FAIRBURY — After a five-year hiatus, the Bonham Theatre is once again showing films on the big screen.

The Fairbury theater, which first opened Sept. 27, 1926, earned its title as the showcase of the area, being a state-of-the-art facility when constructed.

But time took its toll, and the building fell into disrepair over the years. It eventually closed in 2012 after the then-owner was unable to afford a required upgrade to digital projection.

Then a group of Fairbury residents, determined to keep the Bonham, sprang into action.

“We had so many different fundraisers, work days, demolition and cleaning, and all that was done by volunteers,” said Brooke Schwab, president of the Bonham Theatre Project. “Once we got to skilled labor, we had contractors hired who came in and did a lot of the work, but we had a lot of volunteer work done also.

“The largest chunks of the money came from grants. Deb Ebke was our treasurer at the time and she did an amazing job of writing grants that we got.”

The Bonham Theatre Project is a nonprofit group organized to restore the theater. It bought the building at auction in 2013 for less than $25,000, with aspirations of restoring it to its former glory. Doing so required about $800,000 in renovations.

Upgrading to digital projectors was a key part of that, though fire code and safety upgrades were the biggest portion of the project.

“Upgrading the projector to digital was why it closed,” Schwab said. “Unfortunately for us, that wasn’t the only issue with the building.

“The sprinkler system was one of those big-ticket items that you hope to never use. At first it was a major challenge, but I think we’ve successfully met all the requirements and still did it in an aesthetically pleasing way.”

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Some of the needed upgrades included modifying emergency exits, additional HVAC safety measures and a handicap-accessible exit from the main theater. A second theater upstairs is no longer in use.

Organizers hope to one day raise funds to reopen that theater.

Great care was also taken to restore the dome ceiling in the theater, which was previously blocked from view by a suspended ceiling.

“My generation growing up, I never saw the dome,” Schwab said. “But back when the balcony was opened up, people saw that. During the demolition you couldn’t see this until you had a flashlight, but the stenciling was so faded you couldn’t even see it. We had an artist come in and do a replica of the stenciling.”

Schwab said the theater is something the community takes pride in and that it will show films and host events for years to come.


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