Sometimes all it takes is a rumor or two, or casual talk at the downtown café to stir people to action. Many good movie plots have been based on little more. Consider the classic “On the Waterfront,” or the more up-to-date “Norma Rae.”
In 1997, Scottsbluff (pop. 14,732), had its own making for an award-winning script when talk began circulating about tearing down the historic Midwest Theater. Motivated by fear of losing their significant city landmark, volunteers and citizens formed “Friends of the Midwest Theater in fall 1998 to save the facility that has been described as ‘a crown jewel of the Panhandle theatres,’ among other things.
Built in 1946 after a fire destroyed the Egyptian Theater, the Midwest is an example of Modernistic-style architecture associated with the 1940s era. The theater’s most prominent feature, according to the May 1, 1946 Scottsbluff Star Herald, was “the marquee with a stainless steel and aluminum tower extending 60’ above the entrance.” The tower’s literally shining center features 132 aluminum stars that when backlit at night, can be seen from as far away as 20 miles. On opening day, May 3, 1946, Midwest’s owner W.H. Ostenberg Jr., president of Midwest Amusement and Realty Company, proclaimed the facility with its exceptionally high-quality architectural and artistic interior and exterior features as ‘one of the finest in the United States.’ The theater eventually made the National Register of Historic Places.
Time took its toll, however. In 1961, the theater was sold to Commonwealth Theaters, Inc. Multiplex theater complexes came into vogue in the ‘90s. On September 12, 1996, the theater closed its doors and the building was donated to the Oregon Trail Community Foundation.
Yearning to restore the theater’s grand-opening splendor, Friends of the Midwest Theater worked with the Foundation. The nonprofit organization hosted a number of fundraisers to cover the costs of renovations. To date their aggressive fundraising campaign efforts have netted $600,000 in local donations, a $325,000 Peter Kiewit Foundation Challenge Grant, and $45,000 in Community Development Block Grant (CDBG), funding awarded by Governor Mike Johanns in September 2001. One interesting fundraiser involved award-winning director/screenwriter Alexander Payne, a Nebraska native, whose volunteer efforts in 2002, helped net $20,000 in donations during the first Midwest Film Festival, held at the theater. Payne traveled from Los Angeles to Scottsbluff to screen his films for eager movie patrons and donors.
While Friends of the Midwest Theater has yet to raise its full goal, major renovations have been made, including work on the exterior marquee, interior neon lighting, and a stage extension, all funded through the CDBG.
The Midwest Theater is, once again, back in the limelight where it belongs; a primary gathering place for events ranging from classic and second-run movies, to concerts, live theater, speakers, church services, televised Husker games, dance performances, class reunions, and wedding receptions. The local library, Boy and Girl Scout troops, service organizations, artists, teachers, and historians are some of the groups that regularly use the facility.
“ Through the efforts of the Friends of the Midwest Theater, they have not only restored a wonderful building, but have restored a lot of memories,” said Ken Meyer, who has lived most of his life in the Scottsbluff area.
The Midwest Theater has moved into the 21st century, but its’ $2.50 movie tickets, low- cost concessions and reasonable rental fees are delightful reminders of its grand past. The restoration also has resulted in a pleasant surprise that dovetails with the goals of Scottsbluff city officials and business leaders—a downtown renaissance. The theater’s rebirth is leading to more people spending more time downtown in shops, restaurants and even a recently opened comedy club. A local bank hosts a monthly movie for it’s ‘55 and over customers,’ typically drawing 120-150 people per screening on a Thursday morning—a testament to how the Midwest Theater continues to impact people from all walks of life in Scottsbluff and the surrounding area.
“I have many fond memories of the Midwest Theater and love reflecting on the good times we had at the theater,” said Donna Hessler, who worked as a theater usherette during her high school years. “The Midwest Theater is definitely a showcase for our community and I am thrilled that the Friends of the Midwest have taken the initiative to save this landmark for future generations.”