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Monday, May 2, 2016

Roxy Rises Again

Tuesday, August 2, 2005

The historic Roxy Theater is closed to undergo heavy restoration this summer, but it isn't the first change in the rich history of the landmark that now houses the Buena Vista Community Theatre.

For many years, it was the place to watch Hollywood's latest golden era creation. It saw Boy Scouts meetings and gentlemen's card games and church gatherings. More recently, it has seen a string of successful musical productions.

The Roxy has a decorated, but for the most part, untold history. It seems as though most of the Roxy's stories have passed away along with the generation who frequented the theater most. And those that can recall the Roxy speak of its glory, despite the hardships it typically faced.

No one seems to know when the Roxy was built. Fred Maharry, Alta School District Superintendent, guesses it may be a hundred years old. Land and tax papers filed with the courthouse are marked 1900, but that may be deceiving, as a clerk explained that when dates were unknown many years ago, the year 1900 was typically filled in.

Maybe it is not so important when the Roxy came to be, but more so about the entertainment it provided. Many people have different stories to tell about the Roxy - some memories clashing with the passing of time.

Pauline Conard of Alta recalls that a contest was held to determine the name of the theater. Someone submitted Roxy, also the name of several larger theaters in big cities. The name stuck, and the Roxy was born.

Old issues of the Alta Advertiser suggest that the Roxy even in its heyday was having a hard time keeping afloat. Financial troubles plagued many managers of the theater and it changed operating hands repeatedly. In April of 1940, the Advertiser reported of the Roxy closing its doors yet again, due to failure to meet payments on equipment. Part of the article read, "Alta is desirous of having a theatre but has been quite disgusted in the last two or three setups, and the way that they were run. It is still the contention of many that a good theatre could be made to pay, but it will first have to show its merits to the Alta public before it can be done."

Elmer Svendsen, living in Minnesota at the time, caught word of an available theater and promptly moved to Alta. According to his daughter Sandy, of Greenville, South Carolina, Elmer began operating the theater in 1941.

"I remember him going once a month to Omaha to buy the films," Nelson recalls. "He would look at the selection that they had and then he would buy them in great huge reels." Nelson worked at the theater from age 12 until she left to attend college. Her main duty was making popcorn, but she also helped usher movie goers to their seats. She remembers tickets costing between 35 to 50 cents, and popcorn costing 15 cents.

Elmer updated the 12 by 12 foot movie screen to a CinemaScope. This lens added to movie projectors increased by double the image audiences saw, also making it clearer. Elmer also added a halo light, which was used to light up behind and around the screen. This added depth and when turned on, Nelson said the audience would Oooh and Ahhh over the sight.

"It seemed to me in those early years, it was always packed," Nelson said, adding that sometimes the popcorn machine could not keep up with the crowds. "About 1958 it seemed to me that TV was taking hold and the people were just not coming to the small theaters anymore."

The Roxy shut down for several months due to a lock of attendance, but in June, 1960, Elmer decided to try again. "My dad was passionate about it. He loved presenting entertainment to the people of Alta. He loved the business and it was very hard on him when he could tell that it was beginning to lose its impact, I remember that very vividly," Nelson said.

In 1961, he finally realized that he could no longer compete with television, and closed the Roxy for good. He continued his insurance business next door to the Roxy, which his son, Doug, operates today.

The City of Alta gained ownership of the theater, eventually selling it to the Alta Community School District in 1990. Throughout the Roxy's existence, its basement was used to house community gatherings and meetings. The library and city clerk's offices were next door to the Theatre, but now all of it is used for the Alta school's theater program.

Once again, the Roxy is sitting dark and unused since it suffered extensive water damage on May 25. A leak that was not properly sealed caused $15,000 in damages to the stage, walls, and curtains.

After debating with the insurance company of the contractor, R. L. Craft out of Denison, Alta School District Superintendent Fred Maharry reports the district will be receiving upwards of $14,680 to repair the damages caused by the leak.

"We are comfortable that we can do the work that needs to be done and we are feeling very positive," Maharry said about the reimbursement agreement reached.

The Buena Vista Community Theater has been making the Roxy the home of their annual productions since 1991. In the midst of preparing for this summer's "In the Beginning," the acting troupe suddenly found themselves "theater-less."

"I could hear the water dripping and turned on the light, and thought 'oh no,'" Carol Huntzicker, director of "In the Beginning" said of discovering the ruined stage, curtains, and walls at the Roxy. The community theater relocated to the auditorium of South Elementary School in Storm Lake, where they gave performances earlier this summer.

In the bigger venue, actors had to wear microphones. Ticket sales were down. "We really did miss the Roxy Theatre. It's our home theater," Huntzicker said.

Brad Nesbitt is one of the founding director's of the community theater. Nesbitt explained that as the community theater was forming, the Roxy had just been renovated and appeared to be the perfect home for the acting troupe, with its 275 seats and air conditioning. The timing was also perfect: the community theater performed during the summer months, the only time the Roxy wasn't being used for school functions.

As it has many times, the grand old Roxy will recover from seeming disaster. With repairs expected to be completed by mid-August, both the BV Community Theater and Alta School District are excited for the curtain to rise once again.