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Lyric Theater Desires New Improvements

By Staff | Apr 29, 2016

Holly Niemi demonstrates new equipment for the hearing impaired at the Lyric Theater.

Four sets of headphones for the hearing impaired are the latest addition to amenities at the Lyric Theater in Rugby.

Previously, the theater had no accommodations for patrons who suffered hearing loss, according to Holly Niemi, secretary of the executive board of the Friends of the Lyric, which operates the showhall. “We’ve had them for about a month or two,” Niemi said. “People can check them out at the concession stand, then sit anywhere they want in the theater.”

The wireless headsets are just one of many improvements made to the historic building since it was purchased by the community in 2013.

The first and, to date, most expensive project undertaken was to switch the projection system from reel-to-reel to digital, an essential upgrade since movie makers no longer used film. The changeover, complete with new wiring, surround sound, and a new compatible screen was made in 2014. The first digital movie was “The Lone Ranger” with Johnny Depp, Niemi remembers.

Other improvements include installing hot water in the restrooms, painting the outer lobby and cleaning and tiling the concessions area. The projects were completed with the help of grants, donations and fundraisers. Local residents gave countless hours of labor to complete the upgrades, Niemi said.

Another major project, that of replacing seats, was two years in the making, according to Sue Steinke, board president. “We got them from Century Theater in Fargo,” she said. Two crews of five people each made the 220-mile trip, and started removing seats at 11 p.m., following the last show of the evening. “The theater didn’t want to lose any revenue, so our guys worked through the night,” Steinke said. Later, another crew made the trip and brought back seats not removed the first time.

The seats were stored in an area in front of the existing seats at the Lyric, and some went to a storage unit where, Niemi estimated, they remained for about a year.

The Century Theater seats were designed to be mounted on a level floor, the way most theaters are built these days. But the Lyric has not only inclined aisles, but also the whole floor slopes toward the front. To counteract this, the theater partnered with Rugby Manufacturing to design and build tapered brackets to connect the seats to the floor.

One week last August was set aside to make the transition to the new seats, Niemi and Steinke said. Starting on Monday and continuing throughout the week, volunteers took out all the old seats, patched the cracked and broken cement floor in an area along the north wall, sanded the floor, gave it two coats of paint and the new brackets were installed. Meanwhile, other volunteers dismantled and cleaned the seats from Fargo. The reassembled seats were mounted on the brackets and everything was ready in time for the Friday evening movie. “It was the hottest week of the year,” Steinke remembers, with temperatures in the 90s. A total of 60 volunteers worked on the project.

Four wheelchair accessible areas have been set aside and are awaiting the special brackets needed to make them useable. The spacious areas will include a companion theater seat.

The Friends of the Lyric have a long list of improvements they would like to see, with a new heating system at the top. “We really need a new heating system,” Steinke said, “and the theater has never had air conditioning.” The concession area can become hot in the summer, Niemi agreed, but the rest of the building stays relatively cool, possibly because it is enclosed and dark. When the heating system is replaced Steinke would love to see air conditioning added as well.

Niemi and Steinke say a new marquee is on the wish list, as are handicapped accessible rest rooms and a remodeled concession area.

“It’s like a domino thing,” Steinke said. “If we tear off the old marquee, maybe we will need to redesign the front of the theater.” That wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing, she thinks. “We’d all like to bring it back to the original 1920’s look.”

Steinke and Niemi know all of the improvements depend on the continued assistance of not only the Rugby area, but surrounding communities, which they say have been very good about supporting the theater.

And they are unaminous in their praise of the volunteers who show up every weekend to run it. “Without the many, many hands every week to make it go we wouldn’t have a theater,” Steinke said. “We always stress that without that help we would close. But,” she added, “we could use more concession leaders. They open the theater, assist and train volunteers, make sure concessions and ticket sales are all accounted for, run the concession area and lock up.”

The broader vision of the Friends of the Lyric is to incorporate more activities into the theater schedule. “We have partnered with the hospital for a presentation,” Steinke said, “and we brought in a documentary, ‘Most Likely to Succeed’, together with the high school.” They would like to see their building become a community cultural center, not just a theater.

So, although much remains to be done, Friends of the Lyric are pleased with the progress they have made in three years, going from the prospect of having no theater at all in Rugby to showing the most recent Hollywood offerings. “It’s a real testimony to what a group of people can do when they have a common goal,” Steinke said.

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