Saving Our State's Historic Theaters
Travel the Main Street of any American town and a theater will likely be there, anchoring the street and beckoning residents and visitors alike to lose themselves for a time in another world. Whether they are architectural masterpieces or modest storefronts with a marquee, they are essential to economic development and maintaining community character.
More than 80 operating historic theaters remain in Washington. They are scattered in both small towns and urban neighborhoods. In fact, 25% of the theaters are located in communities with a population of under 5,000, and nearly 56% are in communities under 50,000. Most are owned and managed by individuals. As businesses, they contribute local economies in purchasing goods and products, employing people, and paying taxes. As venues for performances and film, they support an arts economy that ripples far beyond individual artists to include construction workers, graphic designers, electricians, and many other trades and services. Additionally, historic theaters are indispensable assets in developing cultural tourism—the fastest growing segment of the tourism market.
Raise your voice
In the wake of the COVID-19 public health crisis, historic theaters across Washington State need support now more than ever. In acknowledgment of this, the Washington State Legislature has provided funding in the amount of $300,000 to the Department of Archaeology & Historic Preservation to support the creation of a new Historic Theater Grant Program. While this funding is an important step, the need across the state is even greater.
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, historic theaters across the state have been forced to shutter, lay off staff, and defer important capital improvements. As we know from a survey of nearly 50 theaters conducted in April 2021, 72% of theaters reported being closed completely for the past year. Historic theater owners reported a total of about $3.2 million in lost income due to COVID-19—an average of $240,000 in losses per theater. With such unprecedented losses, theater owners were forced to lay off full- and part-time employees, resulting in an 83% reduction in employees overall across respondents. And with no revenue, theater operators were unable to implement critical capital projects, leading to deferred maintenance and endangering the long-term preservation of these important historic structures.
In acknowledgment of this, at our 2021 Vintage Washington virtual event, we at the Washington Trust announced a new thematic listing to our Most Endangered Places program: historic theaters across Washington State. In doing so, we hope to rally public support for these important cultural spaces and to encourage increased state funding in future budget years. As our state restrictions begin to ease in the coming weeks and months, it is critical that we remember how much historic theaters need our help. So get out there and support your local theater!
See the featured video from our May 20 Vintage Washington event (featuring testimonials from Shara Forrister of The Princess Theater in Prosser and Larry Hibbard of the Ruby Theatre in Chelan), where we announced the addition of historic theaters across Washington State as a thematic listing in our Most Endangered Places program.
The new historic theater grant program established at the Department of Archaeology & Historic Preservation was informed by a 2008 statewide survey and physical needs assessment conducted by Artifacts Consulting which profiled 80 of Washington State’s extant historic theaters. Check out the survey for more information!