WALHALLA, N.D. -- After a 37-year intermission, the stage is set for performances at the Walla Theater.
The Gorge Arts and Heritage Council reopened the Walla, closed since 1982, this month with a sold-out performance by Lorie Line. The council raised $356,308 to renovate the theater, which originally opened its doors in 1950, said Susan Karel, Gorge Arts and Heritage Council board of directors vice president.
The results of the renovation are a stark contrast to the dilapidated theater pictured in a display of photographs on the Walla Theater wall.
“I was thinking this day would never come,” Laurel Brusseau, council board secretary, said as she looked around the newly refurbished Walla Theater on a recent late May evening. The community members who attended the sold-out Lorie Line concert were amazed with the renovation, she said.
“It was just a delightful evening,” she said.
The council took the reins on the theater renovation project because members wanted to have a venue in Walhalla that would house live theater performances and be a place where Walhalla High School students, whose high school doesn’t have a stage, could perform. The council also hopes to have the theater host performances such as talent shows, holiday programs and, eventually, movies, council board members said.
Work on the theater began more than 10 years ago. Renovation got underway in 2008 and the theater was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2010.
The renovation was conducted in stages as the grants and donations that funded the project became available. The project got a big funding boost in 2015 with a gift of $171,593 from Leon Dubourt, a loyal arts supporter in Walhalla. Dubourt, a former Walhalla mayor and civic booster, gave the North Dakota Community Foundation 80 acres of land to benefit the Gorge Arts and Heritage Council, and, specifically, the theater. Fifty thousand dollars of the proceeds were put in a permanent endowment fund to be used for Walla Theater maintenance and the remaining $121,593 was used as a dollar-for-dollar match for the project to save the theater.
Other major fundraising efforts included securing a $99,500 Community Development Block Grant and an ongoing “Take A Seat” fundraiser, in which people can buy a theater seat for $500 in exchange for their names on the chair. So far, 180 of the theater's 265 seats have been sold, raising $90,000.
The renovation project required persistence and perseverance by members of the Gorge Arts and Heritage Council. The theater was in such poor condition before the project began that the reaction of the organization members who entered the Walla after it had been closed for many years was a collective “Oh no,” the council board members said. After assessing the damage, council members decided to begin the remodeling project with repairs to the theater roof and exterior, which had fallen into disrepair.
“It just kind of disintegrated,” Brusseau said.
The plugged roof drains had trees growing in them. Once the roof and repairs were made to the exterior of the building, work began on the inside, which had a collapsed ceiling from water soaking through the roof.
Much of the work on the theater interior was completed during the past year by Bill Zeller, Gorge Arts and Heritage Council board president. The restoration work was tedious and painstaking, he said. For example, it took weeks to glue on, one at a time, each of the 3,426 acoustic tiles onto the theater walls. Though, it’s been difficult with many ups and downs, Zeller is proud to have played a part.
“I’ve worked on other projects,” he said. “This one is close to my heart.”
Gorge Arts and Heritage Council volunteers, meanwhile, painted the lower theater walls and refinished and painted the original wooden oak leaves that decorate the walls. Other restoration work included painting the theater floor, building a 14-feet extension on the stage and making the building handicapped accessible.
The renovation also featured installation of 19-inch seats to replace the theater’s original 16-inch seats. The theater seats 425.
Zeller gets satisfaction from the camaraderie of the Gorge Arts and Heritage Council members.
“The real key is all of these people worked together," Zeller said. "A watch can’t run on its own.”