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The Crystal's Curtain Call

March 25, 2010, 10:05 PM by Jon Wilson

The Crystal's Curtain Call
FLANDREAU, SD - Much like the efforts to save the State Theatre in downtown Sioux Falls, the town of Flandreau faced a similar dilemma several years ago. The aging Crystal Theatre was crumbling and if the city was going to save the historical building, it was going to take a lot of manpower and money.  

Flandreau's Crystal Theatre was built in 1913 for $10,000.  But the cost of keeping these doors open for nearly a century is still adding up.

"There's several times they thought when we locked the door after that last performance, I thought that was going to be it," Gene Odenbrett said. 

Odenbrett is one of the original members of the Crystal Theatre Cultural Association, a group of volunteers determined to restore the building at whatever cost.

"The roof leaked so bad and we had to re-tuck everything and we took every stitch of electricity or electrical wiring out of here, all the plumbing, and just gutted it right to the walls," Odenbrett said. 

The restoration would be expensive and time consuming, but the workforce was in place before the board applied for its first grant.

"And we had about 400 people that had volunteered," Odenbrett said.

After sitting vacant for years, the first step was to clean out the Crystal. Volunteers spent thousands of hours just cleaning the building. Workers removed about 40 truck loads of junk before any rebuilding could begin.

All of that rubble came from the stage area both above and below the stage. What used to be a pile of garbage is now dressing rooms, which were also built by volunteers.

"The high school shop teacher, when we first started out, would bring his shop class down here," Odenbrett said.  "And then downstairs the dressing rooms, he would have them do the drawings, buy the materials and they would come down and put them all in and that was their shop class."

But volunteers can only do so much; many of the major repairs would need a lot of money to fix.

"Our first fund-drive was for $100,000," Odenbrett said.
Local businesses donated about half of that while Flandreau residents donated the rest.

"It's kind of like a church.  When you think you're going broke, something happens and you get money," Odenbrett said.

Whether it's restoring the smaller Crystal Theatre or even saving something on a larger scale, like the State Theatre in downtown Sioux Falls, board president Chuck Tufty feels these historic sites need to be saved.

"Well, it's a part of history. This building was constructed, the theatre went into existence in 1913 and if they put the wrecking ball to it, it's gone forever," Tufty said. 

The building has seen a lot of changes over the years and played host to many history-making events, like when hometown boy Bill Janklow announced he would be running for a third term as South Dakota's Governor.

Over the years, the exterior has seen some changes and a balcony was added back in the 30's. The floors have all been restored and the chairs were originally restored instead of replaced.

"Then we were getting a lot of complaints from people because people are heavier nowadays than they used to be and they were just too comfortable," Odenbrett said.

The new seats came from a theatre in Mitchell that was heavily damaged by a fire a few years ago. Another creative way to keep costs down.

"The only time we pay anybody is when we pay a director and maybe a piano player but outside of that, everything that is put on, it's all volunteer help," Odenbrett said.

Volunteers also run the ticket booth and concession stand, which used to be the old city jail. Some of the cells have been converted into restrooms while the other holding area is now used for storage.

Today, the Crystal Theatre serves as a community center and classroom of sorts, and the restoration work continues alongside the entertainment.

"Well, I don't think there will be a complete end to the project but I think we will get to the point where it becomes more of maintenance and less adding on but it will never be done I'm sure," Tufty said.

And it would appear that Flandreau will do whatever it takes to keep the Crystal standing for another 100 years or more. The Crystal Theatre Association also received some assistance from the South Dakota Arts Council that helped in securing several grants for the project.

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