Fundraising continues for downtown Kearney theater

KEARNEY, Neb. (AP) — It’s been a crazy year for the World Theatre in downtown Kearney.

It began as the holiday season approached and the nonprofit organization’s board launched a drive to raise almost $590,000 for major improvements and backstage updates to the former vaudeville theater that opened at 2318 Central Ave. in 1927.

The $590,000 goal was ambitious, and the drive fell about $38,000 short, but that just energized The World’s leadership. The fundraising has continued and The World Theatre Foundation still is short, but the goal has been boosted above $600,000, and so have plans to strengthen The World’s standing as an art and cultural center in central Nebraska.

The Kearney Hub reports that last week, World Theatre Board President Mark Orr walked through the structure in downtown Kearney.

First, he pointed at the 69 luxury seats that have been installed in The World’s balcony. Additional balcony seating will lift the total to 93, he said. That compares with the 180-seat balcony capacity before the renovation.

Giving up the capacity cleared the way to make the balcony an extra special space, Orr said, but that’s just one of the changes in store when The World is able to stage a grand reopening.

Orr said it’s tough to decide when to unveil the improvements. The unveiling is an event that calls for a packed house, but in the age of coronavirus, health and safety priorities trump promotional planning.

“We can’t land on a grand opening,” Orr said. “Maybe sometime in the fall.”

He said when the pandemic forced the closure of the theater in downtown Kearney, it opened other doors, such as the increase in the fundraising goal. Theater leaders now have more time to achieve it. Today, The World is about $20,000 short of the donations it needs to reel in a matching grant of about $55,000. Together, the donations and match would mean an additional $75,000.

That money will help The World “do things right,” Orr said.

Where will all the money be spent?

A major share has gone to the balcony renovation, while additional funds will be used to breathe life back into the stage and backstage areas, including dressing rooms and other improvements that will accommodate live entertainment and special events, such as wedding receptions.

A lobby expansion also is underway. A lounge is planned on the south side of the lobby, and there will be a Sweets Shop to the north. The candy and treats space will replicate the business that was a fixture of The World from 1940 to 1948.

Orr said theatergoers will enjoy the wider, plush upholstered balcony seats, and they’ll also appreciate updates to The World’s heating and air conditioning systems.

“In the winter people in the balcony would freeze, and in the summer they baked” because of the inadequate ventilation, Orr said. The HVAC improvements will end those problems.

Although health and safety restrictions have kept The World’s doors locked since February, two months ago the World opened a pop-up drive-in theater at the Buffalo County Fairgrounds. Patrons of the pop-up have pumped some much-needed cash into The World’s bank account, and some of the money — about $2,800 — has been shared with Kearney cultural groups and nonprofits.

Orr is hoping he soon can announce when The World will show its improvements to the community. He said there have been many large donors, but individuals also have contributed and helped move the fund drive close to its goal.

“Everybody has made a difference,” he said.

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