New life for Liberty Theatre?

By Bill Rautenstrauch, The Observer February 17, 2010 02:29 pm

Doug Campbell, a volunteer in the La Grande  Main Street Program, examines some equipment left over in the Liberty Theatre projection room. Campbell toured the building Saturday. DICK MASON /The Observer
Doug Campbell, a volunteer in the La Grande Main Street Program, examines some equipment left over in the Liberty Theatre projection room. Campbell toured the building Saturday. DICK MASON /The Observer
A ghost lurks in the building at 1010 Adams Ave., begging to be brought back to life. If she could speak, she’d say something like: “I was beautiful once, and I can be again.”

The ghost in question is the old Liberty Theatre, born as the Orpheum in 1910, featuring vaudeville acts and silent films, renamed the Arcade in 1911, and finally becoming the Liberty in 1931.

Generations of Union County residents saw hundreds and hundreds of movies at the Liberty before it closed for good in 1959.

Then it was remodeled to accommodate retail establishments. Today, the building is owned by local resident Howard Butts.

Domino’s Pizza does business on the ground floor, and will for the foreseeable future. Owner Jesse Watson said this week he only recently learned of a proposed restoration project, and has no plans to move.

Whatever the future holds, the ghost of the Liberty is visible, however faintly, above, below and in back of Domino’s.

The upper reaches of the main auditorium, the balcony and projection room, are mostly intact. An ornate but tarnished old chandelier hangs from the ceiling near the balcony. It’s an emblem of the past that draws the eye.

Piles of drapery lay about, and some of the old carpet remains. In the projection room, there’s some equipment left over.

Down below, under a couple of layers of added flooring, can be found the orchestra pit, the stage, stage stairways and doors left and right, dressing rooms.

The theater’s 600 or so seats are gone, but the wooden tiers they were mounted on are still there. So far,

it’s unknown what became of the seats.

Through the years, people have thought of reviving the old movie palace, but somehow, it never happened. Local attorney and community activist Dale Mammen wants to change that. He’s leading a movement to restore the place to its former grandeur.

“It’s been talked about before, but community interest is high now and it’s going to happen,” Mammen said before he led a tour through the building Friday, the first of two to take place over the weekend.

Mammen recently appeared before the La Grande City Council, outlining a plan to renovate the Liberty and make it into a center for performing arts.

He secured up to $5,000 in Urban Renewal funding for an engineering study by Eagle Engineering Inc. Mammen said Friday the study will determine the building’s structural integrity. A preliminary report may be complete by Feb. 22.

An environmental study by IRS Environmental of Spokane will be done in the near future, he added.

“We’ve got to determine what bad things are here, asbestos, paint, I don’t know what else,” he said.

Costs of the project have yet to be determined, Mammen said. Those will depend on studies by engineers, architects, builders and others.

Mammen also said during the tour that a non-profit group will form to take charge of fundraising, and ownership once the project is complete. Grants will be the major source of funds, he said.

“The theater will not be owned by the city or the county or a for-profit,” he said. “It’s for the community.”

Mammen said organizations backing the proposed project include the La Grande Main Street Program, Eastern Oregon University, the La Grande School District, and La Grande’s Community and Development Department.

“It will have a broad base of community support,” he said.

Mammen handed out some conceptual drawings of the planned renovation, showing plans for the main floor, balcony floor and basement.

The main floor drawing shows a ticket booth at the Adams Avenue entrance, and beyond that a lobby, a concession stand, an ADA-equipped restroom, the main auditorium and stage.

The balcony area drawing shows seating, a control suite and a room for mechanical equipment. The basement would house dressing rooms, a storage and mechanical room, and a restroom.

In all, the grand plan calls for yanking a ghost out of the dusty past, breathing life in, restoring her to her full former glory. Mammen said he hopes the entire project can be done within 18 months.

“The first 100 years (of the Liberty) should be shared with the next hundred years,” he said.