By Polly Keary, Editor
When Wagner Auditorium was built in 1939, it was a state-of-the-art theater and a center of the community, a place for movies, theater, concerts and assemblies.
Two years ago, it was a place mostly for mice.
But today the grand old 640-seat theater with its battered black stage and heavy, patched-up curtains, its soaring faux-suede walls and dark red upholstered seats, is slowly returning to its former role in the community.
Since the school district decided last October to turn it over to the Monroe Arts Council for rent of a dollar a year in exchange for the council caring for the old place, the MAC has been hard at work making the place attractive and useful.
But it’s a big job, and expensive, too, so the organization is holding a raffle to raise funds, the first of many steps the council hopes to complete to make Wagner Performing Arts Center, as it’s now called, a major community center once again.
It was the work of 10 years to take the MAC’s dream of having a community theater in town from concept to reality.
At first, the council dreamed of raising millions for a new building. But when the economy soured, dreams were resized.
The MAC checked out several available buildings, but nothing suited.
The group was always aware of Wagner Auditorium, with its imposing white columned entrance onto Main Street, but it seemed too big a job with too challenged of a space.
The roof leaked. The walls were damaged by water. The sound system was antiquated. The seats were in bad shape. There were no dressing rooms or orchestra pit. The bathrooms had no access for people with disabilities.
The only performance group still regularly using the theater for anything was the Monroe Community Concert Band, and that was just a few shows a year.
But when the school district decided it couldn’t care for the old auditorium anymore, they made the MAC a tempting offer; take care of the place, and pay rent of a dollar a year.
That satisfied the school’s legal requirement to give nothing publicly-owned away for free, and got the district out of the responsibility for caring for the old theater, which was getting increasingly expensive.
The first thing the MAC did was tidy up, said Kim Hoover, a member of the group.
“We came in and did a lot of cleaning,” she said, looking over the sea of red seat backs in the stately, if somewhat shabby, auditorium last week. “Then the concert band had some painters and they took care of all the leaks in the foyers, and did plastering and painting, and it looks pretty good out there now.”
The ceiling sports some large patches inside the theater, and there are some visible cracks in the plaster that reveal the old lathe construction beneath, but the place is a lot spiffier now.
Already several groups are now using the venue. Sky Performing Arts is using it for all its performances, Monroe and Sultan both have large lip sync competition fundraisers there in support of their schools, and a dance school is holding recitals there.
That’s bringing in some revenue.
The next most critical project is the bathrooms.
The bathrooms themselves are big. There is a large waiting room in each, but there is only one stall in each, and it is tiny.
So anyone in a wheelchair has to leave the theater entirely, wheel all the way around the building and use a bathroom in the adjoining school building.
Last week, Hoover unlocked the doors to reveal construction underway. Members of the Lion’s Club have volunteered to demolish the current layout, and then workers will combine the sitting rooms and stalls into large bathrooms with handicap-accessible stalls.
It’s going to take about $150,000 worth of work and materials, but with volunteers, Hoover thinks the MAC can get it all done for about $70,000.
To that end, the MAC is holding a raffle. Tickets are $20, and whoever wins gets a choice between an original artwork by local artists Linnea Hoover, who recently sold a large piece to a homeowner in Colorado for more than $30,000, or $500 cash.
The artwork being raffled is worth about $2,000.
The second place winner will get the remaining prize.
That will help; the rest of the funds will likely come from grants, and the council is applying for a number of them.
Once the bathrooms are complete, the council would like to remove the stage extension that was once built to cover the old orchestra pit, and replace it with a removable cap.
The seats are still mostly original and are past due for reupholstering, and the heating, electrical and sound systems all need updates.
It’s going to take a long time, and cost a lot of money, but Hoover said that she thinks the city could once again have the grand old theater in good shape within a few years.
“If you do it section by section, it actually is doable,” she said.
The drawing is to take place Sept. 30 at 5 p.m.
To get tickets, email firstname.lastname@example.org.