The Restoration Of The Nuart Theatre

Prepared by Sally M. Wyne

June 14, 1991

Idaho State University

Degree Paper under the direction of Dr. Bruce Loebs

What happens to a small group of people when they undertake a major renovation project on an all-volunteer basis? This essay will chronicle the trials and triumphs of the Blackfoot Community Players as they have worked together to restore the Nuart Theatre.

The first section of the essay will deal with the theatre as it was when it opened in 1930. Moving through sixty years, the theatre’s appearance has changed several times. Each of these “facelifts” will be recorded.

The second section of the paper will deal with the history of the Blackfoot Community Players organization from its inception in 1977 to the present. Included in this section will be the 1986 acquisition of the Nuart Theatre.

In the third section of the paper, the actual restoration work will be recounted. From financing to refinishing, the Players have moved through four years of hard work to provide the Blackfoot area with a fine performing arts facility. Each step of the process will be shared.

In the last section of the paper, Blackfoot Community Players’ goals for the future of the theatre will be discussed.

HISTORY

It was 5:45 p.m. on Wednesday, February 12, 1930. Paul DeMordaunt was about to unlock the doors of his new theatre in Blackfoot, Idaho. But before he allowed the public inside, DeMordaunt wanted one last private look at the building in which he had invested so much of himself. He turned away from the lobby and went into the theatre’s seating area. Outside, the crowd waited “with breathless interest” (Nuart Opens Doors”).

What Mr. DeMordaunt saw that night is very much the same as the scene one would see today in the Nuart Theatre. Every effort has been made to restore even the small details of this Blackfoot landmark. From color choices to the painting of trim. DeMordaunt’s hand is felt everywhere in the building.

Opening night in 1930 was an elegant social event in Blackfoot. People came to the theatre in formal attire, and the atmosphere was more like a party than an ordinary showing of “Sunny Side Up.” “The evening will be more like a big party than a regular show at a modern shophouse” (“Nuart Opens Doors”). Flowers expressing the good wishes of the community to DeMordaunt and his business partner, Hugh Drennen, were everywhere. Hundreds of supportive advertisements had appeared in the Blackfoot Daily Bulletin, wishing the new entrepreneurs well in their entertainment venture. The theatre was an indication of faith in the growth potential of a small Idaho town during the depression years, and the community responded with gratitude. Mayor Peck’s remarks, printed in the next day’s paper, pledged the support of the community to make the investors gland they had presented Blackfoot with such a fine building (“Nuart Opens Doors”).

The Nuart was one of seven theaters owned by DeMordaunt and Drennen. The others were located in Idaho Falls, Salmon, Rexburg, St. Anthony, and Butte, Montana (Alice DeMordaunt, interview). This theatre was different from the others in the state in that it had been built specifically for the talkies. As such, its acoustics were far superior to any in Idaho of this new medium. Costing approximately $85,000, the Quart was the first movie theatre in Southeastern Idaho, and the second in the state to be constructed to meet the needs of the talking picture. One reporter wrote, “this gives to Blackfoot the most attractive and most perfect shophouse in the intermountain country, if not in the entire West (“All Blackfoot Welcomes the Nuart”).

The overall design of the building was the work of DeMordaunt’s brother, Walter. As a practicing architect in Colorado, Walter had been the natural choice to draw up the plans. Several sets of plans for the theatre have been found at the theatre. These plans indicate several different configurations for the lobby and for the staircase leading to the mezzanine. Both brothers wrote notes in the margins, keeping each other up to date by long-distance on current thinking for the best way to design the theatre.

Inside and out, the theatre expressed the “art moderne” style. From the shapes of doorways to the light fixtures and furnishings, the brothers were consistent in their choices. The color scheme was basically wine and gold. Although the original carpeting is no longer in place, pieces of it have been found in storage areas at the theatre. The grand drape was “cerise and was electrically drawn.” (“All Blackfoot Welcomes the Nuart”). Mottled marble columns in a dark green color adorned the side walls. The plaster was “sabinite” and was believed to have extraordinary acoustical properties (“All Blackfoot Welcomes the Nuart”). Indeed, the design was so pleasing that one observer noted, “Even the wood seemed to hang in folds (“All Blackfoot Welcomes the Nuart”).

The theater had also been designed with the comfort of its patrons in mind. The 725 seats were placed with thirty-four inches clearance so that “even though are stout, you will find room to sit comfortably” (“Blackfoot Talkie Will Open”). Overstuffed furniture was placed in the lobby and its contours exactly mirrored the doorways. The lounges were furnished with similar overstuffed furniture with black wood trim. (“Blackfoot Talkie Will Open”).

From the Nuart’s auspicious opening night, the theatre became an integral part of Blackfoot. Many in the community trace their first jobs to the Nuart. Still, others remember first dates, first kisses, and the center of social life in the mezzanine at the Nuart.

Paul De Mordaunt knew that entertainment dollars were scarce for many families during the depression years. In order to keep the house full, he offered $10 and $25 door prizes at intermission time. On other occasions, every tenth customer received some kind of prize (Alice DeMordaunt, interview). Though Mr. DeMordaunt claimed he was just using sound business techniques, many in the community saw his efforts as more than generous.

DeMordaunt’s civic pride kept him active in many Blackfoot improvement projects. He served on the Blackfoot City Council and the Planning Board. He was instrumental in the development of a starch plant to help farmers find a use for their culled potatoes. He became a driving force behind the indoor swimming pool which was built near the high school. He also initiated plans for the first Bingham County Hospital and later served as its first Chairman of the Board (Bingham County Centennial Book 294).

For the next fifty-two years, Paul DeMordaunt and Drennen operated the Nuart Theatre in Blackfoot. They employed high school youth to work in the ticket booth and to perform ushering duties. They lifted the spirits of a town through wartime and peaceful times. They kept the elegant spirit of the Nuart alive.

In 1978, the Nuart was badly in need of refurbishing. Mr. DeMordaunt applied for placement on the National Register of Historic Places. When that placement was confirmed, he applied for special funding to pay for beautifying the old building. Interior painting was redone, carpet was replaced, the lobby was partially restored, and the Nuart regained a part of her earlier luster.

Mr. DeMordaunt died on April 22, 1982 (Bingham County Centennial Book 294). In 1983, his chain of the theatre was sold to Theatre Operators Incorporated. This firm operated the Nuart for three years. Its once state-of-the-art facilities were now outdated and expensive to maintain. Theatre Operators Incorporated approached the Blackfoot Community Players in the spring of 1986, offering to give the theatre to the group as a gift.

THE BLACKFOOT COMMUNITY PLAYERS

Blackfoot Community Players began as a group of seven theatre lovers in 1977. The Blackfoot Community Players had sponsored as many as six productions in one calendar year, all of which had been staged in the Blackfoot Civic Center. (The Civic Center, a renovated Tabernacle, had provided a thrust stage of large dimensions and seating for one thousand). Many members of the group had given large amounts of time and money to the Civic Center project and were not enthusiastic about the prospect of starting over at the Nuart. The potential gift of the Nuart became a divisive issue within the Blackfoot Community Players.

In July of 1986, an open meeting of the membership was held to decide the issue. After both sides had passionately spoken, a vote was taken, and the membership, by a one-vote margin, chose to accept the gift of the building. The theatre was deeded to Blackfoot Community Players in November of 1986.

THE RESTORATION

There was much to be accomplished as the renovation of the facility began, and no task was more important than to reunite the Players as a group. Strained feelings existed among a number of the members who saw the theatre as a liability too large for the organization to handle. For a year, the five people who served on the board in 1987 did almost everything that was accomplished at the theatre.

To begin, the board hauled out ten truck loads of garbage, paper, old projector parts, ancient popcorn poppers, and some unidentifiable objects. They began the painful process of hand scraping the hardwood floors in preparation for refinishing. They explored the possibilities of grants and other sources of funding. They carefully guarded the group’s $2,000 treasury. They took care of the legal work which would make the Blackfoot Community Players a non-profit corporation.

On February 12, 1988, fifty-eight years to the day since the gala 1930 opening, a new Board of Directors was elected. At the first meeting following their election, they established a set of organizational goals encompassing the areas of membership, events, manpower, facility improvement, and financial well-being. From this set of goals, their work began in earnest.

The physical work which was required was overwhelming. The Board members believed they must prove themselves to the members who were disgruntled as well as to local businesses before the group could expect support, financial or otherwise, from the community. Rounding up every friend who could be converted to the cause, the work began with the replacement of the antiquated upholstery.

The original upholstery was still in place on some of the seats in the mezzanine. Even there, the seat bottoms and backs were threadbare. Some of the more frequently used seats had been covered with an inexpensive grade of vinyl that was almost as unsightly as the worn-out tapestry.

The Board determined that cleaning and refinishing the floor and the upholstery should proceed concurrently. Work sessions were set up for every Saturday afternoon from one until four, and for most Wednesday evenings for a period of four months. The rows of seats on the main floor were taken up (no easy task with sixty years worth of gum, soda pop, and hardtack candy surrounding the floor screws) and were dismantled. The seats were separated into their six component parts. Seat backs, both fabric and wooden, were sorted into four different sizes. Seat bottoms were disassembled and prepared for reupholstery. The metal plates which covered the upholsterer’s tacks were scraped, washed, and dried to prevent rusting. The ironwork with wooden arm supports was taken apart, scraped, and washed. By the time the seats on the main floor were all removed, the stacks of component parts nearly filled the two wide hallways that lead to the theatre from the lobby.

A local church youth group volunteered to bring thirty round people in on a Saturday to perform a service project. It was determined that the seats in the mezzanine would also be taken apart, and that project was begun.

While the seats were being measured, cleaned, and stacked, the Board was going about the business of finding a supplier for the upholstery closest to the original chosen by Paul DeMordaunt. The Board located a firm in Denver where hard to find theatre items were stocked. The pattern we were looking for was stocked by this company and a sufficient quantity was available. The cost, however, was prohibitive. We estimated that the fabric needed to cover one seat bottom and back was approximately one yard. This upholstery was priced at $25 per yard. With four hundred seats to re-do, our cost for the project would have been $10,000!

Other options were explored. A theatre in Idaho Falls had recently replaced its seats. The used seats were more modern in design than those found at the Nuart, were in better condition, were available at no cost to us, and were covered in a burgundy-colored vinyl. After looking carefully at this offer, the Board determined that the Idaho Falls seats would change the character of the interior of our theatre so drastically that the original flavor would be lost. We decided to keep our own seats and pursue the new upholstery option.

Both upholstery shops in town were consulted. One businessman expressed his incredulity at the very thought of taking on so large a project. He railed against the idea of having competition for the Civic Center. He saw the project as impossible and was not interested in any involvement.

At the second upholstery firm, the Blackfoot Community Players Board found a willing and eager community-minded shop owner. Ray Brumfield worked with all kinds of upholstery jobs and had a special interest in automobile interiors. After hearing our needs list, Brumfield suggested that we consider automobile upholstery.

Each year the big car makers phase out the fabric that was used on the new models crafted during that year. They sell the leftovers at bargain prices, often in large lots. The fabric is designed for long wear, is stain resistant, is extremely durable, and is attractive. With some time to keep an eye out for a suitable burgundy fabric, Brumfield thought he could find us a good buy. The Board looked through a swatch book and gave Brumfield an idea of what we could consider acceptable.

Brumfield called the next day to say that three bolts of the very fabric we had chosen were available from his Salt Lake City supplier. He estimated the cost of approximately five dollars per yard. Not wanting to miss this opportunity, he had ordered all three bolts, thinking that if the Board chose not to go ahead, he could use the fabric himself. The Board was ecstatic. The work on the seats began at once. Total cost for this project was about $2,100.

Brumfield agreed to help the project in many ways. First, he trained Blackfoot Community Players volunteers. Upholstery skills were taught quickly, and people were put to work. Brumfield’s shop was open to us one night per week for about two months. Some Blackfoot Community Players members took seatbacks to their homes, where, with their own air compressors and borrowed staple guns from Ray’s Upholstery, the project proceeded on a piecemeal basis. Crews of six to ten volunteers moved the seats from the theatre to the shop, stripped the old upholstery, cut the new fabric, reupholstered the seats, steamed the new fabric, and transported the seats back to the theatre. Approximately sixty seats could be recovered in an evening.

The Blackfoot Community Players board scheduled an open house for May 6, 1988. With that target date in mind, workers appeared from all over to help in the restoration effort. Service clubs, LDS church youth groups, Eagle Scouts, scout troops, and theatre lovers from the community joined the ranks of willing workers. Donated hours of labor passed the two thousand mark.

The next project of a major nature was the main floor. A small section was stripped and sanded to allow a clear view of the wood as it would appear with years of abuse removed. A contractor was called in to advise the board on the wisdom of attempting to refinish the hardwood floors. Larry Peterson looked at the floor and pronounced it maple. He felt that the results would be worth the major effort of cleaning, sanding, and refinishing the floor.

Saturday workdays became devoted to removing the remaining rows of seats from the main floor and to cleaning the stage and floor surfaces. Every effort was made to find a cleaning solution or chemical that would make the work less back-breaking. In the end, the only method that worked was hard labor. Crews of workers, who were high school-aged youth, for the most part, took putty knives and scrapers of all descriptions in hand and launched an assault on years of accumulated grime and muck. By mid-April, 1988, the floor was clean enough to sand.

Several methods of sanding were used. One man volunteered the use of his rotary sander. We found this machine unworkable. We rented a belt sander, and after experimenting with several grits of sandpaper, finally found the right materials. Within a week, most of the floor was sanded. Hand belt sanders were implemented to do the areas around the edges of the floor.

Three coats of gym finish were applied to the sanded floor. The result was remarkable even to those who had been so hard at work on the floor all along. The floor glistened. Its hardwood grain was visible. The new feeling of light in the theatre made a tremendous difference in the ambiance of the place. Larry Peterson had been right. The result was worth the effort.

Washing the walls and repainting was also a focus for the Blackfoot Community Players volunteers. The board attempted to match colors as closely as possible to the original. Painting crews were working during every work session. The only troublesome area was the lobby, where only part of the elaborate stencil trim had been restored in the 1978 facelift. To one was sure of the technique that should be used, and the colors were so faded that it was difficult to match. A volunteer asked to give the project a try. Paint was purchased and her work began. This work is the only restoration work that was ultimately removed.

The board is still searching for someone to help us discover the right materials and methods for restoring this decorative trim. We recently (March 1991) submitted a grant to the Idaho Commission on the Arts which, if received, will allow us to hire a professional to execute this difficult task.

When the newly upholstered seats were re-assembled, we realized that the wooden components of the chairs would have to be refinished as well. The beautiful new fabric next to worn and peeling veneers looked awful. Several experts in wood refinishing were consulted. All agreed that the only method of choice was to strip, re-stain, and refinish the chair backs and arms. This process would take more time than our May 6 open house deadline would allow, and would be prohibitively expensive. The board began to experiment on its own.

The seats were so worn that bare wood was exposed on most arms and all of the backs. We purchased stain and began to experiment with different methods of application. Since the wood finish was completely gone, the stain was readily absorbed into the wood without our having to sand it. After the bleached look was covered with stain, we used the leftover gym finish from the floor project to seal the seats. While none of the professionals would have tackled the project this way, the board was satisfied with the look that resulted. The wooden seats were now as shiny, clean, and new looking as the upholstery and the floor.

The last bit of re-doing for the seats came in the spacing. We assumed an optimum seating for a community theatre at between 250 and 300 seats. By re-spacing seats on the main floor, we could allow for more comfort for patrons and get our seating capacity to a more manageable 450. Our research indicated that 725 seats were in the original plans. Our re-spacing the rows at 38 inches eliminated two rows, or 48 seats. Some rows of seats had been eliminated at the back of the auditorium before Blackfoot Community Players ownership. Our final seat count was 442.

The theatre was built with an orchestra pit adjoining the stage. The board decided that the use of the pit would be minimal and that our stage could be more versatile with the addition of a platform built over the orchestra pit. A retired carpenter, Ellis Bahr, volunteered to donate labor if we could supply the materials. He built the platform over the orchestra pit and constructed two sets of stairs to make the new area accessible. Later, (Spring, 1990) we expanded this apron to 12 feet.

The stage floor was refinished at the same time as the auditorium floor. The stage was sanded to remove grime and then was painted with an industrial quality oil base black.

Just off the women’s lounge in the downstairs area of the theatre was a storage room. It had a number of cubbyholes and a good deal of shelving. It was an obvious choice for our costume and prop collection. Costumes that had been crammed on one tiny rack in a very crowded multi-use room at the Civic Center, were sorted, sized, laundered and inventoried. Props were cataloged and organized. A rental policy was developed.

The ceiling in the women’s restroom had been severely damaged by a plumbing problem. Larry Turpin and Bob Fisher donated time to repair the ancient pipes and replace the ceiling. The restroom was repainted.

Outside, the parking lot was beautified by the addition of a small garden space where bike racks once stood. Since the city was constructing a new library and city office building adjoining the Nuart parking lot, landscaping was planned to compliment the final plan for that project. Labor was donated by Landscape Headquarters. Stucco work on the front face of the building was replaced.

The next major project that was undertaken at the theatre was the conversion of one of the office spaces at the front of the theatre into public restrooms. With the restrooms in place on the main floor, the theatre became completely handicapped accessible. Great care was taken to make sure that the new doorways matched the old in the lobby area. Plaster molds were taken from decorative trim above the existing doors to serve as the pattern for the new door trim. The doors themselves were crafted to match the existing parquet.

While the renovation work has been a tremendous amount of physical work, the sense of accomplishment is real indeed. A review of the goals established by the board in 1988 indicates that all planned projects have been accomplished. A new set of goals now determines the future of the Blackfoot Community Players and the Nuart Theatre.

FUNDING

Funding for the restoration was a tremendous challenge. The Blackfoot Community Players had always been a group which performed plays for the sheer joy of the effort and did not worry too much about profit. If expenses were covered by ticket sales, the production was considered a success. Now, with a building to restore and maintain, financial matters became a much more important focus.

When the restoration work began, the treasury totaled slightly over $2,000. Most of the money was tied up in a certificate of deposit. It was clear that the restoration work could not continue without some cash on hand.

The first plea for funds was made by letter to professionals in the area. The board requested $100 from each doctor, lawyer, dentist, optometrist, chiropractor, and engineer in the Bingham County area. We received approximately $2,300 in response to this letter appeal. With these first funds and our own treasury, we paid for the upholstery fabric and the paint.

Next, we made arrangements to speak to each of the service organizations in our area. We appealed to Kiwanis, Rotary, Lion’s Club, Soroptomists, Prospectors, the Chamber of Commerce, the Snake River Fine Arts Association, and the Music Teachers Association. Donations were made by nearly all of these groups, and the public relations effect of having these active people aware of our project was invaluable.

We made an appeal to the City Council. We did not receive funding from the council, but the press was present at the meeting and the resulting publicity for our cause was well worth the evening’s effort.

At the May 6 Grand Re-Opening, an appeal was made for donations at tables in the lobby. The evening’s entertainment was provided by many performing groups from throughout the county. The constant influx of people, the standing room only crowd, the excitement of the opening, and goodwill of many people who had been involved with the project all contributed to the generous giving that was evidenced that night. Another $2,000 was added to the coffers.

The Bleach Boys are a local singing group who have developed several evenings’ worth of repertoire based on the songs of the Beach Boys. They have been very popular in performing at church and community socials. The Bleach Boys volunteered to do a benefit concert at the Nuart to raise funds for the stage curtains. We turned people away from this concert and had people standing in the aisles. The gross receipts for the evening were about $1,600. The Bleach Boys promised a return engagement to accommodate those who had been turned away. The second concert was held in October and yielded another $400.

Blackfoot Pride Days were scheduled for the same week as the Bleach Boys concert. Several other money-making events were undertaken during this period. A street dance was held outside the theatre, and the Blackfoot Community Players arranged to have a Pepsi wagon for the occasion. We sold baked goods, hot dogs, ice cream, and drinks. Out net profit for the afternoon and evening was a disappointing $30.

We also had t-shirts printed with the Walter DeMordaunt drawing of the Nuart and the slogan, “I played Broadway.” (The Nuart’s address is 195 N. Broadway). Our sales were scanty and we ended up selling only about 50 of the 96 shirts we ordered over the next year. A number of the shirts are unaccounted for, and it was determined that sales of such items will not be attempted again.

With the beginning of the summer season, it was felt that there was a need for children’s theatre. The board authorized the running of a three-part Theatre for Youth project. Tuition of $30 per child was instituted and registration began for children in three age groups. 75 students enrolled in the workshops. Each of the three groups readied a production for the end of their workshop period. Ticket sales for the productions paid expenses, so the tuition money was profit for the theatre.

The Blackfoot Community Players board applied for an operating expenses grant from the Idaho Commission on the Arts. We received $2,000 and a great boost in confidence. We believed that we could pay utilities with this money and thus free up some of our own funds for capital expenses. When the first January and February heating bills arrived, ($700 and $1,000!) we soon realized that our utility estimates had missed the mark. Even with this unexpected large bill, we managed to remain solvent for the first year of operation.

Since that first year, we have received several other grants through the Idaho Commission on the Arts. In 1989, we received a $10,000 grant for improving our facility. In 1990, we received two grants. The first was for $6,725 to be applied to the bathrooms project, and the second was for $3,700 to do some remodeling in the actors’ dressing room area.

The CHC Foundation in Idaho Falls contributed $6,000 to our sound and lighting system. Our local Christmas Tree Fantasy donated $4,000 for lighting equipment. Basic American Foods has given us two sizable grants. The first, $6,000, went to purchase the light board and dimmer packs for our lighting system. The second, another $6,000, was applied to our bathroom project. Nonpareil donated $3,500 to purchase lighting fixtures. Valley Bank contributed $1,000 to be used as the board deemed best.

In addition to the grant monies mentioned, the Nuart receives rent from the Beauty Shop located in the front of the theatre. We also rent the theatre to several groups who use the facility as a rehearsal space and concert hall. Since neither of the high schools in the area has an auditorium, we have rented the theatre to both school districts for concerts and dramatic productions.

We have also instituted a campaign to sell advertising in our programs. Response to this appeal has been gratifying, and the number of advertisers’ pages has increased each of the three years that we have offered this opportunity.

We have received some memorial gifts from individuals and groups wishing to remember a friend or loved one who has passed away.

SUMMARY

Our theatre is currently thriving as a community center for the performing arts. We have preserved a nationally designated landmark. The youth of our community have had a hand in the hard work of a restoration project that brought diverse groups of people together. The divisions in Blackfoot Community Players, while not completely healed, are well on the way to being mended. Our summer Theatre For Youth project has brought students from arch-rival school districts together as friends.

The Idaho Commission on the Arts has expressed its wonder at what we have been able to accomplish. People in all parts of the state have contacted us to find out how to proceed with their own similar projects. Our theatre was featured was featured in a Washington D.C. National Endowment for the Arts presentation.

Our goals for the future of the theatre include renovating the dressing room area, adding a bathroom to the makeup room, cutting a new exit into the wall next to the parking lot, providing laundry facilities in the old lounge area, the repainting of the entire interior, and ultimately to replace the elegant chandeliers that once graced the theatre. We hope also to restore the fly loft above the stage area.

We have received the praises of many in the Southeastern Idaho area. Perhaps none meant more than that expressed by Alice DeMordaunt on the occasion of our first open house. She slipped her hand in mine and said, “Paul is a happy man tonight.” When I unlock the door of the Nuart and invite the public in, I believe that she was right. (Alice DeMordaunt died in March 1991).

WORKS CITED

“All Blackfoot Welcomes the Nuart.” The Daily Bulletin 12 February 1930: 1.

Bingham County Centennial Book. Dallas: Taylor Publishing Co., 1984

“Blackfoot Talkie Will Open February 12.” The Daily Bulletin 10 February 1930: 1.

DeMordaunt, Alice. Personal Interview. 28 April, 1988.

“Nuart Opens Doors.” The Daily Bulletin 12 February 1930: 1.

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