Society looking to save historic theatre

One of the region's oldest movie theatres is clinging to life and a society of volunteers is administering structural first aid but they need an infusion of cash.

The Beacon Theatre is about 70 years old and still shows a regular menu of movies in Burns Lake. The only way it has been able to survive in the home entertainment era is because the building and its operations were taken over by a not-for-profit society.

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The Lakes District Film Appreciation Society can do business like no profit-dependent corporation can.

What they cannot do, though, is reach into deep pockets for renovation money. They scrimped and saved for some small fixes, but as is often the case when an old structure's walls are opened, more work was required than was anticipated.

"We had about $100,000 saved up to do repairs because we thought we had some rot in one of the walls," said John Illes, one of the society members and a one-time town councillor.

"The good news was, we did not have the rot problem we thought we had, but we discovered all kinds of other bad news when we got into the wall. We discovered a lot of work had to be done to update things to modern code."

The engineer's report gave the society a one-year timeline to do the repairs, so as to avoid any overload of snow. As it was, society members went up on the roof and shoveled off any significant snowfalls that came this past winter. Illes said it was thankfully a light year for snowfall in Burns Lake, but it wasn't a sustainable plan going forward. Completing the repairs are the only viable solution.

That includes the option of a complete tear-down.

"For us, renovating is by far the cheaper way to go," he said.

"We did look into that, and a complete replacement is far beyond the numbers we're needing for a renovation - somewhere between five-to-seven million, which is just not viable - but a renovation is all that's required, in truth. We discovered that the bones of this building are actually in excellent shape, but we have to do upgrading to all four walls and the roof."

To complete the work, the society needs to gather somewhere in the neighbourhood of another $400,000. A set of grant applications are in the works to acquire that funding, to minimize any call for public donations. That is not a step the society is taking, yet.

A profit-based business has a difficult time getting donations or grants, but societies are set up to draw in dollars in aid of doing a public service.

The Beacon Theatre has closed and been dormant at times, due to the business model realities of running a movie house. But the society model has allowed for up to seven staff and a steady stream of entertainment at the only theatre in the small town west of Prince George.

They have hosted concerts there as well, from touring acts like The Mercy Brothers, The Kerplunks, and Ian Tyson, and also hosted the world premiere of the feature film Neutral Territory which writer-director Josias Tschanz set and shot in his hometown.

"We were not the first not-for-profit society to operate a movie theatre, we modelled ourselves on one in Revelstoke, and I think there is one more now that's followed suit," said Illes.

"It's really the only way to make it work in a small community, and it works great most of the time, but when a big investment is required like this one, it has its challenges."

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