If the walls of the Indian Head Opera House built in 1904 by A.J. Osment could talk, they would likely reminisce about days gone by filled with Chautauqua — travelling shows, lectures, live concerts and plays. The opera house provided a place for prairie folk to go for a night out — a break from the daily chores.
In later years (1930s), when it was transformed into the town cinema, black and white silent films brought Hollywood’s famous to the early settlers of his prairie town.
But time, as it always does, has erased some of the original beauty and left the theatre, now called the Grand, sorely in need of a revitalization before being lost forever. In 2013, the film industry announced reel to reel picture shows were coming to an end and if anyone wanted to keep the doors open they would have to upgrade their equipment to digital, which came with an $80,000 to $120,000 price tag.
But the windows weren’t boarded up and the building didn’t fade away.
A group of local arts enthusiasts strung together through small town interface tossed out the idea of saving the theatre. Little did they know what that would eventually mean, or how long it would eventually take but their naivety lit the flame for others to respond.
Bruce Neill, then recently retired agro forestry division manager of the Prairie Farm Rehabilitation Administration, accepted the position as board chair and today remains a key figure in overseeing the reclamation of the theatre. Along with an initial six-person board, they hatched a fund-raising campaign called Let’s Make it Reel, which obtained pledges of more than $100,000 from local donors. The fundraiser made it possible to make a down payment for the mortgage and new digital equipment.
The committee was then able to negotiate a purchase price from owners of the theatre of $150,000 and used donations to obtain a 20-year mortgage from the local credit union for $120,000 and on Feb. 15, 2014, the non-profit group became owner-operators of the Grand Theatre.
It’s been five years since and even if you look closely, you won’t see much difference on the inside (except for the digital film equipment). The work done on the roof and stone basement has stabilized the building and along with other work has already totalled more than $500,000.
“Right from the beginning we made the decision to fix the building with an eye to last another 100 years,” says Neill. “I have been asked why we didn’t just build a new theatre, and the simple answer is that we wanted to preserve our past and we had a vision for not only a theatre but an arts centre with many different uses. We have found that we can leverage our fund-raised dollars with heritage funding. And with about one third of the work done with in-kind donations of expertise, it has worked out to two-thirds cash. We only move forward when we have raised enough money and the only debt we carry is the mortgage.”
The volunteer board knew the roof had issues, but the extent of the problems were made evident during the spring of 2014 when the snow melted. It took more than 40 buckets to catch water inside the building. A tarp placed over the new digital equipment protected it and redirected the incoming melt into strategically placed receptors.
The entire roof had to be tarped, which necessitated a new funding campaign called Raise the Roof. It featured a night of rock bands and ghost tours, which provided seed money to begin what would be a three-year replacement and repair of the roof.
By the spring of 2015, there were two unexpected partnerships that still today enable the project to proceed. The group had developed a relationship with Roof Management Inspection Services (RMIS), a Regina engineering firm specializing in commercial roofs. Owner Percy Crossman felt so passionate about the project that he chose the theatre as the company’s charity of choice in its “Giving Back” initiative. It would provide technical help and repair part of the roof. Also, the Saskatchewan Heritage Foundation (SHF) visited the site and assessed the structural priorities. While the theatre’s initial SHF grant request was denied, a revised grant was approved, as was a series of follow-up grant requests over time.
“Meanwhile, RMIS said the structural damage was such that we would need a replacement rather than a repair approach for much of the roof,” says Neill.
For three years, the Grand charity has provided more than $100,000 of in-kind services and products and continues to raise funds for the renovations. The theatre and live shows break even, but provide much needed entertainment value to surrounding communities.
The Grand has hosted many musical concerts and plays over the years which have helped bring outside communities together. Musicians come from out of town to teach violin and guitar, the Stage Left Players perform live theatre and the high school drama club has used the stage for rehearsals. A group of seniors recently spent the afternoon enjoying the revised Mary Poppins movie.
“The goal is to evolve into a multi-entertainment arts centre in an amazing historic building,” says Neill. “It will take a few more years and many hours and friends of the theatre to accomplish this.”
In 2017, Hindle Architects began a pro-bono project to develop a conceptual plan for the interior renovations. Jesse Hindle grew up in the community and he and his wife, Laura Alvery, are Calgary-based architects with heritage expertise. They are presenting the design concepts to the community and funding agencies.
“We want a modern interior that is period appropriate, meets all building codes and is completely accessible,” says Neill.
In February, the National Trust of Canada gave the Grand Theatre an award for Adaptive Reuse of a Historical Site.
The board anticipates needing another $500,000 plus to properly finish the project. It’s been five years and counting, volunteers have come and gone but the charity retains a strong volunteer base.
“If I could say a few words to the wise — be patient, network and hold strong to the passion in each decision — we have a ways to go — but look at how far we’ve come,” says Neill.