New Life for Iconic Omaha Movie Theater

Feb. 14, 2017, 6:45 a.m. ·

Historic Dundee Theater in Omaha, Nebraska (Photo by Jack Williams, NET News)

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In 1925, Calvin Coolidge was president, the Great Gatsby had just been published, and the Dundee Theater was hosting vaudeville productions. 92-years later, the theater is taking a short intermission.

It has been a fixture near the corner of 50th and Dodge in Omaha for almost a century, and now the theater is undergoing a major, multi-million dollar facelift that could add another 100 years to its life.

For Casey Logan, that’s good news. He’s the deputy director of Film Streams, the organization overseeing the major renovation. It will use the theater to screen independent, foreign and classic films when the work is complete.

Interior of Dundee Theater as a major renovation project begins. (Photo by Jack Williams, NET News)

Standing in the middle of the dusty and dim theater with workers ripping out old wood nearby, he’s reflective.

“If it had gone away, I think it’s incalculable what the community would have lost,” Logan said.

He’s overseeing what amounts to a complete interior re-do. It’s a lot of work, with attention to detail that will retain the theater’s familiar look.

“The goal here is when people step back into this theater, the historic 92-year-old theater, that it’s what they remember but at the same time is has the comforts that they also expect and want,” he said.

With the exception of a leaky roof, the shell of the building has held up remarkably well over the years. When the renovation is complete, Logan hopes customers will enjoy the upgrades, but also be reminded of the theater’s colorful history.

“Things like the blue seats are something that a lot of people, especially in recent decades, kind of identify with this room,” Logan said. “While we’re not able to re-use these seats, the seats that we bring in we want to have that same feel, the bright royal blue seating and the wood details.”

The theater has been closed since 2013 after decades as a single screen, neighborhood cinema. When it looked like the building might be sold and turned into a gas station a few years ago, the Omaha-based Sherwood Foundation purchased it and gave it to Film Streams.

Old stage at Dundee Theater (Photo by Jack Williams, NET News)

“Restoring buildings like this, restoring these neighborhood icons, help continue to revitalize those neighborhoods,” said Kristine Gerber, executive director of Restoration Exchange, Omaha’s historic preservation group.

“It’s going to continue to help make Dundee strong for many, many more years to come. But it’s also going to continue to bring people into these older neighborhoods. As they go to these independent films that they love, they’ll stay and have dinner here, they’ll stay and have a cup of coffee there, so it makes this area continue to be a vibrant area,” Gerber said.

The theater has been an important part of the Dundee neighborhood for a long time, and Molly Romero hopes that won’t change anytime soon. She’s lived there for 40 years and is the president of the Dundee-Memorial Park Association.

“The whole midtown is becoming revitalized and even though we have always been a strong neighborhood with strong property values and a lot of neighborhood engagement, it’s this kind of a project that really sets it for the next 100 years,” Romero said.

The renovation will include a community space, a restaurant partner and a 25-seat micro-theater. Also, to avoid the notoriously narrow sidewalk in front along Dodge, customers will enter the building from what is now the rear. Windows will replace what are now the front doors. And expect a new, but familiar vertical marquee out front, similar to the original.

Kristine Gerber, Restoration Exchange (l) Casey Logan, Film Streams (c) and Molly Romero, Dundee-Memorial Park Association (r) (Photo by Jack Williams, NET News)

“We want to bring back that vertical Dundee and really kind of help mark the area where people are in the city,” Logan said. “And then we’ll have a digital marquee, but we’re very careful and we want to limit ourselves as much as possible because we want it to look like a classic marquee, no flashing or anything like that. It’s going to be text showing our programming.”

With workers in hardhats all around, the theater is slowly coming back to life. The work could be done by the end of the year.

“The theater didn’t die, but it had been kind of in a deep sleep it feels like for the last three-plus years, so to see it waking up is pretty exciting to see,” Logan said.

Before it closed, the theater was Omaha’s last operating single-screen cinema. It could regain that distinction before too long.