For the better part of a century, Leeds Theater has been one of the anchors on Main Street.
Its future wasn’t always as secure as it is now.
In the days before Internet, television, cell phones and social media, there were movie theaters. Leeds was far from the only theater in downtown Winchester. At one point, there were at least four others, Winchester native Fara Tyree recalls.
“I remember going to the Leeds on Saturdays and watching the newsreels and cowboy movies, and the smell of popcorn,” Tyree said. “I remember being dropped off with a boyfriend for an hour and a half movie” or meeting other friends. “When I was older, it was a great place for a date.”
The theater opened May 12, 1925, owned by S.D. Lee, who was the president of the Winchester Amusement Company. The theater was later renamed Leeds — a play on Lee’s name — following a contest.
For the next 60 years, Leeds continued entertaining Winchester’s residents, as well as those from the surrounding area. Eventually, Leeds became the only movie house in downtown. Then it stopped showing first-run movies.
By 1986, the theater was crumbling and up for sale.
“We were driving through downtown one day and saw ‘closed’ on the sign,” Tyree said. “That’s what got us motivated to save that fine building from being a parking lot. We had great nostalgia for that old building.”
Tyree and a group of others quickly formed, including Ed Gilkison as vice president, Bill Oliver as secretary, Ralph Tyree as treasurer and other members such as Vic Bloomfield, Carla Van Meter and Mary Dean Beckner, David Rogers, Molly and Craig Stotts, Chuck Witt, Alice Codell Roberts, Janie Johnson and Barbara Falmlen. Fara Tyree became the president of the Winchester Council for the Arts.
With the goal of saving a downtown landmark, they set to work.
“We talked with the manager and were told they were going to sell,” she said.
To secure the theater, they had to raise $75,000, she said.
Almost immediately, the council saw the support from the community.
“As we began the fundraising, an anonymous donor came forward and offered to give the money … if we could raise an additional $75,000,” she said. “We were fortunate to match that money. We were given it on the last day of December and the work began.”
Saving Leeds was no small task. Tyree had to go inside the walls to connect wires to turn on the lights. The plumbing was inoperable. There was water standing in the floor in the main theater. The roof was failing miserably at keeping the weather outside.
“It was not a secure building at the time,” she said.
For the next three years, the council kept working and raising money. For the first year, the council met every week, she said. A $328,000 Community Development Block Grant helped finance the rebuilding and restoration, she said,
“These people were just vital to this thing,” she said. “These people believed in this wonderful idea.”
In 1990, the Leeds Center for the Arts officially opened as more than a movie theater. It was now a community theater, complete with a larger stage, lights and dressing rooms in the back.
Within the first couple months, there were performances by groups of Russian dancers and musicians from Ecuador. Eventually, running Leeds became too much for the council members to handle.
“We were looking for a theater manager to keep Leeds busy and vital, to rent space, to bring in programs,” Tyree said.
The council hired Ralph Pate as manager, she said.
Tyree, though, decided it was time for a change.
“When we opened the Leeds Theater, I felt it was my time to let others come and run the theater,” she said. “It’s a difficult job.”
As the years passed, Leeds kept operating and relying on community donations and support. Over the years, maintenance became an issue again.
Tyree returned to the board in 2003 to help with financial issues, and the council eventually retired its debt for the theater.
But deferred maintenance began to accumulate. The roof was failing again. Plaster was falling off the right wall in the theater.
A couple years ago, a new board took office and again faced the task of stabilizing and restoring Leeds.
“My daughters both danced with Ms. Fara when they were young,” current board President Tracey Miller said. “I began to see the value of arts in a community. There was an emotional connection. I’m a preservationist as well as seeing the value of this with the community.”
In 2013, Miller became the president of the arts council and, with other members, began planning to bring the theater back to its former glory. The roof had failed again, adding to the maintenance woes.
“There was a lot of deferred maintenance,” Miller said. “It was time to make it shine again.”
Some of the challenges were the same all these years later.
“When we took over as a board, there was significant debt and very little money in the checking account,” Miller said.
What they had was plenty of “hard work and blind faith.”
What is not in doubt is the community’s support of Leeds, she said.
“There is an obvious impact and value to Leeds and the value of what comes from Leeds,” Miller said.
Again, the community stepped up to help. The Greater Clark Foundation contributed a $50,000 match of funds from the City of Winchester to replace the roof. In March, another anonymous donor gave $100,000 to Leeds, coupled with a $50,000 match from the Clark County Community Foundation for renovations.
“We can’t thank the city and The Greater Clark Foundation enough,” Miller said.
With a long list of projects, Leeds was dark for about four months. Again, the City of Winchester stepped up to cover the theater’s utilities and basic expenses during the renovations.
In April, the community got its first look at the refreshed and updated Leeds with repaired plaster in the main theater, renovated restrooms, a new concession stand, new paint and carpet throughout and a brand new stage curtain.
“(It’s) pretty much a top to bottom renovation in the span of four months,” Miller said. “None of that would have happened without our donors, the foundation and a plethora of volunteers.”
Re-opening weekend featured a concert by Ben Sollee and other public events. Now, it’s time to get back to business.
“We are ready to get back to what we love and that’s putting on arts events,” board vice-president Selina Arnett said.
“Our biggest mission is education and being able to support the arts,” Miller said. “We want to make this a place where people are inspired, educated and engaged. We always say art is the great equalizer. You can come and immerse yourself in an experience. That’s unique.
“We want this to be a place of beautiful vignettes. We all want to see this survive for another 100 years.” §