There’s a lot happening behind the flashy new blade sign on the Benson Theatre building near 60th and Maple Streets.
Renovations inside are progressing at a brisk clip, giving the 1920s-era structure a proper art deco interior.
The building, which opened as the Benalto Theater in 1923 to feature vaudeville acts, is being restored as a community space for theatrical performances, educational programs, workshops and other events.
Crews from Lund-Ross Construction face a firm deadline. Theater officials recently revealed that the first play on its restored stage will premiere Oct. 21.
Programming director Michal Simpson said the theater would be ready.
The work, which began in summer 2020, combines several original elements of the building with modern technology.
On a recent tour, Simpson showed a visitor original steel rafters in the lobby, made at a foundry in Benson.
“They were raised (to the ceiling) by horses,” he said, and remain on the ceiling today.
In contrast, he points out digital screens that will provide patrons with tidbits about the building’s history or help them buy a drink at the lobby bar.
One monitor will allow local artists to send digital copies of their work to virtually display for sale.
“You can touch the screen,” he said, and get the artist’s contact information to purchase the item that’s displayed. “One-hundred percent of the proceeds go to (the artist).”
In restrooms, classic art deco wall designs by Omaha artist Josh Audiss share space with 21st century sanitation innovations such as touchless faucets and hand dryers, essential during the current pandemic.
There’s even a changing table that will accommodate an adult, one of the design’s many nods to accessibility, in this instance focusing on older or disabled visitors, Simpson said. Local architecture firm Alley Poyner Macchietto designed the restoration.
The main auditorium has a row of swanky-looking, horseshoe-shaped booths with black vinyl seats, the kind Frank Sinatra may have shared with Ava Gardner at an art deco New York nightclub.
But nearby, Simpson said, you’ll also find outlets for laptops and a state-of-the-art sound system that can send music and dialogue “straight into hearing aids.” The theater also is equipped to live-stream events.
The auditorium features a large open space that can hold rows of chairs for a capacity of 159 patrons or cabaret-style tables to accommodate 136 people, he said.
Next to the stage, the decorative lintel above a door is original to the building. Part of the original vaudeville stage also was preserved, though the bulk of the stage is new.
For Executive Director Amy Ryan, the nearly complete $4.7 million renovation is the peak of an eight-year journey.
She used to operate a pizza shop near the theater and embraced the idea of turning the landmark theater into something that would serve the community. She envisioned sharing the space with other nonprofits and offering a variety of arts, culture and educational programming.
She stirred up community excitement and embarked on a capital campaign to raise funds for the restoration and renovation.
It has reached its goal, though she’s still taking donations to cover operational costs.
“I am absolutely just honored and humbled,” she said last week. “(It’s) probably one of the most inspiring experiences I have ever had.”
A number of local philanthropists, including the Hamann Family Fund, the Gilbert M. and Martha H. Hitchcock Foundation and the Mammel Family Foundation, are among the supporters.
The theater auditorium is named after founding donor Chip Davis, who established the music group Mannheim Steamroller and the American Gramaphone recording company.
“Benson Theatre … will further produce and enhance the economic growth and development of the historic neighborhood and the entire metro area,” Davis said in a statement on the theater’s website.
Ryan recruited Simpson for the Benson Theatre job in 2019. He was the longtime director of SNAP! Productions until it lost its lease a few years ago and was unable to find another suitable space. SNAP! originally was founded to raise funds for the Nebraska AIDS Project and favored material that touched on current societal issues.
Simpson had been the prime caretaker for his elderly mother, and when she passed away, he knew he needed to re-enter the workforce. The timing of Ryan’s offer, he said, was “karma.”
He has myriad plans for the Benson Theatre: a discussion group for film students, film showings, Saturday morning activities for underserved kids.
Food insecurity is a problem in the neighborhood surrounding the theater, he said, so the kids would get lunch.
And that’s just the beginning. He has a programming subcommittee made up of arts, culture and nonprofit representatives from across Omaha to help him keep the theater busy.
The Benson Theater company will have four plays each year. The first, “20th Century Blues” by Susan Miller, will run Oct. 21-30. Cast members are Moira Mangiameli, Denise Chapman, Mary Kelly, Becky Noble, Sue Mouttet and Shae’Kell Butler. Echelle Childers is the director.
The plot centers on four retirement age women who for many years have had an annual photo shoot to document changes. They’ve shared the photos only with a select few, and when it appears the shots may go public, the women are forced to confront who they are and how to deal with what may be ahead.
It examines an issue — aging — that becomes more prevalent as the large Baby Boom generation gets older.
“You know me,” Simpson said. “(Our) productions will have socially relevant issues and talkbacks.”