The importance of a community theater house

The Panida Theater’s impact on Sandpoint

By Cameron Rasmusson
Reader Staff

The Panida Theater is at a crossroads.

For almost 90 years, the theater has been a centerpiece of the Sandpoint community. Untold numbers of people have passed through its doors to enjoy plays, movies, music and performance art. It’s such a longstanding community fixture most residents have a hard time imagining Sandpoint without it.

The Panida marquee. Photo by Ben Olson.

The Panida marquee. Photo by Ben Olson.

“This theater has a presence,” Panida board member Susan Bates-Harbuck said. “It’s absorbed all the shows, all the work, all the love that’s gone into it.”

As the ‘80s aptly proved, however, a Sandpoint without the Panida Theater is an entirely realistic possibility. If it weren’t for a committed community, the theater could well have been lost 30 years ago. That possibility still hovers over the theater today. And sure enough, a combination of delicate finances and a lack of board members have put the theater on shaky ground.

“We struggle on an ongoing basis—this is what keeps me up at night,” said Panida Executive Director Patricia Walker White. “Without community support, [the Panida] is not going to make it.”

From the beginning of the modern Panida era, community was the gravitational force that kept the theater in its axis. Starting from the campaign spearheaded by the Panida Moms—Bates-Harbuck, Jane Evans and Laurel Wagers—to save the theater from demolition in 1985, the theater earned a reputation as the “community living room.” It was an apt comparison in many ways.

“When people were planning their weekends, they’d always look first to see what was happening Saturday night at the Panida Theater,” White said.

Today, the theater is just as essential a part of the Sandpoint experience. Between the Panida Little Theater and the big stage, the combined venues provide a setting for small and large-scale productions and events alike. It’s often the only place for miles around to see smaller, critically-acclaimed films in limited distribution. And many regional bands count the Panida among their favorite venues in the Inland Northwest. The theater feels like an institution—something that will always be around come hell or high water.

“I think that’s part of the problem—for a whole generation of people [under 30 years old], the Panida has always been here,” Bates-Harbuck said. “There’s not the same pressure [that existed in the 1980s].”

Like many historic theaters governed by a nonprofit, however, the Panida is not self-sustaining institution. According to Bates-Harbuck, the theater brings in roughly $10,600 each month from rental fees, ticket sales and other revenue. However, the theater costs about $14,000 a month to simply keep the doors open. Complicating the situation is the fact that the Panida faces much more venue competition today than existed 30 years ago.

The theater makes up for the shortfall in several ways. Grants help out to some degree, but on the other hand, it’s much easier to acquire grant funding for specific projects and not operational expenses, Bates-Harbuck said. The bulk of additional funding comes from the theater’s various fundraisers. For instance, keep an eye out for the Panida’s booth at the Festival At Sandpoint and buy some ice cream—it’s a little gesture that goes a long way.

Local resident and cinematographer Erik Daarstad is certainly familiar with the theater’s budgeting process. For many years, he served as a board member himself. During that time, the board instituted a rainy day fund for emergencies. When he left the board about three years ago, that fund sat at about $15,000.

That this fund has been largely drained worries him and other longtime Panida supporters. According to White, the funds were tapped to avoid losing even more money. With several grants to fuel the theater’s ongoing restoration effort set to expire, Panida officials used some of the fund to initiate the next phase of the restoration.

The project will bring a host of much-needed structural improvements to the theater. Now that workers have cleared out all the old insulation and asbestos, work began this summer on installing a fire prevention and sprinkler system and replacing the plaster ceiling to the theater’s historic specifications.

“[Contactors] actually have the exact color of the original plaster that they’re matching, so I think that’s pretty cool,” White said.

The rub was that in order to undertake the project, the theater had to close down for several weeks in the summer. Without the ability to offset expenses with revenue from events and rentals, the theater was put in an even more vulnerable position. Theater leaders decided to take the hit during the summer—typically the leanest weeks for revenue—to complete the projects, resulting in reduced staff hours for while work progressed.

“It does affect us, but it’s not as bad as you might think,” White said.

For Daarstad, the lack of board members is perhaps even more concerning than financial matters. According to theater bylaws, the Panida is governed by a minimum of seven members. However, only five members currently manage the theater’s affairs. With the Panida’s annual meeting and the election of new board members coming up Sept. 22, Daarstad hopes to see community members with a love and dedication for the theater  put their names forward.

“It’s so important to get good board members aboard,” he said. “We need people willing to do a lot of hard work.”

For people like Daarstad and Bates-Harbuck, it’s hard work for a cause that’s more than worthwhile. Thanks to diligent effort and financial generosity, Sandpoint saved a theater in 1985 that would become the pride of the town. They hope that communal will is still alive in 2015.

“If the theater ends up closing its doors, it becomes a lot harder to open them up again,” Daarstad said

What are some of your favorite memories from the Panida Theater? Write us at [email protected] and tell us your stories for a future issue of the Reader.

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