ELY – Movies are back on the big screen here with the reopening last weekend of the historic State Theater. A sellout crowd of about 70 people, with social distancing protocols in place because …
ELY – Movies are back on the big screen here with the reopening last weekend of the historic State Theater. A sellout crowd of about 70 people, with social distancing protocols in place because of the coronavirus pandemic, enjoyed the 1986 comedy classic “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” on Friday night.
The first date sold out quickly as residents and visitors returned to Ely’s only movie house after a decades-long closure and a COVID-19-related grand-reopening delay.
David Wigdahl, chairman of the non-profit organization that operates the facility, along with theater manager Pete Schamber, provided a virtual update to Tuesday Group participants this week.
It took nearly a decade for movies on the big screen to return to town. The theater was built in 1936 and is one of several places around town on the National Register of Historic Places. After closing in 2008, the theater stood vacant and began to deteriorate. Alley A Realty purchased the dilapidated landmark in 2015 with their first task to fix the leaky roof before winter set in. Several years of renovation were needed to get the movie projector (now all digital) turned on.
The non-profit group formed in 2016 to open and operate the theater became active late last year as renovations were nearing completion.
“At first I thought it would take about three years to raise the money to open,” Wigdahl said. “I am pleasantly surprised that we are here and open just seven months later.”
The EHST set a goal of raising $370,000 to open. With many large donations, including a $100,000 gift, two $20,000 gifts, several $10,000 donations, a seat nameplate fundraising program, a matching grant from the Department of Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation, “and multitudes of individual donations,” the board had the funds needed to open. “Right now, all the bills are paid,” he said.
The state lockdown of public places this spring delayed the theater’s opening and altered the way EHST will provide movies. The venue is limited to 25-percent capacity or about 70 people. Advance tickets and popcorn and soda are sold online. Customers enter the facility through the renovated front doors and exit to the back alley. Staff members are required to wear protective face masks, but customers are not. Restrooms are available. Extra isolation areas are available upon request.
EHST’s opening movie screening will be followed this weekend by “Chinatown” and “Footloose.” Schamber explained they will rotate through various movie distributors. They are using Paramount right now and will expand to include distributors such as Universal, Sony, and others. New movie releases may be in the works for later this summer.
The return of big screen movies is just part of an ambitious plan for the theater and adjacent building. A concession stand could be ready to go next month. A smaller screening room, to be built next door, is under construction. A separately managed multi-windowed café or eating and drinking venue on the east side of the building, being developed by Alley A Realty and the Ott family, is also in the works.
A second phase of fundraising will launch soon to help complete the second theater that will seat around 60 people. A projector, screen, and seating will cost about $150,000, Wigdahl said. Another matching grant from IRRR is available. Seat nameplates, at $400 each, will also be available.
“We hope to have a naming rights program available for our smaller theater at $40,000 to $50,000,” Wigdahl added.
Concerts, plays and other events have been touted for the facility, but COVID-19 and public health concerns will dictate when that happens. A return of “The Quiltmaker’s Gift” that drew hundreds of visitors to town last year is tentatively scheduled for 2021.
A grand opening event for Ely’s Historic State Theater is planned for mid-August or perhaps around Labor Day, Schamber said. Plans will be finalized as COVID-19 public health protocols evolve.
For more information and to order movie tickets, go to www.elystatetheater.org.