Benson Theatre Renovation Underway As Historic Building Gets an Extensive Update

Inisde of the Benson Theatre as renovation work gets underway. (Photo by Jack Williams, NET News)
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July 16, 2020 - 6:45am

A dream to return a nearly 100-year-old building in the Benson area of Omaha to its former glory is closer to reality. Work has started on the renovation of the historic Benson Theatre, a building that has had many lives over the years, but will soon fill a local need.


The roar of giant fans cooling the stuffy inside of a brick building along Maple Street in Benson makes things hard to hear, but it’s clear Andy Cavan is happy to be here. He’s the construction superintendent in charge of transforming bare brick walls and a concrete floor into an elegant theater.

"It’s got to go back to where it should be," Cavan said. "And we actually found some really cool old windows hidden that were from the original façade of the building. Nobody knew they were here until yesterday."

Benson Theatre Executive Director Amy Ryan. (Photo by Jack Williams, NET News)

This building has been a part of the Benson neighborhood for a long time. It started as a vaudeville theater in 1923, became a film theater in 1939, and later was an appliance store, ceramic shop, and most recently a fitness supply warehouse.

That’s where Amy Ryan comes in. She used to run a pizza shop a few doors down and has been in Benson since the mid 90s. In a makeshift office, she’s now on a new mission: to return the theater to its former glory. She convinced this part of Benson needs a new kind of community space.

"Although it’s thriving right now, it’s also very much an adult entertainment neighborhood," Ryan said. "I lovingly call it Hollywood Boulevard. So there’s a lot of people that live in this neighborhood whose needs are not addressed."

The Benson Theatre non-profit organization bought the building in 2014 with the vision of turning it into a place for films, live theater, comedy, spoken word and music performances at night, and an education center during the day.

"This is a space that is inclusive," Ryan said. "So it considers older adults, it considers young people, special needs groups, we have a lot of them in Benson, need to be addressed. 17% of the population lives under the poverty level north of here."

Benson Theatre Programming Director Michal Simpson. (Photo by Jack Williams, NET News) 

The renovation has been a community effort. Fundraising started eight years ago and there’s still about $500,000 to go on a $4 million goal. Ryan says prominent names like Mannheim Steamroller founder Chip Davis, the Mammal Family Foundation and philanthropists Dan and Esther Hamann, along with local organizations, have been the driving force behind the renovation effort.

"We have over 100 community partners because they’re able to bring their programming in and all we do is host and keep a safe space, keep the lights on," Ryan said.          

The space won’t be a traditional theater with all-fixed seating. It will have a couple of rows of fixed seats, but it will mostly be interchangeable and will feature high-top tables, booths and open areas that will all be wheelchair accessible.  

"The space is designed for you to use it in any way you might need it," she said.  

Benson Theatre programming director Michal Simpson has the task of filling the theater with activities, both at night and during the day. About ten percent of its use will be for corporate events and private rentals, but the rest will be other things, including educational activities.

Construction superintendent Andy Cavan and Amy Ryan look at old window salvaged from Benson Theatre. (Photo by Jack Williams, NET News)

"A lot of theaters and those types of facilities sit empty during the day and they’re only used for cultural and entertainment events in the evening," Simpson said. "So we can use this space during the day to help people learn skills, lift themselves up and all those things that would allow them to be sustainable and to focus more on making a living doing their art form."     

Back in the gutted theater space, Amy Ryan points to huge, steel beams holding up the roof — they’ve been here for almost 100 years.

"These were horse-drawn beams that you see," Ryan said. "They had a whole row of horses that the blacksmith set-up to help raise the roof on this thing, and it’s still here." 

They’ll also use the original apron for the front of the stage, some of the cornice and ornamental pieces will be saved, and the color scheme will be the same as the original theater.

With a big smile on her face, Ryan is looking forward to the next chapter in the Benson Theatre’s rich history.

"What makes me so excited is the idea of sharing a space with people where my job is to operate," Ryan said. "And that’s what I can contribute, is operations and taking care of people. I love it." 

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