It’s been a wild ride for Jen Waters since she came aboard as the Whiteside Theatre’s first full-time executive director in September.
The renovated movie palace in downtown Corvallis played host to 24 events in October, and at one point Waters realized she had been in the building 13 days in a row.
But as she moved through the crowd on the night of Oct. 18, when the annual Magic Barrel literary event drew more than 500 people to the theater, she knew the hard work she and her staff had put in was paying off.
“I would pass by people and they were having conversations about the Whiteside,” she recalled during a recent interview.
“This was exactly what this month was for: People know we’re open.”
At times it’s been hard to tell that the vintage venue, built in 1922 to screen silent movies, was still in operation. It nearly went dark forever in 2002, when Regal Entertainment Group shut it down rather than pay to fix a broken sewer line and other problems.
Various redevelopment schemes were floated, including plans to turn the historic theater into a mini-mall or a parking garage, but a determined group of local preservationists fought them at every turn.
In 2008, Regal bowed to the pressure and donated the building to the nonprofit Friends of the Whiteside (now the Whiteside Theatre Foundation) with a single stipulation: It can never be used to show first-run movies.
The 800-seat Whiteside reopened in October 2011 with a blowout concert featuring 11 local bands and five standup comedians. But a lot of renovations remained to be done, and progress was slow.
Gradually, however, the work got done — from repairing that broken sewer line to relighting the marquee, bringing the wiring up to snuff and upgrading the sound system — thanks to determined fundraising, some key grant awards and, in Waters’ words, the “blood, sweat and tears” of a devoted cadre of volunteers.
Building a professional staff is the next big step in the grand old theater’s comeback.
Waters, whose resume includes both theatrical and marketing experience, started working as a part-time personnel manager for the Whiteside early last year, later adding volunteer manager to her duties. When she was named executive director in September, however, she became the revived theater’s first full-time paid employee.
Her paid part-time staff now includes house manager and volunteer coordinator Deahna Geehan, technical director Steve Hunter, tech leads Si Matta and Josh Heiser, tech staff Ronda Jameson and Travis Foster, bar lead Martina Robinson and bartenders Emily Wille and Keanon Goetzinger.
“I think when they started, they really wanted to keep it a volunteer organization. There was a lot of focus on renovation and fixing (the building) up, and you can ask volunteers to do that,” Waters said.
“But in order to run a venue, you really need someone who has experience in theater and knows what goes into that,” she added. “This takes us to a new level as an arts organization.”
Meanwhile, the building renovations continue.
Last month, about 30 seats were removed from the side aisles near the stage to create space for audience members to dance at concerts (Waters is working on a flex system that would allow those seats to be reinstalled or removed as needed, depending on the event).
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A full restoration of the building’s front façade on Madison Avenue was recently completed, including the installation of poster cases on either side of the main entrance, providing a handy way to promote coming attractions while providing a colorful reminder that the Whiteside really is open for business.
And at least one major construction project remains to be done. The Whiteside Theatre Foundation is launching a fundraising campaign to pay for an expansion of the main lobby. In addition to providing more elbow room for patrons, the work will add accessible restrooms on the ground floor, a long-sought improvement.
Plans also call for a small kitchen for preparing hot food, which will not only expand the theater’s menu options but will also meet legal requirements for serving spirits in addition to the beer, wine and cider available now.
The project, which is expected to be done in 2021 or 2022, will cost the theater another 50 seats, but Waters thinks the tradeoff is worth it.
“It still makes us exactly what we are, which is a medium-sized theater,” she said. “I don’t think they’ll be missed, and people are going to love the new lobby.”
For now, Waters’ primary focus is on continuing to build awareness of the Whiteside as a vibrant part of Corvallis’ entertainment scene.
In addition to the popular Wednesday night screenings of second-run movies and community events like the Magic Barrel, the Whiteside has begun booking a lot more live music performances, with an emphasis on Celtic and folk music, and more concerts are in the works.
“This is going to be our first full season of shows and entertainment, and we have the poster cases to advertise it now,” said Rob Gandara, a Whiteside board member and the producer of a Celtic concert series.
“Now that we’ve restored the theater, let’s use it. It’s more than just an historical relic, it’s an actual performance venue.”
Waters said building rentals are up and she’s been talking with Oregon State University officials about booking the hall for conference presentations and other events. She’s also working to expand the Whiteside’s educational programming by leveraging relationships with The Arts Center, the Benton County Historical Society and area schools.
In March, the Whiteside teamed up with the 350-seat Majestic Theatre on an expanded version of the “What Is Noise?” Festival, and Waters said there could be more cooperative ventures in the future. At the suggestion of Majestic supervisor Jimbo Ivy, the rival downtown venues have started posting events on a shared Google calendar to avoid stepping on each other’s toes.
“It’s been working pretty well, I think,” Waters said. “Jimbo and I have good conversations about what each of our roles should be in the community.”
Waters is also looking to diversify the Whiteside’s entertainment offerings with things like burlesque and drag shows, a monthly local band showcase and possibly live broadcasts of sporting events.
“We’re hoping we can get people to think this is not just where you go to see a Wednesday night movie or that kind of thing,” she said. “We’re hoping to flip the switch on how people perceive it.”
At this stage, Waters is experimenting — trying different approaches to see what works best. But she’s also looking for feedback from the community.
“We can make this space whatever people want it to be,” she said.
“I want people to feel this is their space, too. It’s got some funkiness, for sure, but it’s a beautiful space. It’s just got so much potential.”