Lear and now

The dormant Lear Theater was once a church.

The dormant Lear Theater was once a church.

For more information, visit www.tedxreno.com.

The sentiment may be naïve, but its optimism is appealing: that our lives can be improved simply by having the right ideas and sharing them with others. It places so much faith in human rationality, rather than defeatedly admitting many things are outside the control of human cognition—large economic systems, dumb luck, weather patterns. TED (which stands for Technology, Entertainment, and Design), famous for its 18-minutes-or-less lectures, on an endless variety of topics, is based on the simple premise that ideas matter. According to their online mission statement: “We believe passionately in the power of ideas to change attitudes, lives and, ultimately, the world.”

The popularity of these TED Talks has led to franchising: TEDx.

A TEDx event is simply a TED style event, independently organized, but approved and licensed by the TED national organization. On June 6, TEDx Reno, featuring over 20 speakers, will be the first major event held in the Lear Theater in over a decade.

There is a certain irony in this pairing of event and venue. The Lear Theater has been plagued with misfortune ever since the attempt was first made to convert the old church into a theater: cost overruns, managerial disputes. All of the nuts and bolts problems any old building has. So, intellectual idealists: meet bad plumbing.

The Lear Theater was built in the late ’30s as the home for Reno’s Christian Scientist congregation. The architect who designed it was Paul Revere Williams. He is noted as being the first black architect admitted to the American Institute of Architecture. Based in Southern California, he designed high profile corporate and government buildings. He was on the design team for LAX. He designed the MCA building. But primarily he designed residential buildings. He developed a reputation as “architect to the stars,” designing homes for Frank Sinatra, Lucille Ball, Lon Chaney and others.

But not all Williams structures are in Southern California, and Reno boasts a few Williams designs: the Garvey house on California Street, the Loomis Apartment Building, and the El Reno Apartments—ultra-modern, at the time, steel modular homes.

The Christian Scientists moved out after more than 50 years in the Williams-designed building. Then, the daughter of a successful entertainer and widow of an industrialist had the idea to convert the church into a theater. After Bill Lear died in 1978—he was famous for inventing the Lear Jet and 8-track tape—his widow Moya ran the corporation.

In the late ’90s, a few years after the Christian Scientist congregation moved out, Moya Lear put up over a million dollars of her tech money, on the condition her contribution be matched, to purchase the building. The venue hosted performances in 2001 and 2002, then the site was shuttered, the renovations left unfinished. In 2011, the Reno Gazette-Journal reported the project had consumed $4.7 million more than the $3 million estimate, with a possible $12 million in expenses remaining. Many believed the managing Theater Coalition was focusing too much on using the venue for touring theater companies. Investors were angry at the management. Performing arts groups were alienated. Lear did not see any of this since she died in 2001.

Community theater

Management of the theater has passed to Artown. The organization is now attempting to complete the restoration.

“We are at the stage where we are trying to establish if there is an investor’s desire to invest in this building,” said Artown executive director Beth Macmillan.

Macmillan also wants the future of the theater to better align with what she said was Lear’s vision. “Moya Lear had wanted a community center,” she said.

That would be a medium size performance space, available to host local arts events. Macmillan said the funding to keep the theater operating will come from rental fees paid by the performers.

And who will these performers be? The space can host anything, according to Macmillan. “It’s good for music. It’s good for dance. It’s good for speaking engagements. It’s good for children’s recitals.”

Hypothetically, it is. But currently the stage is unfinished, and the building’s electrical system can, at best, power a few light bulbs. It’s far from capable of running a professional sound system. The electrical system is one of the reasons the church moved out of the building nearly 20 years ago.

For the TEDx event, organizers will be bringing a generator. Beyond that, only minor improvements have been made to the venue: a little paint touch-up, and the restoration and reinstallation of the building’s original pews.

“We’re trying to keep it relatively bare bones, just to show people there is still a lot of work to be done in here,” said Meghan Pescio, co-organizer of the TEDx event.

In that sense, the venue, which Pescio hopes will be the permanent home for the annual, now in its second year, event, is part of the presentation.

“Our goal with TEDx is not only during the time of the event to be spreading big ideas, but we wanted to have a big idea of our own,” said Pescio. “Something we could do as a group that we thought would get people thinking about the arts and culture community downtown. So having the event here in the Lear Theater was what we thought might be that big idea. And let people see—what if this wasn’t just sitting here not being used? What if it were built and came to its fruition and it was that community theater everyone envisioned in the ’90s?”

This intersection of idea and venue has a serendipitous correlation to what the organizer of TEDx Reno hope would be the event’s theme: urban development.

TEDx events are not simply TED-like presentations organized by whomever. There are actually strict guidelines and a lengthy licensing process. The applications for TEDx Reno were repeatedly rejected, the urban development subject being dismissed as too narrow.

“We kept getting shot down, over, and over, and over again,” said Tony Gallian, who along with his friends Geoff Deal, Lance King and Rory O’Brien applied for the TEDx license.

Finally the group proposed the theme, Biggest Little Citizen. Gallian explained the meaning: “A lot of the time people get bogged down in their everyday careers and jobs and lives and they may have an idea—something they’d like to see happen but you don’t think you have a say or a voice or enough power to see that change through.”

“It takes one person and one idea to change a community or change the globe,” said Gallian.

Possibly. But changing the Lear Theater has taken dozens of people, some now dead, and millions of dollars. To finish the job will take dozens more people and millions more dollars. And a lot of ideas. And a lot of luck.