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Wednesday, 28 August 2013 01:47

Curtain call: Waynesville welcomes revival of the Strand theater

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fr thestrandWhen Rodney and Lorraine Conard took the keys to the shuttered Strand movie theater two years ago, the hulking shell was like a blank canvas full of promise — a tad dusty, worn and tattered, but it was loved once and surely could win Waynesville’s heart again.

 

The young couple envisioned a boutique cinema screening indie movies, perhaps a dessert and coffee lounge, or an intimate live performance venue — maybe all of the above.

“We wanted to build up the local nightlife scene. There wasn’t much in the way of night life in Haywood County unless you want to just go to a bar,” said Lorraine Conard, a local singer-songwriter with a sizeable following.

The possibilities came with an immense responsibility though. The Strand, after all, was a community icon in its day.

“I saw a lot of cowboy movies here,” said Nick DePaolo, recalling his 1950s childhood when downtown Waynesville had two full-size movie theaters.

But the silver screen inside The Strand went dark in the late 1970s. The community has been waiting and longing for someone to resurrect it ever since.

“I think Waynesville is becoming an incredibly exciting, active art community, and you can’t have too many venues for that,” said DePaolo, an artist in Waynesville. 

Ever since the Conards bought the building out of foreclosure for $182,000 in fall 2011, there’s been a steady buzz of contractors and work crews coming and going. 

Finally, after two years of peering through tiny gaps in the plywood and paper that covered the windows and doors, the waiting and wondering over what was happening inside will soon be over. The doors will be opened to the community next month with a diverse line-up of evening movies to start with and live shows to soon follow— adding another notch to the belt of Waynesville’s growing nightlife scene.

A handful of new establishments have stepped up to the plate to fill the nightlife void in Waynesville over the past couple of years, but most of the time, bands or musicians are squeezed into a corner of the bar — not truly taking center stage.

Lorraine has played plenty of those gigs herself. Bars lucky enough to get her on the playbill could count on packing the house.

“There are some lovely bars, but if you want to do something other than go to a bar or restaurant, there wasn’t a lot to do,” Lorraine said. 

Richard Miller, owner of the Classic Wineseller, debuted a regular new performance space in downtown Waynesville last year following expansive remodeling of his wine bar and restaurant. His Friday night jazz series and other weekend music acts regularly attract a full house, proof of the pent-up demand for nightlife options.

“Personally, I don’t mind competition. The more people that come downtown, the more people that will see me and come the next week,” Miller said.

Whether it will help downtown as a whole remains to be seen, however.

“Will it help downtown? That will be up to the merchants if they decide to stay open later,” said Miller. “But we have to start somewhere, so the more activity we have after six o’clock the more likely downtown is going to be open after six.”

A champion of downtown Waynesville, Miller once contemplated buying The Strand himself to revive it. He envisioned a full-size movie house that served pizza and beer. But the business plan was based on a hunch: the hope that enough people would buy tickets, drinks and food to pay off the cost of buying and renovating the space. Ultimately, he couldn’t round up enough investors to take on the risk.

The Conards are convinced the demand is there, however.

“There is absolutely the population to support it. Right now, a lot of people just drive to Asheville if they want to go out,” Lorraine said.

There’s another challenge these days, however. People are too easily tempted to just stay home, sequestered in their own living rooms. 

“We have become very disconnected as individuals with our own TV sets where we can just stay at home and you don’t have engage with the community,” Lorraine said.

But maybe the revival of The Strand can tease them out of the house and bring them downtown.

“It is the experience — it is something fun you can go and do,” Lorraine said.

Still, it costs $250 for the rights to screen a movie for the weekend. Throw in electricity, salaries, insurance, cleaning and various overhead — it’ll take a lot of $6 tickets just to even break even any given night, let alone paying off the huge investment made in the building.  

“We are kind of crazy for doing this,” Lorraine said. “It really matters that people show up because that is the only way it is going to work. By showing up, they are helping create this space for the community.”

Buffy Phillips, director of the Downtown Waynesville Association, said The Strand’s façade improvements on Wall Street have transformed its appearance. Historically a rear alley, Wall Street is flanked by the utilitarian backside of buildings. But over the past decade, more merchants are putting entrances on Wall Street, and The Strand has given a huge boost to that effort.

“There’s nowhere to go but up on Wall Street. There is a good future happening back there,” Phillips said.

 

Work in progress

The blank canvas the Conards took on two years ago took far longer to become a masterpiece than they hoped. The building was a shell lacking even the basics of water, electricity and air. As with any major renovation of an old building, challenges lurked behind every wall. 

“Unforeseen circumstances,” as Rodney called them. 

Rodney, 38, and Lorraine, 34, also had their first baby this summer, and the couple is now juggling the soft opening of their theater with 4-month-old Della in tow.

Last Friday afternoon, with the debut of their first movie night just two weeks away, Lorraine and Rodney still faced a daunting to-do list. A concession stand was nonexistent aside from a lone popcorn machine in the corner. They don’t have their beer and wine permit yet. The lobby walls were bare, save a homemade sign with the single word “Theater” and an arrow pointing the way in.

Once down the hall and inside the theater, cardboard boxes were piled up on stage. And they still weren’t quite sure who was going to take tickets or run the projector yet. They are looking for volunteers to help in exchange for free admission.

But after the renovations the Conards have tackled the past two years, those are drop-in-the-bucket details. So why wait, they decided.

The Conards are ready to put the theater to use. They also want to get the community plugged in sooner rather than later to round out whatever final form the gathering place will ultimately take on.

“The community is a very real part of building this. We can’t do it ourselves. It is very much a community project,” Lorraine said. “It is all the community. That is very important to us. We don’t want to come in and say ‘Here is what it is.’ We want the whole community to be involved.”

Nights that don’t have movies or shows on the docket, the theater space can be rented by groups and clubs to hold their own programs.

The important pieces, however, are in place. A projector and a $60,000 sound system that Rodney calls the “best sound system in Western North Carolina.”

The Conards also plan on a lot coming together in the home stretch to opening night. DePaolo is making sure the walls in the lobby don’t stay blank. An artist with a penchant for drawing cowboy heroes, DePaolo will hang an installation of his Americana art. It’s a full circle moment for him. He used to stand in the lobby of the old Strand, gazing at the movie posters that covered the wall “trying to figure out how to draw them,” he said. Now, his own art of Roy Rogers will hang on those very walls.

“I never would have thought it in my wildest dreams,” DePaolo said.

 

Behind the scene

Lorraine describes the ambiance inside The Strand at 38 Main as a “speakeasy” feel.

To some, a restored 1950s boutique theater may scream for period décor, a glass chandelier and red velvet curtains. But the Conards went the opposite direction, going for the rustic-industrial look.

Their renovations were aimed at stripping back and exposing the original raw elements of the building, from giant steel I-beams to the underside of barrel-shaped roof trusses to remnants of the original paint job on concrete walls.

There is a secret ingredient that’s allowed the Conards to pull off their theater undertaking: thousands of used, handheld bar-code readers.

A niche business if there ever was one, the Conards’ day job is running an electronics distribution company called Broken Media along with Lorraine’s brother and his wife. They buy up old bar code readers from defunct retailers, refurbish them and resell them. 

The growing company was on the prowl for warehouse space for their massive inventory a couple of years ago when happenstance, divine intervention or a little of both led the Conards to The Strands’ doorstep. 

It would have been far simpler — and far cheaper — to forgo the theater entirely and use the whole building for their business operations. But they couldn’t pass up the once-in-a-lifetime chance to resurrect The Strand and were instantly determined to do both.

Hidden behind the cordoned off theater space are rows of industrial shelving reaching two-stories high. If you swivel around in your seat, you’re likely to spy stacks of cardboard boxes peaking up from the other side of the wall.

This dual use for the Strand building is the key financial underwriter behind the theater’s comeback — and is ultimately part of its ambiance and character.

“We aren’t disguising that. We are embracing it,” Lorraine said. “It adds to the speakeasy feeling.”

 

Coming soon to The Strand at 38 Main 

Movies will be screened three weekends in September for the soft opening of The Strand at 38 Main, an 80-seat boutique theater in downtown Waynesville.

Sept. 6-7 is the Goonies; Sept. 13-14 is American Graffiti; Sept. 20-21 is Casablanca.

Show time is 7 p.m. Adults are $6; kids under 12 are $4. 828.283.0079 or www.38main.com.

Stay tuned to the Arts and Entertainment section of the paper to keep up with more movies and live performances on the docket.

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