WESTERLY — Donna Welch couldn’t resist. She saw the door to the United Theatre open and had to step in to rekindle decades-old memories of both working in the downtown theater and enjoying it as a moviegoer.
“Can I go in?” Welch asked, spying the open doors on a recent afternoon, as town officials prepared for a walk-through to get acquainted with current conditions.
Although the High Street theater space is now largely just a shell, Welch immediately pointed to where various important features had been — the concession stand, stairs to the balcony, and another stairway to the old projectionist’s booth.
“It brings back a lot of memories,” Welch said.
Now 47, Welch was an assistant manager at the theater when it functioned as a second-run movie house. She recalled “The Natural” and “Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes” as two of the movies that showed while she was working at the theater during her senior year at Westerly High School.
The theater was open to give members of the town’s Building Code Board of Appeals a chance to inspect the facility and learn about the Westerly Land Trust’s hopes to generate interest in the theater and in its revival plans by hosting a few fundraising events next year.
It’s Welch’s response that the land trust is hoping to capitalize on to get the community talking and ready to lend financial support to help turn the space into a thriving performing arts center for music, dance, film and drama.
“The land trust wants to establish the United Theatre as a living, breathing presence here in the town and establish credibility with the grant-giving community,” said Lewis Jacobsen, an architect working on the renovation project. “The best way to generate funds is to have performing arts groups perform here in order to bring life in to the theater.”
The land trust, which bought the theater in 2006, believes it will need about $8 million to complete the renovation work. Simon Holt, executive adviser to the theater revival project, said the trust and the town have applied for a $200,000 National Endowment for the Arts Our Town grant for design team costs to pay for additional architectural plans, mechanical engineering, and plumbing schematics. In another partnership with the town, the land trust has also applied for a $500,000 federal Economic Development Administration grant to be applied toward construction costs. The land trust is committed to matching both grants, Holt said. Plans are also in the works to seek grants from local foundations and state agencies.
The fundraising events are planned for next May through September. Holt said he envisioned a chamber music performance, a fashion show, and a film screening. A gala dinner with an arts offering has also been discussed. To determine the specifics of the fundraising series, Holt said he planned to assemble a committee with representatives of local arts groups. The events will “showcase the types of quality acts that will be put on in the theater in the future,” he said.
The land trust’s plan to use the theater space before full-scale renovations are complete requires the approval of the Building Code Board of Appeals. During an Oct. 24 meeting, board members said they were generally supportive of the temporary use plans but wanted additional time before taking formal action.
The board also asked Jacobsen and Michael McHugh, a building code consultant working on the project, to present plans for each proposed event to Building Official David Murphy.
When the work is complete the theater will include a 340-seat main auditorium with an orchestra pit and stage, a small street level “legacy theater,” second floor rehearsal and meeting room space, and a set construction space. A smaller theater is also planned for the second floor. The project will also extend into the adjacent building, formerly a Montgomery Ward store.
To date about $1 million has been spent to install a new roof, repair deteriorating structural members, and clean up and secure the theater building.
The preliminary work has also revealed the old stage, a reminder of the theater’s original use as a vaudeville house. Welch had never seen the stage before.
“This would be great,” she said of plans to offer a menu of arts offerings.