A grand opening dedication was held Sept. 29 at the newly remodeled V.J. Wilkins Family Center for the Arts at the Burford Theatre.
Those attending at the ceremony were greeted by volunteers with the Arkansas City Area Arts Council (Ark City Arts) and the Burford renovation project, and offered commemorative stemless champagne flutes filled with sparkling white wine.
The flutes were used when a champagne toast was presented by the president of Union State Bank, Eric Kurtz.
The theater itself was adorned in vases decorated with feathers and pearls, reminiscent of 1920s-era décor.
“When I came into this theater yesterday I was overwhelmed, because I had not been in this theater for 10 years,” said former arts council president Danny Jones. “I’m standing in this theater here (thinking) I must be in New York or some place, but no, we were in Arkansas City.”
Jones moved back to Georgia 10 years ago with his wife to be close to family, but returned to Ark City to be part of the Burford’s reopening this week. “I was to the point of tears,” he said.
When the theater was donated to Ark City Arts in 2004, Jones oversaw the handoff. “It’s not every day you’re given a theater,” he said. “(In our minds) in order for this theater to be of any use … it had to be restored.”
Jones referred to restoration leaders Jean and Ellen Snell as superheroes for their contributions, as well as the late V.J. Wilkins, whose generous contributions through her memorial foundation propelled the project to a close.
Jean Snell has been the volunteer project manager for the project for nearly 14 years and Ellen Snell has been its coordinator for just as long.
Bob Epperson, of EB Construction, shared unique architectural facts about the building itself, plus a few of the reasons why restoration is so important to him and to communities across the state. “Old buildings add value to (communities),” he said.
When he first stood in the theater, when it still was painted black and falling apart, he said he asked himself, “Where’s the gem?”
Since that time, Epperson has spent countless hours in the building with his teams, working tirelessly to complete the project.
“This building has a secret … all the trim throughout is African mahogany,” he said. The exotic wood sells today for nearly $9 per foot of 4×4 lumber. Most of what remains in the theater today is refurbished from the original wood, though.
It was brought back to life with a “little tender loving care,” Epperson said.
The walls of the theater itself are 12 inches thick, 60 feet high and have “hardly a crack” in them after more than 90 years, according to Epperson.
One of the reasons restoration is so important is because of the resources it saves and the waste it keeps out of landfills.
Some of the beams and joists in the attic of the theater measure 28 feet long. “You just don’t find those at Home Depot,” Epperson said.
The metal beam that lies under the main balcony stretches the width of the room, he said, and is “the reason there isn’t a bad seat in the house.”
Jean Snell pointed out there were hundreds of hours of volunteer work that removed hundreds of tons of trash before the project even could begin.
The end result of all that hard work leaves Arkansas City with a state-of-the-art venue with a 1,800-square-foot stage — twice as large as the largest stage on Broadway in New York City.
The obligation the community has to keep the theater in good repair is not one its donors take lightly.
Hundreds of people donated time and money to see the project come to fruition, but the hardest part might be yet to come in keeping the theater hopping with events for years to come. Mayor Duane Oestmann may have said it best, when he spoke to those assembled Thursday afternoon.
“This wonderful, historic venue you see around us would not have been possible without countless hours of volunteer labor and 12 years of steadfast community leadership,” he said. “They have made this wonderful building available for everyone to have access to the theater. They have worked to have family and cultural entertainment available in Arkansas City for an affordable price.
“We have never before had the opportunity for this type of entertainment in such a historic venue in our city. But with that opportunity also comes a civic obligation to take part in the cultural activities that soon will light up this theater and fill it with joyous noise. Ark City Arts is a nonprofit organization, but it still needs to generate enough funding to keep this theater open and operational.”