By Tom Creighton
Murrow News Service
TEKOA, WASH. _ The seats are torn up, the floorboards creak, and the welcome lights in the lobby are fading, but that hasn’t stopped The Empire Theatre from entertaining people more than 70 years after it first opened.
“We feel so fortunate that we have something that we can preserve and that is a part of our history here in Tekoa," said Cheryl Morgan, who heads a group of community members that manages the Empire. “It’s home.”
On Saturday, the theatre will host its first performance of 2012, when the Moscow Community Theatre opens its version of the 1950’s play “Bus Stop,” at 7 p.m. Coincidentally, the film version of “Bus Stop,” starring Marilyn Monroe, played at the Empire in the 1950s, Morgan said.
Built in 1939 and opened in 1940, the 280-seat theatre operated until 1958. It didn’t re-open until 2000, when Cheryl and Monte Morgan led a push to save the theatre. Each year, local donors contribute between $11,000 and $12,000 to keep the theatre operating, the Morgans said.
“Some of our activities even run at a loss, but we can afford it because of these donors,” Monte Morgan said.
Those donations have also funded a number of construction projects, including a renovation of the bathrooms, which showcase vintage paintings and tile work from the 1930s.
“It used to be just a movie theatre,” Monte Morgan said. “We added a stage as part of the renovations, which better allows for live performances.”
The interior tells the story of the art deco theatre’s journey: The walls are lined with film reels and old lighting fixtures, and the theatre hall features old, rickety seats.
Jim Kershner, a Spokane journalist who has studied theatres, said older buildings like the Empire are especially important to smaller communities like Tekoa.
“It seems to be [a big concern] in a place like Tekoa, where if it got shut down there would be hardly any entertainment at all,” Kershner said. “People would have to drive to Spokane just to see a movie.”
In losing a building, he said, there is also a danger of losing a prized piece of architecture.
“I think a town loses a bit of its heritage when that happens,” Kershner said.
The Morgans grew up in Tekoa, and have fond memories of seeing classic films at the Empire. Monte fondly remembers the old cowboy classics, featuring the likes of Roy Rogers, George “Gabby” Hayes, and Gene Autry.
“I bet I have seen every film these heroes of the time ever made,” he said. “It was a great form of entertainment for me and my friends. We seldom missed a movie at the old Empire Theatre.”
Other upcoming performances at the Empire include the Tekoa Royalty Program on March 24, the Spring Fling featuring The Senders on March 31. For more information, please visit www.tekoaempiretheatre.com/
The Murrow News Service provides local, regional and statewide stories reported and written by journalism students at the Edward R. Murrow College of Communication at Washington State University.