Tower Theatre in downtown Bend underwent its first renovations this week since the theater’s grand reopening more than a decade ago in 2004.
The work includes updating and repairing the neon of the iconic marquee sign, cleaning and resealing travertine marble, and fresh outdoor and indoor wood stain and paint. Renovations began Sunday and were finished Friday morning, said Ray Solley, executive director of the Tower Theatre Foundation. The carpet is expected to be replaced in September.
“We have 55,000 people a year go through the Tower,” he said. “That’s a lot of people walking on the carpet and opening the front doors and buying drinks and using the restroom. The general day-in-and-day-out maintenance is covered by the regular budget, but when you start talking about repainting the marquee and new carpet, you get into some substantial expense, which is above normal and beyond the budget.”
The renovations will cost the theater just under $50,000, Alison Hamm, chairwoman of the Tower Theatre board of directors, said Wednesday. The theater received a Bend Foundation Grant of $22,500, but the grant must be matched by Tower Theatre to receive the full amount.
Hamm said the theater has received $6,000 from private donors and $3,950 of it will be used for the painting and carpeting. Brooks Resources donated $5,000, U.S Bank donated $4,000, and HDR Inc. donated $1,000, totaling $10,000 toward matching the grant, but the theater still needs $12,500.
“Over the past two to three years, we’ve gotten serious about renovations,” she said. “The wear and tear on the venue has needed upkeep and now we’re at the point where we have events 200 days a year and people are using the venue. The wear and tear has really started to catch up.”
Before Tower Theatre evolved into the popular entertainment venue it is today, it underwent its fair share of challenges.
Built in 1940, Tower Theatre was much smaller, screening movies and hosting fashion shows and recitals, The Bulletin reported in 2013, and after ownership changed in the early 1990s, it fell into disrepair.
The Tower Theatre Foundation was formed in 1997 to save, restore and reopen the venue. In 2001, the city of Bend purchased the theater with the foundation agreeing to pay back $445,000 for the purchase price. But the foundation paid back only $145,000 before the city forgave the other $300,000. The theater’s renovations for its grand reopening in 2004 cost $4 million and took years to complete, with lots of input from the Bend community.
Since its reopening, Solley said, Tower Theatre has been a destination in Bend for visitors nationwide.
“People do come to Bend just to use the Tower,” he said. “We are now running at cruising speed. If we want to do more we could because there are enough days in the calendar, but we would have to add more staff and slightly change the way we are organized. But we are thrilled there is enough community support, memberships, patrons and buyers who want to come to the theater. We have people coming from Washington and California, and other outside cities.”
Solley said 70 percent of Tower Theatre’s revenue comes from ticket sales, organizations renting the theater space and general use of the venue, like BendFilm Festival. The theater charges $1,200 per day for commercial rentals and offers a discounted price of $900 to nonprofits.
The other 30 percent of its budget comes from donations, Solley said. This year the theater has 17 employees, eight of whom are full time, and 20 volunteers.
In August, the venue will host Buster Keaton’s 90th anniversary film, “The General,” with a live orchestra as well as a screening of the 30th anniversary of “Stand by Me” with Oregon Film’s executive director and a Bend local, Tim Williams, in attendance. A week before the general elections in November, the theater will host Capitol Steps, a satirical group of comedians who previously worked on Capitol Hill, Solley said.
“The model for this operation is now pretty straightforward,” he said. “Basically, our budget in the last 10 years has doubled, and our attendance took a hit in the beginning of the recession in 2008, but now it’s back up to record levels and our memberships have quadrupled in the last 10 years.”
A new, high-resolution video projector made its debut at the theater during the BendFilm Festival in 2014 with the help of a donation from the local business Stereo Planet, Hamm said. The theater also put in a new soundboard in 2015 and a new lighting board last month with donations from BJB Charitable Trust, a Michigan foundation, local business Suntrack Sound, and a private donor.
Tower Theatre also began adding a $1 historic preservation fee to each ticket sold for the 2011-12 season to help offset the cost of maintenance, Hamm said. Three years later, the fee was increased to $2 and is now $3 per ticket. It is expected to raise about $90,000 after this year.
The money collected from fees is intended to support smaller maintenance projects and purchases like new digital spotlights and concession equipment, Hamm said, In years past, the money was used for ramp maintenance, stage resurfacing and new speakers, but this year the money is intended to be put into a reserve and will be used for emergency maintenance so the theater does not have to rely as much on the community for support.
“Almost all historical theaters charge a fee to help offset the cost,” Solley said. “It’s different from Regal 16. That’s a brand new building and there’s not much to be maintained. With a historical building you have other issues that crop up. There’s just a lot of things you want to keep as true to its original purpose of building as possible.”
Solley said the people who attend showings and events at Tower Theatre are to thank for contributing to its maintenance and renovation costs this summer.
“This is what the theater preservation fee is all about,” he said. “It’s to make sure we keep the repairs maintained to do what we need to do to make it a pleasant place to come. We’re thankful for the companies and individuals who did step up. Anybody who (bought) a ticket in the last several years — we’ve been able to take the money and apply it to this project.”
It was difficult to find five consecutive days of the year the Tower Theatre did not have any events going on so that regular business hours were not affected, Solley said, but all the renovations aside from the new carpet were complete Friday morning, just in time for a concert Friday.
Hamm said the theater is hoping to raise an additional $12,500 in donations for the new and matching carpet, but if funding does not come through it will have to rely on preservation fees.
“(Tower Theatre) is the heart of downtown Bend,” she said.
“If you look at a photograph that generally represents Bend, whether it’s on the front cover of the Yellow Pages book that just came out or on the wall of the new bar, you always either see Mount Bachelor, the three stacks at Old Mill or the Tower spire and the marquee. The community comes together at the Tower.”
— Reporter: 541-382-1811, firstname.lastname@example.org