Lt. Gov. Mike Foley (fourth from left), Sun Theatre Executive Director Roxanne Converse-Whiting (fourth from right) and others break ground on the Sun Theatre renovation project.
Thanks to the CDBG program, a historic theater in the town of Gothenburg (population 3,489) is finally accessible to anyone and everyone.
Gothenburg’s Sun Theatre was built as an opera house in 1909, converted to a cinema in the 1920’s, and — minus a few short pauses — has offered a source of affordable movies and live entertainment for residents throughout the surrounding, primarily rural region ever since. But it wasn’t until recently that this storied piece of the past could say it truly offered something for everyone.
Gothenburg resident Roxanne Converse-Whiting is executive director for the Revitalize The Sun Theatre project. Her group was formed in the 2010’s with one primary goal in mind: to finally make the Sun fully accessible to people with mobility needs or concerns.
“Our goal was to create a more accommodating environment for all patrons and ensure that the theater was a place anyone could enjoy,” she said. “We show classic movies for the residents of our assisted living facility, for example, and getting visitors with age and mobility concerns safely in and out can be a challenge. This project was necessary to help remediate that and other issues, resulting in a more enjoyable experience for everyone.”
Wider entryways, a bigger lobby, wheelchair seating in the auditorium and accessible bathrooms made up some of the list of improvements for which Converse-Whiting was primarily put in charge of planning and fundraising. She was well aware her group was in for a challenge.
“There was a lot to be done, and we knew we were going to need the support of the entire community.”
And the community did not disappoint. In fact, residents turned out in spades to show their support for the project, donating $100,000 in only two years to help
cover the more than $500,000 total price tag. A local Dancing with the Stars competition was among the fundraising events to draw a crowd, raising around $35,000 on its own.
“I think everyone knew what this project meant to the community,” Converse- Whiting said, noting that apart from increasing the Sun’s accessibility, the remodel would help attract people to the downtown — not only locals, but visitors from out of town. This increased business would, in turn, allow the Sun to serve even more patrons, by helping operators keep ticket costs low.
“We exist to serve the entire community, which includes a lot of young families and the elderly on fixed incomes,” she said. “Maintaining reasonable prices is a big part of our mission. We knew this project would help us more easily sustain that over the long term.”
The support received from DED and the CDBG program was a difference-maker for this project. It’s something Gothenburg is truly proud of, and adds to what makes this community a great place to call home.”
ROXANNE CONVERSE-WHITING, EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR REVITALIZE THE SUN THEATRE PROJECT
Yet despite so much local support, Converse-Whiting said the renovations might never have gotten off the ground without support from the Community Development Block Grant program, under which the State awarded the project $425,000 through its Tourism Development funding opportunity.
“The community had just come off of a huge fundraising effort to build a YMCA, and citizens can only do so much. Without external support, I’m not sure it would have been feasible at that time to raise the level of funds we needed to begin these renovations,” she said.
By the spring of 2020, The revitalization of The Sun was underway. Further enhancing its tourism appeal, a number of efforts were made along the way to preserve and enhance the theater’s historic look and feel. This included, for example, installing a replica of the original 1920’s ticket booth in the front lobby; maintaining elements of the original, cloud-painted auditorium ceiling; and displaying historic artifacts that were found during the renovation. More work to come will include completing an ornate dome in the auditorium ceiling, which will be decorated with a painting of the sun to commemorate the historic theater’s new dawn.
With the majority of the work completed by September 2020, the Sun reopened its doors for the first time — this time to all patrons. Nebraska Lieutenant Governor Mike Foley and State Senator Matt Williams were among the numerous people in attendance at the grand reopening celebration, which featured a showing of Forrest Gump.
“This project is a terrific example of the positive impacts happening across Nebraska with support from the Community Development Block Grant program and the Department of Economic Development,” the Lieutenant Governor remarked in a press release following the event. “It’s also a testament to the people and leadership of Gothenburg, who have shown a commitment to growing and improving the community on behalf of all its citizens.”
Today, locals and out-of-towners alike are able to visit the Sun Theatre to catch a movie, see a live production or even enjoy a concert. “The support received from DED and the CDBG program was a difference-maker for this project,” Converse-Whiting said. “It’s something Gothenburg is truly proud of, and adds to what makes this community a great place to call home.”