the large multiplexes, the World screens films you won’t see anywhere else in Kearney. With a blend of classic pictures, family movies, and indie films, the World appeals to a discerning crowd. At the World’s red carpet re-opening, they screened the 1950s Marilyn Monroe classic Some Like It Hot, adventure cult film The Princess Bride, and the indie documentary by London street artist Banksy, Exit Through the Gift Shop to a sold-out theater.

For Jon Bokenkamp, this is more than a business model. It’s also an educational method. Though the 7,000 college students from the University of Kearney-Nebraska do provide a ready audience for off-beat film fare, Jon is aiming to spread cultural eclecticism to the rest of the community. “What we’re trying to do is build an audience,” he explained. “We want to entertain, but we also want to outrage, to create a dialogue about different issues.” With the World, Jon is trying to cultivate in Kearney a breeding ground for art and culture to match what he was exposed to in his time in Los Angeles.

A Vision for Downtown

From a Main Street perspective, these new artistic incursions into the community are invaluable in helping downtown flower and flourish. As Suzanne put it, “The World Theatre is meant to complement the mix of businesses and nightlife downtown. It’s a focal point, a fantastic draw for large crowds that can then disperse into other venues.” She told me that when the theater was closed for the three years of renovation, other downtown businesses really felt its absence.

But despite the new digital projection equipment and fancy multi-channel sound systems, the past is still alive in this venerable Nebraskan theater. Grandparents can bring their grandkids to see a movie from their own youth, perhaps the one they saw on their dinner-and-a-movie first date. As the lights go down and the movie comes up, they are taken first into the world of the film—the deserts of Tatooine, the winding corridors of Hogwarts, Chicago in 1929, or a frozen lake in Montauk. And then, as their bodies settle into the strangely familiar plush seats of their old theater, they travel headfirst into the realm of personal memory.