JASPER — The Next Act’s 3 1/2 years of work on the Astra Theatre culminated Wednesday night at 7:33 p.m. when Next Act’s president, Marc Steczyk, declared the newly refurbished theater open for business.
Steczyk made the announcement during a reception for the project’s donors prior to the relighting of the historic sign and marquee that drew about 200 people to the southwest corner of the Courthouse Square.
“I am humbled and honored to be the first to welcome you to the newly renovated Astra Theatre,” Steczyk told the donors.
The grand reopening for the public will be held Saturday with a sold-out performance from Nashville recording artists Will Kimbrough and Patrick Sweany.
The Astra has an 82-year history that begins with its first opening in April 1936. The theater closed in 2002 due to economic reasons and remained vacant for over a decade. In 2014, Courtney Knies Ball, Jay Hamlin, Leslie Hamby, Eddie Luegers, Marc Steczyk and Selena Vonderheide met for lunch at El Campesino in Jasper to discuss how to revive the Astra.
None of them knew each other personally when they walked into the restaurant, but that didn’t stop them from making a big decision over lunch.
“We walked out of there saying we’re going to purchase the Astra Theatre,” Steczyk said.
That started a long fundraising road, first to raise $465,000 to purchase the theater and set up an endowment to fund it going forward. Next Act purchased the Astra in November 2015, but that was only the beginning, From there, Next Act set out to raise funds to refurbish and reopen the theater.
In the summer of 2016, the group received a $400,000 grant from the Indiana Office of Community and Rural Affairs for historical preservation of the theater. The grant, however, only covered exterior work and some mechanical work. Next Act still needed $500,000 for the interior.
The group secured that funding in June 2017.
Overall, Steczyk said, donors contributed roughly $2 million for purchasing and refurbishing the Astra.
Jim and Pat Thyen were among the donors who were on board with Next Act’s goal from the beginning in 2014. During his remarks, Steczyk recalled many evenings at the Thyens’ house, meeting about the fundraising efforts and receiving guidance and support. The Thyens’ daughter, Selena Vonderheide, is part of Next Act.
“We wanted to do what we could to help,” Jim Thyen said.
The Thyens support the arts and believe in the Jasper community. To them, reopening the theater is a way to keep Jasper vibrant.
Despite the credit Steczyk gave the couple, Pat Thyen said Next Act deserves all the credit.
“They had the dream, and they made the dream a reality,” she said. “I’ve always said The Next Act is the best act.”
Inside, the Astra looks quite different than it did three years ago. The drop ceiling and burlap wall hangings are gone, leaving exposed brick walls. The stage has been extended, enabling the theater to host plays, and guests can sit in new seats (the old ones are available for purchase). The balcony is also open again, and includes the Bell Tower, a bar named for donors John and Bobbi Jo Bell. There is also a refurbished concession stand and bar on the first floor.
Although the inside looks different, some of the original elements remain.
Just inside the doors, the original ticket booth still stands, complete with a still-functioning ticket dispenser. A handwritten label on the machine indicates the final movie shown in the theater was the 2002 sports drama “Blue Crush.”
The exposed brick walls are also original to the Astra, as are the rainbow lights on the walls.
Rumor has it, the lights used to rotate, but no one can get them to now.
Going forward, these original features will oversee a new era in entertainment at The Astra that will include both live performances and movie screenings.
As of now, two concerts — the grand opening Saturday and a performance by Americana duo Smooth Hound Smith in May — and a June screening of “The Wizard of Oz” have been announced, but Steczyk said programming is scheduled through Dec. 15.
“It’s going to be good,” he said.
Steczyk and his fellow Next Act members were all smiles Thursday night. Ball described the feeling of seeing the Astra open again as “surreal,” and Steczyk said it felt “great.”
“We’ve done what some said couldn’t be done,” Steczyk said of his partners on Next Act. “I’m proud to be one of them.”