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Little Theater exploring Downtown Alton site possibilities

    ALTON — Little Theater, big future?
    If the scenes play out the way the actors hope, a local community theater cast may well be on its way to new surroundings, and the Downtown Alton area will have another anchor near its riverfront.
    Alton Little Theater is in the midst of a major change to its capital campaign, which now calls for relocating the theater from its site at 2450 N. Henry St. to somewhere in the East Broadway corridor, within view of the Clark Bridge.
    Major players in town are getting behind the idea, which began a few years ago as a much simpler — and less expensive — campaign to rebuild the theater on its current site, the same place it has been since 1961.
    Details on a specific location are expected to emerge in coming weeks, but Lee Cox, the marketing and development director for the next stage of the capital campaign, says the theater group would love to be located near Jacoby Arts Center, to help form an arts corridor.
    Alton Little Theater announced a capital campaign to renovate and expand its current facility back in 2012, but the locked-in nature of the site, the fast-growing expenses, plus the fact that it was in a declining neighborhood gave rise to looking into Downtown instead.
    At one point, Little Theater optioned property on the northwest corner of Ridge and Broadway, but the slope of the land upward made the envisioned construction problematic. Now, backers are looking at something flatter, but in the general area.
    She said the theater has gotten invaluable support from community leaders, including Alton lawyer John Simmons, who is encouraging other people to get behind the effort and to think bigger than the original project.
    Little Theater, which had been looking at a new building that would seat at least 350 people, is now looking at the possibility of one that could seat 600 to 800. An architect is designing it to include a balcony that could be opened or closed to make the setting larger or smaller as the show demands.
    “We would love to have a state-of-the-art theater of at least two stories,” Cox said. “The auditorium has to have enough fly space. We have absolutely no fly space now (for drops and ceilings). We have no back stage space. We are so tight in our little theater.”
    The facility sold out 220 seats in its last musical, 10 nights in a row.
    “We had 37 people in the cast,” she said. “People were dressing in back hallways — there’s just no room. You make friends very quickly.”
    The new vision of the project is more than just performance. There also would be studio, classroom, scene and reception space to go along with the needs of a modern theater facility.
    An even larger building, depending on the final design and campaign success, could house lofts or apartments on upper stories to help pay the expenses.
    “We would love to be in our new building in two years. If we got a check today for $10 million dollars it would still take a year to build it,” Cox said.
    Just a few years back, the first feasibility study called for a $2.5 million to $3 million facility rebuilt on the current site, more modern but without much room to grow.
    “We have raised about $280,000, and we’re down to a little over $100,000, but we’re square, we don’t owe anybody anything,” Cox said. Feasibility studies, architectural work and soil surveys at the Henry Street site have all been paid.
    Pledges to date, mostly from season ticket holders, have helped Little Theater pay off its mortgage.
    The building was constructed in 1961 by volunteers for $10,000, and supporters have gotten their money’s worth, but the structure’s best days are long gone.
    “Our building is going to start sucking us dry,” Cox said. “Lighting hit us. We flooded twice in 10 days. Our entire plumbing system just disintegrated in the kitchen as we were trying to fix the dishwasher.”
    Despite its challenges,  the theater is enormously popular and its appeal would translate well to Downtown, she said.
    Alton Little Theater now offers 12 months of programming through plays and musicals and outside performers. The latter would be essential to any plans in Downtown.
    “The plan is we would have at least 200 paid nights of ticket sales. We, on our own, have about 75,” Cox said. “We get so many requests to rent the facilities.”
    Local business and banking leaders have lent their expertise, telling Little Theater what it really needs is a lead donor or a series of larger donors to get the project moving.
    While Little Theater has the potential to locate within view of the Liberty Bank Amphitheatre on the riverfront, it is not expected to tap into the same performance market.
    “We talked to Dale (Blachford, president of the bank) about that and, no, I don’t think so,” Cox said. “Their season is so short.  Our summer is pretty much designated to youth programming. We do a summer youth camp and a big summer musical for the kids. The amphitheater is not booking acts for (younger) kids.
    She added: “I don’t think we’d compete; I think we’d complement.”
    The next stop for Cox, she said, is to draft a budget reflective of the larger vision of the theater. That will be used to show potential donors that the Downtown alternative is more feasible in terms of both location and revenue generation.
    Cox, who is 62, grew up in the theater starting at the age of 5, performing with her uncle, the late Cliff Davenport, when they would stage plays at Alton Senior High School in the 1950s. It was a group of educators that founded and supported Alton Little Theater in its formative years. The foyer area, referred to as the Showplace, was built in 1961. A more complete theater was built in 1971. Restroom and other improvements were made in 1991.
    Kevin Frakes, who like Cox grew up with the theater, is today the full-time facilities manager. Jean Heil took over as president of the board on June 1.  Diane Enloe is the director emeritus. A new office manager, Julia Frazier, who also handles the box office, was also hired recently.
    Renovating the current site seemed like the right alternative for a time.
    “Some people may think we’ve abandoned plans,” Cox said. “But we looked at our budget, and decided, ‘We can’t do it here’.” Expenses are far too great and the Henry Street site is becoming more obsolete than simple renovations can address.
    “We could be out of business in a few years, if something doesn’t change,” she said.
    Having Little Theater relocate in Downtown Alton could provide a new anchor for a district that is becoming increasingly focused on arts and entertainment. One goal would be to get more younger people attending community theater.

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