Rex/Romance Theatre / Rexburg, ID

Deseret Morning News (Salt Lake City)

Tuesday April 26, 2011

A little ‘Romance’ brings lovely old Rexburg theater back to life

By Lindsey Bush, Idaho Falls Post register

REXBURG, Idaho

In the late 1930s, the Romance Theater brought life to downtown Rexburg. The marquee’s bright lights danced across Main Street, promoting Hollywood’s latest epic blockbuster, screwball comedy or whodunit. But the years took their toll.

The once-popular movie theater became a community center that became outdated. Earlier this month, some of the Romance was rekindled, however, as the 94-year-old theater began undergoing a process to return it to its roots. A buzz was in the air April 1 as workers hoisted a retro-looking marquee above the theater’s front entrance, promoting the city’s "Bring Back the Romance" campaign.

The theater opened in 1917 as the Rex, offering silent films and vaudeville shows. In 1935, it was expanded and rechristened the Romance Theater. The theater was extensively damaged in the 1976 Teton Dam Flood and renovated again, becoming the Westwood Theater. By the 21st century, the Westwood became more of a community center than a movie house.

Though plans to restore the historic theater have been floated for years, it wasn’t until last summer that all the talk was put into action. In July, the Westwood name was retired and part of the building’s facade was removed in order to restore a 1930s ambiance.

Architect instructor Pat Huish has invested a lot of time and labor into the renovation. Huish is building vice chairman of the Romance Theater Committee and teaches at Brigham Young University-Idaho. "It’s a beautiful building," he said. "It represents an era of architecture that we couldn’t replace. It holds so much history, and I just don’t want to see it lost."

Huish has recruited his students, along with many others studying technical and creative degrees at BYU-Idaho, to assist in the restoration. Rexburg City Attorney Stephen Zollinger, a Romance Theater Committee member, said the university has supported the project in a variety of ways, including a donation of used “but updated” audio-visual equipment.

Along with assistance from BYU-Idaho, local volunteers and grant money have kept the project moving ahead. A $150,000 Save America’s Treasures grant paid for the $78,000 marquee, additional facade work and a portion of the auditorium’s interior remodeling work. Before using the grant, its total had to be matched with service and monetary contributions. Thanks to the generosity of residents, Zollinger said the grant requirements were fulfilled last year.

"It’s been a community effort," Zollinger said. "We’re just thrilled at the community support." The theater also will receive upgrades thanks to the Hampton Inn’s "Save-A-Landmark" program. The hotel chain awarded five $30,000 grants to historic landmarks throughout the U.S., including Rexburg’s Romance Theater.

Along with the donation, the Hampton Inn will provide a day of volunteer work in July. During the remodeling, the theater continues to play host to community programs and performances. But once the work is completed, committee members hope the Romance will become a haven for community events.

Ted Dye, the committee’s construction manager, said the restored building will be better equipped to present historic films, plays, community meetings and other productions. While there’s a vision for the theater’s final look, Zollinger, Huish and Dye couldn’t offer a time frame for completion or a total cost estimate for the project.

"Who knows?" Huish said. "It’s (determined) as we have events and earn profits." Throughout the restoration process, volunteers and community members have found that while looking old is easy, looking classic isn’t. "This has become a learning experience for me," Dye said. "It’s such a nice building. They don’t make (buildings) like this anymore."

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