Ten years ago, Jane Evans helped save the historic Panida Theater from a wrecking ball.
But this weekend, she wouldn’t mind setting a fire in the 78-year-old building - to burn the theater’s mortgage.
“I think it would just be fabulous,” said Evans, 76. “With our knees shaking, we signed that mortgage, and now the community is about to own it debt-free.”
Residents have rallied around the mission-style theater since Evans and two other “founding moms” saved it from becoming a parking lot.
Today, the landmark is Sandpoint’s cultural hub, host to everything from movies and dance recitals to the San Francisco Opera and the “Nutcracker” ballet.
Donations and fund-raisers have whittled away the $200,000 mortgage, which is held by Panhandle State Bank and several private individuals.
Theater supporters are only about $17,000 short of paying it off - 15 years early.
“I never expected us to be this close so soon. I’m in awe of this community for its support,” said Panida manager Karen Bowers.
Thousands of people have donated money, most giving small amounts and a handful pitching in $1,000. Still, in the last month, residents have contributed $13,400 to pay off the debt.
Bowers said she expects Saturday’s Holly Eve fundraiser to generate enough cash to torch the mortgage that night.
“We are going to burn it right on stage. We want it to be over and done with and not have this burden around our necks,” she said. “It will mean the theater will never come out of the community’s hands and will truly belong to everyone here.”
Raising that chunk of cash in one night is not unrealistic. Business owner Marilyn Sabella, who organizes the Holly Eve auction, fashion show and food fest, raked in $20,000 last year.
She donates the money to nonprofit groups with most of it going to the Panida. In past years Sabella’s event has paid for two grand pianos, restoration of the theater marquee and ticket booth, new dressing rooms and other renovation projects.
“I made the Panida my first commitment and I really want this to happen,” Sabella said. “The Panida has served as the heart for our community and there is a lot of pride in being able to rescue it.”
The 600-seat theater is booked every weekend.
It was that same way in the 1940s to the 1960s. Floyd Grey, better remembered here as “Farmer Grey” packed the theater on Friday nights. He showed movies and at intermission ran Farmer Grey’s Country Store. It was a grocery give away, a gimmick to get people to the shows.
“He literally would have bags of groceries filling the front of the stage,” said Bowers.
The country store was so popular overflow crowds were seated in a nearby theater and the sound piped in so residents could hear if they were winners.
“The Panida was supported by the community and businesses then and we are trying to continue in that tradition,” Bowers said.
When Evans, Laurel Wagers and Susan Bates-Harbuck first hatched the idea to buy the Panida, the owner, Black Diamond Cattle Co. of Calgary, Alberta, wanted 300,000. The founding moms talked them down to $200,000 and needed to raise $40,000 for a down payment.
The women sold bricks with donors names on them to lay in the theater sidewalk. The women bought green bricks from Spokane, hand stamped names in them and took them back to the factory to be fired. The scheme raised $90,000 in 90 days.
“Everyone said it couldn’t be done and we just did it,” Evans said.
Money left over from the down payment paid for repairs to open the doors on the dilapidated theater.
“It was just awful inside,” recalled Sabella. “It was in as bad a shape as any building I’ve ever seen.”
Half the theater-style seats in the building had been removed or stolen. Piles of plaster that once adorned the ceiling lay on the floor, and a river of water from a leaky roof was running down the balcony stairs.
Much of the building, inside and out has been restored, but still needs work before its returned to its original splendor. “When it was first built it was a showplace of the Northwest. They don’t build movie houses like that anymore,” Bowers said.
The theater’s construction and design provides incredible acoustics inside earning it praise from past performers such as Bonnie Raitt, Arlo Guthrie and Wynton Marsalis.
“I still look around and see things that need doing, but it’s just marvelous,” Evans said. “It feels wonderful.”
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color Photo
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: TO THEIR CREDIT Money raised from Sandpoint’s annual Holly Eve Saturday will finally pay off the Panida Theater’s mortgage. The Syringa Valley Chorus will sing, 19 restaurants will donate hors d’oeuvres, 16 models will parade the latest fashions and two auctions will sell art, vacations in Hawaii, England and Mexico. Bobbi Kotula will sing to music from two grand pianos. Tickets are $17.50. The event starts at 7 p.m. at the Panida. Call 263-0712 or 263-8956 for tickets.