DeKALB – On May 1, 1929, construction crews began building walls that soon would showcase music, theater and art for patrons in and around DeKalb. For its 90th birthday, the historic Egyptian Theatre is getting a face-lift.
More than 100 people gathered Wednesday, exactly 90 years since the theater’s inception, in Palmer Court at the corner of First and Locust streets to celebrate the beginning of an extensive renovation to the theater, including long-awaited air conditioning. The AC installation will allow the theater to operate year-round and is expected to increase the number of shows offered. The $4.5 million project will be supplemented by $2.5 million the theater was granted in tax increment financing from the city.
Dan Schewe, president of the theater’s board, opened the ceremony.
“This is a monumental, important event in this city,” Schewe said. “We’re really thrilled to be part of the renaissance that is occurring in downtown DeKalb.”
Alex Nerad, executive director for the theater, thanked the community for their decades-long support.
“The Egyptian Theatre is your theater,” Nerad said, addressing the crowd. “It would not be here today without the ongoing support of our donors, sponsors, volunteers, board members and patrons.”
According to its website, the theater can seat 1,397 people, with 847 on the main floor and 550 in the balcony. The renovations are expected to better accommodate the comfort of patrons and allow for more prolonged use of the theater.
The project will increase the number of men’s and women’s bathrooms on both floors, and make the building compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act. The concession offerings will be expanded to include liquor, with additional stations on the second floor, including an ADA-compliant station. Storage spaces will be added on both floors, carpeting will be replaced throughout, baby-changing stations will be added, and lighting fixtures will be improved.
“All of these things will increase our direct economic impact to the community,” Nerad said. “The addition of the AC will have a significant impact on the ongoing preservation efforts of the theater. Deterioration of the ornamental plaster work and decorative painting is accelerated without climate control in the theater.”
Irving Construction Inc. is performing the construction, and architectural designs were done by Lisa Sharp of Sharp Architects Inc. The theater sees more than 40,000 patrons a year, Nerad said. The project has been reviewed by the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency to ensure the historic features of the building are maintained, Nerad said.
Groundbreaking wasn’t always promised, with some site controversy ahead of the city granting $2.5 million in TIF funds after neighbors expressed concerns about the expansion in Palmer Court. The City Council ultimately granted the money to the theater, with the caveat that theater officials cannot approach the city for any more money to fund the project.
DeKalb City Manager Bill Nicklas spoke on behalf of Mayor Jerry Smith, who was in Springfield on Wednesday. Nicklas recalled the Wall Street Crash of 1929, comparing present-day struggles in the city with those 90 years ago.
“Businesses were struggling, and residents were looking for work,” Nicklas said. “Here we are today: We’re struggling with a lot of things bigger than us. But we came together, and in a process that was very open and public, we came to this point today.”
Referring to Thursday’s 24-hour Give DeKalb County Day, Nerad said the theater’s goal is to raise $15,000. The funds will go to buying a new popcorn machine and correlating equipment for the additional concessions planned.