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The Grand Theatre immediately transports patrons to another era. An era where Gene Kelly is “Singin’ in the Rain” and Judy Garland steps from the mundane to a wondrous dreamland of Oz. An era that made going to the movies a true night out on the town — and it would no longer exist if a group of downtown Grand Island business owners wouldn't have stepped in 10 years ago.
Its fully-functioning neon marquee is a shining beacon of nostalgia in a reinvigorated area of GI. It lets people know that, yes, our downtown is growing, said Grand Foundation board member Ray Evans.
After purchasing your tickets at the art-deco styled ticket booth you promptly get sucked into 1937 when the theatre first opened. Neon interior lights, a one-of-a-kind carpet that replicates the original and ornate ceilings and walls inside the theater make one wonder why going to a mega-plex theatre ever became a “thing.”
All of this restoration would not have been possible without a group of “Downtowners” as Evans refers to the Board of Directors.
Craig Hand is President of Grand Island Foundation, Inc. The organization is a 501(c)(3) that owns and operates the Grand Theatre. The nonprofit’s mission is, “A: To provide arts, entertainment, and social interaction, which through a wide variety of programs, results in personal enrichment, enjoyment and a sense of community for ethnically and age diverse audiences in the region, and B: To preserve the last historic movie palace in Grand Island as a home for film, local performing arts organizations, a venue for touring performers, and community events.”
Hand said most of the board members grew up going to the Grand.
“As the last remaining movie palace, we wanted to save it for the good of the older and newer generations of our community,” he said.
In 2004, Fridley Theatres, Inc. occupied and ran the Grand Theatre. They were looking to leave the space, creating a big, empty theater in downtown Grand Island. Hand and a group of concerned business owners sat down and said, “We're going to do this! We are going to run the theater!”
Fridley Theatres was willing to part with the space if a 501(c)(3), nonprofit organization purchased $50,000 of their old equipment — that way, Fridley Theatres, Inc. could receive a tax write-off for donating the remainder of the building’s cost. Hand said, becoming a nonprofit after September 11, 2001 was much more difficult. Legislation and background checks had become much more stringent and it can sometimes take up to two years to establish a 501(c)(3).
Evans said they didn’t have that kind of time.
This is where being a part of a connected downtown came in handy. Maudie Walters owned Maudie’s Stained Glass just down the street from the Grand. She heard about the need to establish a 501(c)(3) quickly and spoke with her husband, who happened to be friends with then Senator Tom Osborne. After a little chat, Senator Osborne was able to confirm the identity and mission of the group “Downtowners” trying to establish their nonprofit. From there, the paperwork moved much faster. This allowed The Grand Foundation, Inc. to become a properly established 501(c)(3) two days before the deadline from Fridley Theatres, Inc.
So, this group of business owners was able to start running a theatre.
The collective group of board members had a lot of business savvy — several of them have owned their own businesses for years — however, no one had any clue how to run a movie theater when they first took over the building in December of 2004.
Evans said with the help of theater staff, “people who knew what they were doing,” they were able to keep the Grand running. The Foundation operated the theatre as it had been for a few years.
The Foundation started its capital campaign, “The Grand Plan” in 2009. By 2010 they were ready to begin their $1 million refurbishing project.
Initially, Hand said, they began by repairing the leaking roof.
Then came updating the old film projectors to digital, which Evans said, they were one of the first theatres in town to do so. They installed a state-of-the-art sound system and 3D projector. Then they were able to completely tear down the façade and old sign. They replaced both with modern materials, but kept the original look of the 1937 theatre.
Although the building was finished and looking beautiful, the Foundation didn’t have an advertising budget, which made it difficult to get people through the door, Hand said.
“We were lucky to get 25 people a night,” he said. “Word-of-mouth and some great movies that came along at just the right time have brought us up to an average of over 200 people per night.”
Like many NPOs, The Grand Foundation relies heavily on grants, fundraising and volunteers. The theatre is completely run on volunteerism. Hand said the Board’s role and enthusiasm is important when it comes to the success of the theatre.
“There is always the financial struggle, and we have never spent money that we did not already have the means to repay,” he said. “[It is important to] keep everyone — from the board members to the volunteers — involved and enthused. It needs constant attention, and you must also constantly do things to remind the public of your presence.”
The Grand Theatre is also available to rent, which helps with some functional costs, and as Hand states, “It creates a service for the community, and it keeps people aware that we are here.”
The Grand Foundation is currently installing a sound booth to aid in live presentations on the stage.
The Foundation has found its niche and Hand said other organizations have contacted the board seeking advice.
He suggests organizations do a lot of research about the project they are pondering.
“Get experienced people who can do a great job of applying for grants and have a financial background,” Hand said. “Look for people who have an emotional or historical connection to your project, and anyone who can supply documentation for your historical aspects. If possible, get a lawyer to volunteer his services for your initial setup.”
The Grand Theatre continues growing, they had their most successful Prairie Lights Film Festival to date this October. The festival showcased over 35 Nebraska filmmakers, a spcial Horror Night and screenings with audience Q&As. For more information about The Grand Theatre, visit grandmovietheatre.com.
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