Photo Gallery | Century old theater preserves treasure in Pomeroy
You wouldn't know it at first glance, but behind to worn doors of a average looking brick building in Pomeroy, Washington sits a hidden gem of American entertainment history. The Seeley Theater will celebrate 100 years this month, and in many ways the building is locked in time keeping safe treasures of the stage and silver screen.
“It was just kind of a sad state of affairs,” said Cody Jones, who has been working on restoring the Seeley for the last three years. Sad is an understatement.
The building was in operation until the mid-1990s when it fell in a two decade long slumber. Jones is now working inch by inch and penny by penny to fund a restoration, and while he's making progress it's been a slow recovery for the theater. For the last 10 years electricity has been shut off to the building, and the mildew smell tells of years of water damage from the flooded basement and leaking roof.
Despite the damage, the theater has managed to protect precious parts of it's history.
The Seeley Theater opened in 1913 to a crowd of 713 people. It opened during the heyday of the Vaudeville age and for several years touring stage troupes stopped in the Garfield County farming community to entertain the hardworking population.
Later, as the stage quieted, moving pictures took over with the likes of Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton gracing the newly installed silver screen. Throughout the years, schools and theater acts continued to use the stage, and the town gathered to watch movies. Up until the theater's closure in the 90s, residents enjoyed movies and murder mystery games.
“I got to go to movies here when I was a kid,” said Jones. “It's just an awesome place.”
Jones, like many of the town's youth, left Pomeroy after graduating high school in 1992. About four years ago the tug of small town life pulled him back and his project of love with the Seeley began. His neighbor owned the theater at the time and after taking a look around he knew something needed to be done.
Since then the Pomeroy Community Center has purchased the building and under Jones' leadership restoration began. Last week, the third class of high school seniors at Pomeroy High School started their round at helping Jones with the restoration. Without the help of the students, Jones said they wouldn't be as far as they are now. This year's class is working on de-gumming and sanding the floors.
“This will be the third time these seniors will leave town and be attached to this building,” said Jones, adding that graduates often inquire about the progress at the Seeley. While progress has been slow, it's easy to see the improvements, and in the mean time Jones and the high schoolers unveil new treasure all the time.
Sets dating back to the 1920s were found tucked in a corner, signed by the touring acts and companies that built them. An old advertising board lists all of the former retailers in the town, only one of which is still open. The original light fixtures hang high above the balcony and the old light switch board has been moved so it could be saved while they installed an updated switch box.
The projector room looks like a snapshot of time, with open film canisters on the floor and a reel still in the projector ready for one more chance to play on the silver screen. The silver screen, by the way, is an actual silver screen. Silver screens were the staple of early film viewing, made from with tightly woven silk or by using silver dust. The Seeley's silver screen is one of the last in existence west of the Mississippi.
The students are working hard to get the balcony ready for the Seeley's big 100th birthday celebration on September 28th. Before the theater closed, a previous owner remodeled the balcony, closing it off and causing other damage by turning it into an apartment of sorts. Now, its filled with the pieces of dusty old chairs. Jones has copies of the original blue prints and hopes to turn the space back into the open balcony that it once was.
The Centennial Celebration is a music festival that will serve as a fundraiser to help move the restoration forward. It will also be an opportunity to show Pomeroy what the theater could be for the community. Jones and the Pomeroy Community Center want it to be a gathering place for not only movies and stage acts, but for town meetings, weddings and other events. The show on the 28th will feature local music acts, some of the first to fill the stage in almost 20 years. The party will continue across the street at the dance hall, and with food vendors outside on the street.
“I hope it's a catalyst,” said Jones. “We're on an upswing.”
Financing is the challenge in restoring this time capsule. Jones has applied for grants, and there is an adopt a seat program in place to cover the cost reupholstering the theater seats and fixing the floors beneath them. Going off the blueprints, Jones hopes to restore the grand staircases that have closed off and the box seating that was blocked in to bring the theater as close to what it was built to be.
“It would be great if we just had buckets of money,” said Jones, but because the money isn't readily available they move forward when the can. As of now, there is no projected date for when the Seeley will make it's grand return to glory.
The town has made it clear the restoration is a priority. On a town survey last year, community members listed the restoration of the Seeley as the thing they most wanted to see happen. For now, they are able to come together on the weekends to watch movies on the old screen, hoping that in the next few years they can celebrate the complete restoration of a town treasure.
For more information on the Centennial Celebration and on happenings at the Seeley you can like them on Facebook.