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(Photo Michael Wilson - An employee of Waller Emergency Services loads debris removed from the dressing room and backstage area of the Polk Theatre)

Flooding Dampens Polk Theatre Future - Elvis' Signature Saved.

Fundraising drive tries to save historic site, already shaky financially.

Elvis' signature has left the building � at least temporarily.

Already facing a financial crisis, Lakeland's historic Polk Theatre incurred major damage from flooding Thursday night, adding urgency to a fundraising campaign just launched by the non-profit organization that operates the 80-year-old movie palace.

Water infiltrated dressing rooms, storage areas and the auditorium, forcing removal of carpets, drywall and ceilings, including a treasured piece of wall signed by Elvis Presley after a performance in 1956.

Repair crews from Waller Emergency Services cut out the section of wall Friday and took it away for protection and drying. Waller employees said Presley's signature was still visible.

The flooding halted Thursday night's live performance of 'High School Musical' by Theatre works Florida early in the second act, according to Waller project manager Cindy Mattingly, who was attending with her 9-year-old daughter, Raya.

The toll of the damage wasn't yet clear Friday, said Dale Dreyer, president of the theatre's board of directors, but 'High School Musical' was scheduled to resume Friday night and run through the weekend. Tickets from Thursday night will be honoured at shows today and Sunday.

Friday afternoon's scene of exposed wall studs in dressing rooms and industrial blowers drying the carpet in the auditorium lent visual symbolism to financial woes that threaten to close the circa-1928 venue, one of just three 'atmospheric' theatres still operating in Florida.

Executive Director Frances McCranie said the theatre faces perhaps its direst financial crisis since it reopened in 1999 after a years-long, $1.5 million restoration.
'How fortunate are we to have a theatre like this,' McCranie said Friday. 'It's played a part in so many lives, and it would just be a shame to have it shut down, but to be honest and straightforward, there is that danger.

'So we're going to the public and saying, �Can you just help us keep our doors open? We will be good stewards of your money, but we need your help.'

The theatre's board of directors recently began a two-pronged campaign, mailing letters to past supporters and ticket buyers. Dreyer said the theatre needs $250,000 in the short term to keep operating and seeks at least $1.5 million in the long term for repairs and improvements and to create a sustaining endowment. He said a financial assessment found the theatre could only continue operating through April, though recent contributions have pushed back the date of possible closure.

Dreyer, noting the theatre hasn't had a capital campaign in nine years, said the mail pitch seeks 500 people to donate $500 each, though he said the theatre also welcomes smaller contributions. He said the theatre carries debts from past operating losses and a recent $80,000 roof repair.

The 1,400-seat Polk Theatre shows first-run art-house movies on some weekends, stages a performance-arts series and is available for private rentals. McCranie said movie attendance has remained flat or declined, especially since the Lakeside Village Cobb 18 opened in 2005 and began competing for arty movies.

Meanwhile, McCranie said the Polk's operating costs have soared, with annual utility costs and property insurance rates tripling in recent years. The theatre receives modest funding from the city, county and state, but private contributions and corporate sponsorships cover the majority of its roughly $500,000 annual budget.
McCranie said competing entertainment facilities, including The Lakeland Centre and the Tampa Theatre, are city-owned.

Lakeland Mayor Buddy Fletcher said Friday he can't envision the city boosting its funding of the Polk in a time of budget cuts, though he expressed hope the theatre can stay afloat.

'That theatre is very important to the city,' Fletcher said. 'We would be part of trying to possibly get someone in the community to put something together to keep it open.'

Thursday night's flooding might not add to the financial crisis. Waller project manager Mike Ellison said water backed up at a point where a drain pipe from an internal air-conditioner handling unit merges with an external drain pipe, and early indications suggested the pipe might have been blocked by debris from a recent roofing repair by another contractor. If so, Dreyer said the roofer's insurance would likely cover the costs. Otherwise, he said the theater's insurance would cover it.

Dreyer said flooding began with rains Thursday afternoon. The theater called in a plumber to clear the drainpipe, but lightning aborted the work. Dreyer said 'High School Musical' began on schedule, but harder rain in the evening caused new flooding that observers said began pouring down the auditorium's Italian-style walls and spewing from light fixtures and speakers.

Dreyer said water infiltrated the pipe assembly of an 82-year-old organ installed in 2002. He said it wasn't clear Friday how much damage the organ and the theatre's sound system sustained.

'We feel like we're snakebit,' he said.

'The theatre opened in December 1928, and we're saying in our 80th year if the community doesn't respond we won't have an 81st year,' Dreyer said. 'It is true to say that.'


Posted:  9th. March 2008 

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