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Acting for the future, rebuilding a theater in Abilene (+video)

VIDEO: Great Plains Theatre in Abilene

Last year, the Great Plains Theatre in Abilene suffered a devastating fire. Since then, the group has rallied, continued productions and is about to start fundraising to build a new facility. (Beccy Tanner/The Wichita Eagle)
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Last year, the Great Plains Theatre in Abilene suffered a devastating fire. Since then, the group has rallied, continued productions and is about to start fundraising to build a new facility. (Beccy Tanner/The Wichita Eagle)

Wisps of smoke were still rising from the Great Plains Theatre building the morning after a fire destroyed everything the theater company owned.

That was on July 24, 2014. The fire gutted the century-old Gothic Romanesque limestone building that was once a church.

More than a year later, the Great Plains Theatre group is still struggling in this community of 6,800 residents – but it’s surviving.

By luck, grace and fortitude, the theater group finished its 20th season by performing productions in the Abilene High School auditorium.

This past week, the Great Plains Theatre group signed a two-year contract and partnership with Thunderstruck Truck Accessories in Salina, which recently purchased the old Alco headquarters office building in Abilene.

The idea, said Elizabeth Weese, the theater company’s executive director, is to host productions in that facility, perhaps by Christmas. Thunderstruck and the Great Plains Theatre will share the building, which is huge and empty.

Risers will need to be built; chairs, a theater screen and lighting will need to be installed. There is plenty of work ahead.

In the meantime, there is hope.

“Today is a happy day when you reflect back on what a year this has been,” Weese said last week. “We finished our 20th season after that fire – that was a feat, especially with all the emotions.

“For us to continue and finish that season was amazing.”

Building for the future

Weese said the new partnership with Thunderstruck will allow the theater group a new temporary home with an auditorium and climate-controlled garage to build theater sets.

“This will give us a temporary location at least for a couple of years,” she said. “It will give us time to do a capital campaign correctly and do the building plans.”

So far, there is no definite design plan for a new theater, only the inspiration for one. And it will be built on the old theater’s site at Third and Mulberry.

“I want it to be a place that as you drive by, you can look in the windows and say, ‘What’s happening here?’ ” Weese said. “It will be a place you want to be.

“I think our community deserves that, something that can serve a multipurpose of cinema, theater and concert hall.”

The fire

On the morning of July 23, 2014, lightning struck the building and burned a pinhole-sized area in some natural gas tubing attached to a faulty fireplace in the basement. Although the fireplace was no longer used, the gas had never been disconnected.

The last staff member left the theater building at 5:30 p.m. No one noticed anything out of the ordinary until 7 p.m.

Someone leaving the Elks Lodge, which is across the street from the theater, saw smoke pouring from the building’s roof. The Abilene Fire Department was quickly called, then reinforcements from surrounding communities, as fire rolled across the roof, engulfing the building.

People came to the corner of Third and Mulberry to stand and watch. Tears streamed down some of their faces.

The Abilene Reflector-Chronicle reported there were as many as 500 people watching.

Carrying on

Two months after the fire, the shell of the old building was removed. Grass now covers the lot.

“To rebuild, we are looking at at least $2 million,” Weese said. “We were trying to keep it to $1.5 million, but I don’t know if that is possible, what with inflation costs.

“Can we do it in stages? Maybe.”

The goal is to rebuild by 2019.

“We hope the new building will be gorgeous and magical, but it was what went on in the building – that has not stopped,” Weese said.

“We are fortunate our patrons have stuck with us. Because of the support of this community, this is a good day. We will get our cinema back and running, and our theater will continue.”

Reach Beccy Tanner at 316-268-6336 or btanner@wichitaeagle.com. Follow her on Twitter: @beccytanner.

Upcoming shows for the Great Plains Theatre

▪ “Weekend Comedy,” Oct. 2-11

▪ “On Golden Pond,” Nov. 13-22

▪ “She Loves Me,” Dec. 11-19

Tickets can be purchased online at www.greatplainstheatre.com. All productions will be at Abilene High School, 1300 N. Cedar.

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