Rose Theater in Underwood getting a new life

UNDERWOOD – It’s easy for small, rural towns in North Dakota to lose their identity when big business like the oil boom slowly starts transforming the community right before its residents’ eyes. To stop that from happening, one town is making an investment in its past for the benefit of current and future generations.

The Rose Theater in Underwood is a Quonset-style theater built in 1949. Tyler Demars, economic developer for Underwood, said the Rose Theater, and other theaters made from the corrugated metal that is a trademark of Quonsets, came about as a way to put excess post-war materials to good use.

“After WWII there was a surplus of Quonset materials, so they turned a lot of these Quonsets into theaters,” Demars said. “The Rose was one of those built in 1949 and operated as a theater until the late ’80s.”

At that point it was closed down and converted to cold storage, and has been used that way ever since.

In 2012 Becky Bowen, Underwood’s former economic developer before she moved to North Carolina, came up with the idea to revitalize the old building. The Northern Expressions Arts Council was incorporated with the goal of promoting the arts in McLean County and the surrounding areas. The group’s first priority was to bring the Rose Theater back to its former glory.

“She saw this building and saw this space that wasn’t being utilized and saw some potential there,” Demars said. “She organized a couple meetings to get the arts council together and went from there.”

In April that year the building was purchased for $500 and plans to renovate it began. It was decided the theater would be rebuilt in three phases, each with its own fundraising goal.

“They’ve been fundraising and doing grassroots organizing, trying to raise the funds and put together a business plan to get that building back up and operating as a movie theater and a community performing arts center, as well,” Demars said.

One of the biggest reasons to get the theater running again is to provide a place for young people in McLean County to perform or show art, or even use as a social space dedicated to activities such as cards, ping pong and other games.

“Like most rural communities in North Dakota, we’re heavy on bars and we’re heavy on churches but (there’s) not a lot to do for high school kids and younger kids,” Demars said.

Phase one, which has just been completed, had a fundraising goal of $12,000, with the money used to completely gut the interior. The roof was also temporarily fixed with a spray-on material to prevent leaks until a more permanent solution could be applied.

Phase two has a fundraising goal of an additional $50,000. The plan is to get the interior remodel mostly done with the exception of the installation of the movie theater equipment.

“We want to get the restrooms, the concession area, the stage built up, some minimal lighting systems for the stage, (and) HVAC,” Demars said, noting there are a few other odds and ends that will be done as well. “Basically getting everything done but the digital projector, the screen, (and )the lighting systems.”

Demars said they also plan on getting the public address system, which was donated by Underwood Public School, installed during this phase. In addition, other donations include theater seats from Grand Theatres in Bismarck and lighting from St. Bonaventure Catholic Church in Underwood.

The completion date for phase two isn’t set in stone, but Demars said they would love to have the theater open in time for the second annual Underwood’s Got Talent talent show next spring.

“They had musical acts and comedy skits and theater, (around) 15 different acts from Underwood. We did it at City Hall in April of 2013,” Demars said. “The goal is to have this be an annual event for the arts council and for next year to hold it in the Rose. That might be a more compressed time line then what’s realistic, but that’s what we’re shooting for.”

Phase three is the biggest one as far as fundraising. The goal is another $60,000 raised, with an additional $80,000 operating loan to pay for the digital projection equipment. Assuming phase two is complete next year and Underwood has a usable community and arts center for its citizens that can help raise revenue, phase three could be complete the year after that in 2015.

However, Demars said they aren’t even thinking about phase three at the moment.

“Right now our goal is to get to the end of phase two and then recalibrate and see what we need to do from there.”

Demars said getting phase two done is important for more than just the obvious reason of needing a complete building to put expensive projection equipment in. Being able to see what the theater looks like and visualizing where the projection equipment will go will help get people excited about the project all over again.

“It will be a lot easier for people to buy into it once they see it, once we have something there that can be used,” he said.

After the projection equipment is installed, the bulk of the movies shown would be new first-run releases, probably two alternating movies at a time. To mix things up Demars said they would also like to show more vintage films from time to time. While the community would have some input as to which vintage films are shown, Demars has some ideas of his own.

“Maybe have a “Star Wars” marathon,” he said. “I don’t know if anybody else would like that, but that’s what I would want.”

Demars said the support from Underwood’s residents has been phenomenal. People have pitched in by helping to organize events, organize fundraising and making direct financial contributions. Demars noted they just got a Dept. of Commerce small business grant that puts them over $22,000 raised in total between phases one and two.

“People have shown a lot of interest in it. It’s something different for Underwood. We’re big into our high school sports, which is awesome. We have high school band and a little bit of theater at the school, but the arts is something that’s kind of been neglected,” Demars said. “I’m sure that’s not unique to (Underwood). A lot of rural communities, that’s one of the last activities to get energy towards.”

It’s not just the usual suspects who are helping out, either.

“There’s been some people coming out of the woodwork that haven’t gotten involved in things previously. This is kind of their avenue that they’ve never had before, and that’s what Becky thought,” he said. “When Becky thought about this, she kind of anticipated that might be the case. And it has been. It’s been neat.”

Demars said a project like this that the entire community can get behind is important for rural communities like Underwood. While it isn’t at the heart of the oil boom in western North Dakota, Demars said they are still close enough to see some changes in their town. While change can be good, they are willing to do whatever it takes to make sure they don’t change too much.

“We’re definitely on the fringe of the Bakken, but I think it’s really important for smaller communities that are going through this accelerated pace of development (to) have these spaces dedicated to community and social interaction (to help) retain their identity as a community,” Demars said. “I think it helps to really grow the roots of the community so they’re not swept up (with) development and they’re not overwhelmed by it because they are anchored in something else.”