Waitsburg's Main Street Theater to see revival

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WAITSBURG - Not much suggests a movie theater when you enter the "Etcetera" shop on Waitsburg's Main Street.

Despite walking under a marquee with "Plaza" painted on it, and confronting an odd-shaped windowed "closet" inside the door, surrounded by glass display cases, it's just another old building gussied up to entice shoppers into the four-room shop.

Make that a five-room shop. A big room.

Walk past the former box office, into the lobby, and through one of the two arched doors, decorated with faux stone and real draperies, and you are in a cavernous room, facing a stage holding a full-size movie screen.

It's a room big enough to hold several merchandise displays, storage shelves for more merchandise, 139 theater seats, a scaffolding tall enough to reach the 20-foot ceilings and a locked storage room.

Building owners Robbie and Marilyn Johnson are patiently restoring the building to its 1929 art deco splendor.

Unlike many building that endure alteration and water damage, the Plaza, originally known as The Neace Theatre, has been spared extensive degradation.

That isn't to say all the original seats were restorable. Nor are the walls, soiled with 80 years of heating oil grime, easily cleaned.

But through the grime, the original palette of dark red, navy blue and gold paint is visible enough to provide a guide for repainting.

The aisle carpets that have graced the theater since it opened Feb. 2, 1929, look almost new.

The original paint on the sound boxes, a patched floor that covers the orchestra pit and intact art deco ceiling and side lights give plenty of hints as to how the theater should look in restored condition.

The first movie shown in The Neace Theatre was "The Rescue." The 315 leather-covered seats were quickly filled, with half the crowd waiting outside forced to come to the 9 p.m. showing, according to an account in The Times newspaper.

Movies were silent, and a Wurlitzer organ kept up with the action.

Architect for the new building was Victor Siebert of Walla Walla, with Ed. M. Buroker the general contractor. Cost of the 45-by-90-foot building was $25,000, and included space for an apartment and office on the mezzanine level. On either side of the box office, two retail spaces would provide homes for a long list of businesses.

Robbie and Marilyn Johnson purchased the long-vacant building in 2004, beginning an odyssey of clearing away, cleaning and painting that has already stretched across five years.

Their first task was to remodel the upstairs apartment into a home apartment for themselves. They managed to have it livable within eight months, Robbie said.

Now the Johnsons literally live in the center of Waitsburg. Their front room windows overlook Main Street and Preston Avenue.

"We see some interesting things," Robbie said. Activities on Main Street have caused them to call 911 more than once, usually at 2 a.m.

A saloon occupied the site from 1889, according to "Waitsburg: One of a Kind," by Vance Orchard. Following builder/owner Donald Neace, owners included Denzil Piercy, John Hulce, Walter Weller, Walter Hamilton, Eddie Rivers, Ray Peacock, Kash Kilpinski, Phil Monfort and Jack Otterson. The Johnsons bought the building from Velma Sickles, who had owned the building with her husband, Bob, from the mid-'70s, Robbie said.

Once they had a place to live, the Johnsons tackled the theater lobby, painting, carpeting and decorating.

Then they moved to the theater itself.

Little by little, the dust and grime left by years of heating with coal and oil were scrubbed and rubbed away, revealing a color scheme of turquoise, gold and deep reddish-brown. Walls and beams were embellished with navy blue stenciled designs.

Despite the cleaning, most of the interior requires fresh paint.

One striking exception is the pair of sound boxes on either side of the stage. But that doesn't mean their elegance was easily achieved. They were "filthy, filthy, filthy," Marilyn said, grimacing to emphasize her words.

The Johnsons are thinking small venue when they envision the future of the theater. "We're trying to turn a wide swath from what Dayton does with the Liberty Theater," Robbie said.

This means no movies or live performance theater.

But it might mean small concerts, or comedy nights. The theater isn't equipped with dressing rooms, Marilyn noted.

It could also be the venue for events such as weddings.

"What I believe we are called to do in this space is the paint job, refinish the seats, install another restroom and replace the front door," Marilyn said.

"It does keep us out of mischief," said Robbie.

Carrie Chicken can be reached at cec@innw.net or 522-5289.

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