The Plaza Theatre in Maplewood and Woodland Hills Church have been the center of a firestorm in recent months. Now that it’s December, the church has assumed control of the bargain movie house. While the theater was closed for a few weeks, it was for good reason: the entire building underwent a complete overhaul. I stopped in a few times during the remodeling process, and now have seen the mostly finished product, and the building without a doubt took a turn for the better. Even amongst those huge changes, there are also small ones like a slight name change, from Plaza Theatre to The Plaza Theater.
Walking into the freshly painted, carpeted, and updated space, your eyes are immediately drawn to the new gorgeous Plaza sign — this fashionable, illuminated sign was made by one of the talented members of the Woodland Hills Church congregation. Seeing the mostly finished remodeled space (the second auditorium is still under construction) was truly an awesome sight. Even though I had walked into this theater hundreds of times before, this was the first time I had ever seen it looking so beautiful.
Communications Pastor Charley Swanson was in charge of overseeing the remodel and getting the theater ready to reopen. While Swanson is in charge of the big picture, he will not be in charge of the day-to-day management of the updated movie house. I had the privilege of meeting Mike Dougherty, the new manager of the theater.
Dougherty doesn’t have any previous theater management experience, but he does have experience in retail, previously managing two pharmacies. Dougherty’s biggest asset is that he is a movie fanatic, through and through. Being one myself, it was easy to see it in another. His love for this very theater runs deep, all the way back to his childhood when he grew on the East Side as a patron of the local icon. Dougherty showed me a few decades old Plaza advertisement he saved from the newspaper when he was younger, that’s how much he loves movies and this theater. Even in his teenage years, he brought his high school dates to the 46 year-old theater.
The best part of Dougherty’s story comes from his employment at the former Builder’s Square (the big building Woodland Hills now occupies). When he was in the parking lot of Shopper’s City with one of his co-workers cleaning up trash, he fondly remembers looking over at the Plaza with adoration and thinking, “Wouldn’t it be so cool to run that place?” Seriously. Now, in 2013, a life-long dream has been fulfilled. Woodland Hills could not have selected a better man for the job — he not only loves movies, but he loves the Plaza.
Dougherty’s story wasn’t even the best part about my visits — seeing so many active bodies, mostly volunteers, working on giving the Plaza a facelift was truly remarkable. I’ve been a patron of the Plaza for my whole life, and seeing it torn apart gave me great hope for this new chapter. It’s easy to get excited for what is to come seeing all the eager volunteers donating their time cleaning and fixing the place up.
So much of the success of this project can be attributed to volunteers and those who gave so much to make the revitalization of the theater possible. Almost all the labor, cleaning and pulling the place to the bone was donated. Many of the supplies were donated, like paint for the theater walls and ceiling — the painting crew also painted both auditoriums for free — the new carpet was offered to the theater for a great deal, the new Plaza sign was crafted by a talented craftsman for free, and many other small contributions led to the successful revamp of this beloved theater. The planning crew investigated making every cost-effective upgrade possible.
One improvement I appreciated seeing was the speaker wires in the auditoriums running through conduit instead of drooping down across the wall like poorly hung Christmas lights.
On the first weekend the theater was closed for renovation, more than 50 church volunteers flocked to the building to deep clean every crevice and corner of the building. Deep cleaning often reveals new areas of need, and the Plaza was no different. After cleaning high and low, the volunteers helped with stripping the place down for a fresh face, new paint all over, new floors, and best of all, new, working theater seats. Taking out the old seats was one of the biggest challenges in the remodel, but the multitude of volunteers spread out the grunt work of pulling the dated bolts out of the concrete. Then, a new surface for the auditorium floors.
The Marcus Theater in Oakdale recently upgraded some of the auditoriums to Dream Lounger seats, electronically controlled reclining leather seats — these new seats are without a doubt the most amazing movie theater seats in the metro, highly recommended. The Plaza Theater bought the removed Marcus seats to fill their auditoriums with a full inventory of working seats. While the updated Plaza seats aren’t Dream Lounger quality (no seats are), all the seats are in working order — no more caution tape around broken seats in the new The Plaza Theater.
The process for installing the seats was extremely tenuous and provided many challenges for the crew of volunteers. The seats were a huge hurdle, but in the end, more than worth the headache. The legion of volunteers made the process so much easier. In fact, there were so many volunteers who helped with the seats, the painting, the cleaning, etc., etc., the church asked those who donated their time to sign the volunteer wall, a stairway that leads up to the office and the projector room.
The entrance as you can see also received quite a bit of work — the fresh look should invite weary patrons to come back to the new and improved theater. The new fascia below the box office is gorgeous.
My favorite new feature in the lobby is the wall of famous still images from movies. If there was a popular movie in the past 46 years, it’s up on the wall above the concession stand. While chatting with Swanson and Executive Pastor Janice Rohling in the lobby, I found myself distracted — I kept staring at the multitude of images for minutes at a time, continually finding more of my favorite characters and movies within the collage.
The church funded the revitalization of the theater by raising money with their Making Space Campaign. The church has used this campaign in the past to raise money for outreach programs like a daycare, a food shelf, and job skills training within the church. Woodland Hills saw this as another opportunity to raise more money for outreach — this time by hosting a much more classy, bargain movie experience. Making Space sought $42,000 initially for the remodel (as well as some renovation on water damaged classrooms in the main church building), and the church has more than provided — that goal was surpassed in mere weeks.
Now, the church has set their eyes on the digital upgrade. “We have a Woodland Hills volunteer who offered us a great deal on two digital projectors and he even said he would install them for free,” Rohling said.
With the digital upgrade within their grasp, the leaders of the church furthered their initial goal for the Making Space Campaign and once again reached out to the congregation in order to make this digital conversion happen right now — this allows the theater to continue into the future of digital cinema. Woodland Hills made a goal to raise another $30,000 to help offset the cost of the projectors with hopes the money would get them started and the rest projector bill would come from theater profits. So far, the congregation responded, raising more than two thirds of that goal.
“Our latest estimate is that we’ll have at least one screen running digital movies in January,” said Swanson.
The new staff at The Plaza Theater are members of a local group that helps at-risk youth and young adults called The Lift. These group members now make up a portion of the current staff, and many of them helped with the renovations to the theater. The teens and young adults are employed at the theater in The Lift’s ‘Job Skills Program’ — this program seeks to give the teens work experience and training as well as teach them budget management, business practices, and other job skills. Many of these teens come from rough backgrounds, but you wouldn’t know it meeting them. All the members of the staff I met were courteous and seemed enthusiastic for the opportunity to refresh The Plaza Theater experience.
All these employees are from the neighborhood, filling the theater out with resilient teens looking for a new direction in life. This is the first job many of them will have — Dougherty will work with the coaches within The Lift (some of whom act as Assistant Mangers at the theater) to help mentor these at-risk youth and prepare them for a brighter future in the job market. I sure would consider this program a huge positive of the church taking ownership of the theater.
Even the bathrooms were torn down and remedied wherever possible. There is some structural damage to the floors, and some other major projects that cannot be fixed without major surgery, but the remodel did a great job on both bathrooms sprucing them up to a more respectable status. The bathrooms were clean, had full functionality returned to all the plumbing, and definitely looked much improved from just a few months ago.
While so many have demonized the “mega church for taking over,” thinking this would lead to evangelizing at the theater, higher prices, and other dastardly things, so far, the results have been nothing but positive. The church has shown one of the benefits of being a church: having a legion of volunteers ready and willing to help any way they can. Undoubtedly, the previous tenant Nathan Block and his crew did everything in their power to keep the theater running — but a team of workers cannot compare to an army of volunteers. Of course you can understand why Block wouldn’t invest as much into the building as the church has, because he was just a tenant, the church the owner — but clearly the new ownership has been great for the welfare of the building, as the theater has improved significantly over the past month.
It’s completely understandable why Block would never devote so many resources to a building he did not own. But even if he did own the property, it’s unlikely he could ever generate the legions of people who came and donated their time, effort, and money to make The Plaza Theater like new again. This type of collective overhaul is much easier for a church with hundreds of volunteers ready to contribute — this dream was realized by so many within the congregation believing in that same vision of restoring a local icon.
And this in a sense shows why the church board thought they were ready to take over their property in full. They could see the possibility of this type of support from the members of their church. It was decidedly nothing personal against the previous tenant — the church saw not only an opportunity to polish the theater and still provide cheap movies, but to use the space for programs like The Lift and other outreach programs.
For all those critics of the “church takeover,” I suggest you look into their progress as operators — if you truly love The Plaza Theater, there is no doubt who is the best caretaker for the property — in one month The Plaza Theater has re-awoken with a classy, and completely fresh look. If you truly love this icon, no matter your take on the church assuming control, it has to make you happy to see the Plaza doing so well once again.
Since taking over, the church has kept every part of their word to restore the theater and keep it the same — the prices haven’t changed (they still host Dollar Tuesdays), they are currently showing two rated R movies, the digital conversion is on the horizon, and most importantly, they still use real butter for their popcorn.
To see even more makeover photos and even videos of the project, visit the new The Plaza Theater Facebook page.
Photos by: Matthew Deery and Woodland Hills Church