Bonnie Kate is well on its way to renewed life as arts center

Published 8:57 am Wednesday, May 2, 2018

Forward-looking communities strive to hold onto important parts of their past, and, if practical, make sensible renovations to bring venerable structures into the future.
Thanks to the vision of some Elizabethton residents, plus some fundraising endeavors, the 90-year-old Bonnie Kate Theater is entering a new phase as a strengthened, more versatile community asset.
This weekend the Elizabethton High School Drama Club celebrated Senior Night with the final performance of the Shakespearian comedy “Leading Ladies” in front of a packed house.
More performances are scheduled in the near future as new life is brought to the old theater’s stage. The events provide a stage for new performers and raise much-needed funds to help with improvement projects at the theater. Also, new life will be given to the theater building with the opening this week of the Red Chili Restaurant, which has been a part of the downtown scene for some time.
The Bonnie Kate, a landmark in the community, was on the auction block when the City of Elizabethton bought the building without using taxpayer dollars. The East Tennessee Foundation raised about $111,000 to cover the cost.
The theater was built in 1926 and was a movie theater before it closed a few years ago.
Since then a group of volunteers and community members have made it their mission to raise enough money to renovate the Bonnie Kate. Their first priority, to raise money to restore the roof of the building, a necessity before renovating the inside.
The hope is that it will be fully restored and serve as a community arts and events space. Through fundraisers, events, and shows, the community group is working to bring the Bonnie Kate back to life.
Once, long before the dawn of the multiplexes, there were small movie theaters in almost every small town in America. Like the Bonnie Kate, they usually were pedestrian-oriented and integrated into the streetscape.
Yet, as with so many things, the old ways and things persist in Elizabethton, although it takes new ideas and a little imagination to keep them going. So it is with the Bonnie Kate Theater. Located in downtown Elizabethton, the Bonnie Kate opened when movies cost just a dime. From silent films to the Twilight saga, the theater witnessed the progression of both movies and their audiences. Many have stories to tell about the theater. Many of these theater goers, who are now senior citizens, remember seeing “Gone With the Wind” for the first time at the Bonnie Kate. During World War II, movie goers also caught the war news before every feature show.
The theater for a number of years was home to a radio show called Barrel of Fun, reaching over three million people.
For a period of time the Men’s Sunday School Class of First Christian Church met in the theater on Sunday morning. Noonday preaching mission services were held at the Bonnie during the 1960s and ’70s.
The Bonnie Kate perhaps will never again be a movie theater, but the plan is to remake it into a performance space, which will include live performances, art shows, music, and community events.
The Bonnie Kate is well on its way to becoming that place, an anchor of local pride and community engagement. However, a lot of work remains, but the goal is to keep the marquee’s neon lights on, even when there’s not a show.
Going to the movies used to be an event. Hopefully, going to the Bonnie Kate in the future will still be an event to get dressed up for.

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