Article and images by Jose Villalpando ’23
Crete’s Isis Theatre is once again living up to its name.
Built in 1926, the theater’s name was inspired by the discovery of King Tutankhamun’s tomb in 1922 and the subsequent boom in popularity of Ancient Egyptian culture within the U.S. “Isis” refers to the Ancient Egyptian goddess who had some control over resurrection.
The theater is now going through its biggest resurrection yet, with a full revitalization of the building being spearheaded by the Blue River Arts Council (BRAC) in concordance with the city of Crete.
The idea to build the theater came from Otto Feeken, a Crete native who traveled to Hollywood, California. He worked on movie sets and heard rumors about sound film becoming commercially available.
After Feeken moved back to Crete, he capitalized on his knowledge about movies and what they would eventually become to build the Isis Theatre. It was the first theater in the Midwest to offer “talkies,” the nickname for films featuring synchronized dialogue. Until those audio recordings were available, an orchestra pit in front of the stage and screen was used to accompany the films shown. The theater was also the first in the region to receive air conditioning.
That history, along with a vision of the theater’s future use in the city, is why BRAC is attempting to preserve as much of the original building as possible. Shaylene Smith ’91, executive director of BRAC, said they are trying to “resurrect the goddess as she was,” meaning that the 1920s Egyptian style is here to stay.
The theater closed in 2018, and BRAC began, guided by this mission statement: The Blue River Arts Council is bridging cultures, building community, and boosting the economy by resurrecting the Isis Theatre in Crete, Nebraska, and providing fun and artistic adventures for all our diverse community.
In 2019, BRAC started restoration of the building with demolition of the interior. But an inspection of the building found unexpected damage to its structure, and created a setback for the project. That, coupled with the COVID-19 pandemic, forced the project to slow down.
Smith remains hopeful that the theater project will bounce back.
“Although [revitalization] has gone a lot slower than we were expecting, it is still happening, which is great,” Smith said.
Much of the project has already been funded, but BRAC is still waiting on the delivery of structural steel, financial backing to cover the structural damage found within the building and necessary cleaning.
Once the project is complete, Smith hopes the theater can be a place all community members — including Doane students and employees — can enjoy.
“[The Isis Theatre] is central to our downtown and is right on a main thoroughfare so it’s very important for people coming through the community, students and potential students to see that things really are happening in our community and there are things they can do that are safe,” Smith said.
Many in the community have already been involved in the revitalization. BRAC has done multiple events throughout the past few years to help promote interest in the arts and community togetherness, including a “Birds of a Feather” sculpture event, a pop-up drive-in cinema, Crete and Doane’s 150Fest, and the more recent Baile Hispano.
Smith wants the theater to become a place that promotes these ideals and somewhere any community member can feel they belong.
“We don’t have anywhere else in town that has multi-generational and multilingual entertainment. [The theater] would provide that opportunity for our community [through] movies and live performances [where] we’ll be able to host film, music, theater, speakers and more with the way we’ve designed it,” Smith said.
Smith hopes that this can especially be true for Doane students as well.
“We want this to be a space for the students to be, and we look forward to learning what the students want us to provide and which movies we should show,” Smith said. “Watch for polls and student engagement opportunities next year.”
Once the theater is complete, the business will primarily be run by volunteers. Smith hopes these opportunities bring in Doane students as a way to fulfill volunteer hours and to keep the project’s connection with Doane.
In fact, multiple Doane students have already helped with the Isis Theatre project. A senior-level business class helped with the planning process, and BRAC also works with student interns.
“Serving as an intern for the Blue River Arts Council was truly inspiring. This is a group of very passionate people, and the opportunity to contribute to their mission was a great experience. I am looking forward to seeing the ways in which they will continue to impact the Crete community, and am grateful for the time I got to spend around such an ambitious team,” said Mandi Laib ’23. Laib interned for BRAC with the Isis Theatre project in the 2022 fall semester.
Currently, the Isis Theatre project needs about $800,000 to fund the rest of the work.
Smith encourages everyone to donate to the project, no matter how little the donation may seem.
“Every little bit helps us get closer to our goal and closer to finally having our theater back,” Smith said. “If we can’t bring this back, we’re letting another piece of our history fall down and another piece of our downtown sit empty.”
Multiple donors have already contributed to the project, with some of the more notable donors including Doane and the city of Crete. Donations can continue to be made to the Isis Theatre project via both the Isis Theatre and BRAC websites, www.creteisistheatre.com and www.blueriverartscouncil.org.