"There were closed-circuit fights and a couple of plays, and that was it," says the Panida's executive director, Karen Bowers. "But it was falling into such disrepair that nobody could do anything with it. So many old theaters across the country went down in the '70s and '80s. Nobody cared enough to try to save them. Nobody wanted them. Everybody wanted the new -- new, new, new."
After far too many years following the "out with the old, in with the new" model of American urban renewal, city planners, preservationists and developers have, in recent times, found themselves very comfortably within the same bed, working together to renovate existing structures for updated use rather than razing buildings and replacing them with new construction. So it is in the Inland Northwest. Here as elsewhere, there are tax benefits to be had and civic profiles to burnish. But more important, there is a community heritage and an artistic aesthetic preserved whenever one of our classic old buildings is spared from the wrecking ball and transformed.
Bowers wasn't directly involved in the Panida in 1985, but as a performer who frequently worked in the old theater in the early '80s, says she felt a connection.
"I'd been with the Unicorn Theater, and we did all of our productions here," she says. "I was also in the Sandpoint Film Society, and as soon as the community took over the Panida, we started showing our films here. So it had been dear to me since I first started acting on that stage."
The real push to reclaim the theater was actually spearheaded by a trio of women whom Bowers refers to as "the Panida moms." In 1984, Laurel Wagers, Jane Evans and Susan Bates-Harbuck approached the owner with an offer.
"Everybody in town wanted to do something with it, but nobody could figure out how until the Panida moms got together and said, 'Hey, we have to save this theater and we're gonna have to get the community behind us to help purchase it.' They started putting things together and then went to the owner. He just wanted to sell the place. He didn't care what people did with it. It was a white elephant as far as he was concerned. So when they came to him and made an offer of $200,000, he said OK. Can you believe it? $200,000?"
It was a great deal. Yet the owner wanted the $40,000 down payment within just three months. The Panida moms went to the community via the local newspaper with a fundraising appeal.
"It was in the paper every day," says Bowers. "And after a month and a half, they already had the $40,000. We finally ended up with $85,000, which allowed us to bring it up to code and open it on July 25. It was a community effort all the way."
To give back to that community and to help celebrate the reborn Panida's Big 20, the theater has booked pianist Adam Tendler for a one-man concert on Monday, July 25 -- 20 years to the day since it reopened. The 70-minute program will be given in appreciation of everyone in the community who has supported the grand dame of Sandpoint's art scene.
Tendler's solo piano tour -- a sojourn he's calling "America 88x50" -- involves crisscrossing the country in his tightly packed sports car, finding his way through each of the 50 states and performing a solo piano recital comprised of American music, a selection of music by American composers reflecting the breadth of American identity and creativity. The program consists of music composed by Charles Ives, Charles Tomlinson Griffes, Alberto Ginastera and Aaron Copland and will represent such diverse styles as abstract, popular, minimalist, impressionistic, exotic, jazz and Pan-American folklore.
Bowers has been the executive director and manager of the Panida for the last 18 years. She says that the theater is technically owned by the nonprofit Panida Committee Inc., which is run by a board of directors; the public is invited to all of the meetings and can even vote on board members.
"The community supports the Panida because they own it," says Bowers. (Literally: They've purchased commemorative bricks at $50 apiece.) "And they have a pride in having a performing arts venue in a town this size. But anybody who ever bought a ticket here and came through became like an owner, too, because they had supported us with their patronage. It wasn't just the community. Our mailing list contains people from all over the Inland Northwest."
The Panida first opened as a vaudeville and movie house in 1927. Even then, its name was reflected in its mission statement: to showcase great performers and performances for audiences of the PANhandle of IDAho. The Panida -- inarguably the most distinctive building in Sandpoint -- features a Spanish Mission design. Its lush interior space currently seats 550. After decades of neglect, it's now on the National Register of Historic Places and has received special recognition from the governor of Idaho, the Idaho Commission of the Arts, the Idaho Centennial Commission and the U.S. Department of the Interior. Honored with both "Take Pride in Idaho" and "America" awards, the Panida has also received the coveted "Orchid Award" for historic preservation from the Idaho Historical Preservation Society.
The old girl has certainly come a long way in the last 20 years, though the renovations are an ongoing process. This summer, for instance, the theater is set to receive a completely new heating and air conditioning system, which -- as anyone who has attended a performance in the old theater during the blistering days of summer can attest -- has been a long time coming.
"They've been putting it in for the last month and a half," she laughs. "And they're still working on it. But I'm glad they're doing it right the first time."
The cultural vitality of Sandpoint has grown stronger around the Panida. And yet Bowers says that the theater wasn't so much the seed of Sandpoint's cultural renaissance as it was a project arising out of a broader artistic bloom that, two decades ago, was just beginning to transform this North Idaho community.
"At the same time we were reclaiming the Panida, the Pend Oreille Arts Council was getting going and so was the Festival at Sandpoint," she says. "The POAC's growth and the Festival's growth have made a huge difference. All three of us together have made the changes so that Sandpoint is now looked upon as a respected arts community."
The Panida's 20th Anniversary Celebration of American Composers Piano Concert with Adam Tendler will be performed on Monday, July 25, at 7:30 pm at the Panida Theater, 300 N. First St., in Sandpoint, Idaho. Free. Call (208) 263-9191.