Saving the Theater
The Webster Theater has been closed since March, but the Webster City Chamber of Commerce is looking for ways to keep the Theater running.
The Chamber will host an informational meeting on Wednesday at 5:30 p.m. at Webster City Middle School to discuss the possibility of having the Webster Theater run by volunteers. Jim Davies, volunteer manager at the Windsor Theatre, will be present to discuss how Hampton created a community-run theater.
Davies said the Windsor Theatre ceased operations in May of 1996. In November of that year, a group of 20 high school students in a class for youth leadership in community development proposed the idea of reopening the theater.
“Through the efforts of the students and their fact-finding mission, a group of community leaders was assembled to look at the feasibility of re-opening the theatre,” Davies said.
The group began a fundraising campaign, and in December of 1998, the building was purchased by the Windsor Theatre Development Corporation, a nonprofit group made of up adults and students. After remodeling efforts, the theater reopened in May of 1999 with a showing of “Forces of Nature.”
Chamber Director Deb Brown said the Webster Theater building is currently being listed for about $45,000. However, the former owners of the Webster Theater, Than and Sarah Mott, said the Theater also needs another $45,000 to $50,000 to convert from film reel to a digital film format. The building also requires remodeling, according to Than Mott, who said the roof is in poor condition, some seats need replacing and the floor in the women’s restroom is rotting out.
Despite those challenges, Brown said there are several parties interested in purchasing the Webster Theater, and then handing the operations over to a volunteer group.
“I know it’s possible, it’s a cornerstone in our downtown community, and we need it,” Brown said.
Davies said that the Windsor Theatre is not just run by volunteers. The theater employs people to work concessions, projectors and manage the theater. The theater regularly shows movies at 7 p.m. every day except Mondays with a 1 p.m. matinee on Sunday. An adult ticket price costs $4 for adults, with half-off that price on Tuesdays and Thursdays.
The Windsor Theatre usually gets new films about a month after they are released nationally. Davies said that is because movie studies ask for less money from the ticket sales the further a film is from its release. Davies said that concession and ticket sales cover their operating expenses and has other revenue sources including donations and grants. Still, Davies said the theater has seen declining attendance, which he attributes to more than just competition from movie streaming services.
“The health of the economy and amount of disposable personal income for entertainment affects attendance as well as the number of ‘good’ quality movies produced by studios,” Davies said. “Anyone can watch a movie in their home on a TV or computer. A community theater provides a social group experience of watching a movie with your friends, family, and neighbors.”
In addition to the worth Davies sees in a community theater, he said that other communities, including Belmond, Charles City and Vinton helped Hampton to get the Windsor theater up and running.
“I am paying it forward. That is why I am reaching out to Webster City to assist where I can and share what knowledge I have gained over the years as a volunteer and manager at the Windsor Theatre,” Davies said.
Brown said her motivation to hold this meeting was largely because of continued public interest in the Webster Theater.
“We didn’t want to drop the ball,” Brown said. “We get asked just about every day, ‘What’s going on with the Theater?’ We wanted to start a conversation about what the possibilities could be so people are more informed.”
At other volunteer-run theaters she has looked at, Brown said they have gone beyond just showing films. They have had live music, features and events at the theater, and Brown said she is interested in looking at those other options.
“You have to be creative. It can’t just be first-run movies,” Brown said. “Because there’s no small community that is just doing first run movies and making money out of it.”
Brown said the meeting is not just the Chamber looking for volunteers, but will focus on generating ideas that may help reopen the Webster Theater in the future.