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Rebuilding the Empire

Wed., Feb. 22, 2012

Art Deco theater restoration a labor of love for small farming town

TEKOA, Wash. – The Empire Theatre in this small town in the northern Palouse has been described as a “mini-Fox” theater.

Indeed, the 1940 movie house is a sterling example of Art Deco architecture of the era.

From the exaggerated “M” in the word Empire on the marquee to the jewel-toned paint schemes and original light fixtures, the theater shouts with the streamlined energy of the period.

For the past 15 years, a dedicated group of volunteers in Tekoa has been restoring the Empire and putting on plays, concerts, community celebrations, school events and even a wedding this spring.

It’s an ongoing project that shows the value of historic preservation in keeping communities alive, said Brian Westmoreland, a Spokane preservation contractor who has volunteered with the work.

“It’s such a wonderful building,” said Cheryl Morgan, a theater board member and one of the leaders of the preservation work.

The Empire’s 2012 schedule kicks off on Saturday with the 7 p.m. staging of “Bus Stop,” a 1955 play that was made into a movie starring Marilyn Monroe in 1956.

The play is being put on by the Moscow Community Theatre with Troy Sprenke as producer and Dick Domey as director. Coincidentally, the movie “Bus Stop” played at the Empire in the old days.

“We always love to fill this theater,” Morgan said, adding that she is hoping for a full house on Saturday.

Located at 126 S. Crosby St., the 280-seat theater showed movies until 1958, when it closed. It did not originally have a stage.

The building reopened in 2000. Seating is now reduced to 240 to accommodate the stage.

A wide base of community members contributes in excess of $10,000 a year through memberships, which pay mainly for maintenance and operations.

The city of Tekoa owns the building, and the nonprofit organization Tekoa Empire Theatre operates it.

The group is looking for grants to finance preservation work.

“We’re never finished,” Morgan said.

An old carpet with Art Deco motif was taken out. Undamaged pieces are being sold to raise money for the theater.

Westmoreland compared the theater to Spokane’s Martin Woldson Theater at The Fox, calling it a “mini-Fox.”

While the Empire is not built on the same grand scale as The Fox, it harbors many of the touches that make Art Deco appealing.

The women’s restroom downstairs has original tiles, fixtures and paintings.

The colorful geometric fabric on the theater’s seat backs is original, and the seats are roomier than you might expect.

The theater has its original ticket booth, and its doors are newly refinished. An original patterned cloth wall covering drapes down from the ceiling. Four matching sidelights with geometric designs and colored shades add a classic look.

An original black water fountain is still in the lobby. Two huge projectors, vintage from the period, are still mounted in the projection booth.

Over the years, the organization has repaired the neon lighting at the entrance, updated heating and electrical systems, installed reproduction lighting and fixed the roof and ceiling.

“All of these community people have kept it intact for decades,” said Domey, who is directing Saturday’s play.

Other coming events include the Tekoa Royalty program at 6 p.m. on March 24; a spring celebration featuring a concert by the rock group the Senders on March 31 at 7 p.m.; the Oakesdale High School Arts Fest on April 18 at 7 p.m.; and a blues concert by Too Slim and the Taildraggers on April 28 at 7 p.m.

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