Theater in the rough

Lear Theater

Think the Lear Theatre is dead? Lear Theater Board president Jim Mort says it’s still a viable project.

Think the Lear Theatre is dead? Lear Theater Board president Jim Mort says it’s still a viable project.

Photo By David Robert

Mention the Lear Theater and an image of a big black hole may surface in your mind. In some folks’ minds, the Lear has become a great, expensive idea that has never come to fruition. But how can it be that such a beautiful building on prime riverfront property wouldn’t become something wonderful? What the heck is going on over there, anyway?

The nationally registered historic building was designed as the First Church of Christ, Scientist in 1938 by Paul Revere Williams, one of the first prominent African-American architects. It was still a church when the building was sold nine years ago to local philanthropist Moya Lear of Lear Jet fame, who donated it to the Theater Coalition.

As executive director Dan Rosenblatt explains, the original vision was for the Lear to become a 425-seat theater for hosting touring groups and for local theater groups. who were using small, temporary spaces.

“When you look around Reno, you have the Pioneer with 1,500 seats, you have Lawlor with over 11,000 seats, you have casino facilities, and you have very small venues like Brüka. But you don’t have anything like the Lear,” says Rosenblatt.

So what happened? Lear Theater Board president Jim Mort says that at the time of Lear’s purchase, the construction estimate was around $3 million for simply remodeling the pulpit and front of the house. By the time they’d raised it, costs had increased, forcing them to raise even more money. Meanwhile, the scope of the project was changing; the existing stage area was far too small and the balcony too distant from the stage. The remodel would become more involved, more expensive and more time consuming. Even now, after raising $8 million, costs keep rising. All this, Rosenblatt points out, has been visible to the public, making that nine years feel very long indeed.

In 2004, the Lear Theater board of directors hired a new staff, which included Rosenblatt. A former theater manager and associate producer with Walt Disney Theatrical and director of entertainment for Universal Studios, Rosenblatt brings a wealth of knowledge and contacts that could breathe new life into the Lear project. He’d like to see the Lear become a home for local professional theater along the lines of Seattle Repertory or San Francisco’s ACT, complete with artists in residence. The end result is still uncertain. However, a recent marketing study confirmed Reno is ready and able to support the Lear Theater.

“I know [the Lear Theater people] are working as fast as they can, and they want it to open,” says Christine Fey, city arts and culture manager. “I’d hate to guess on any time frame. But I do know that every month they’re not open is lost revenue.”

Meanwhile, there seems to be surge of new energy. The old lead paint was stripped and replaced with a fresh, pale yellow coat; the pews are for sale as an additional funding source; and it seems that the Federal Historic Tax Credit, which could reimburse 20 percent of the renovation costs, will apply to the Lear. An additional $6-$7 million is still needed, a daunting task after nine years.

Rosenblatt invites the public to call him at 786-2278 with questions or concerns about the project. “It’s an open door,” he says.