Canna Theatre: Keeping the Dream Alive
By Eric Becker
GILLESPIE (March 1, 2018) – Nathan Nelson is pastor of the Canna Community Church in Gillespie. Rev. Christine E. Erdmann is Pastor at the Zion Evangelical Lutheran Church in Gillespie.
But together, the two helped spearhead efforts to reopen the Canna Theatre in Gillespie last summer, and now are looking to renovate the theatre back to its early roots of the 1920s.
Folks from times gone by remember when they would “go to the show,” or “go to the movie house.”
Now, Gillespie residents and those wishing to watch a part of the past become present can do so once again.
The capacity of the Canna currently sits at 200, although that could increase after remodeling.
The Canna has been offering Saturday night movies, mostly black and white flicks from the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s. The Canna showed the Wizard of Oz last weekend.
The March schedule of shows include Coco on March 3; Singing in the Rain March 10; Duck Soup on March 17; To Kill a Mockingbird March 24; and Easter Parade March 31.
Shows start 7 p.m. each Saturday. Adult prices are $5; children $3 and Baby Boomers (born between 1945-64) $4. The theatre is located at 108 E. Chestnut in downtown Gillespie.
Nelson and Erdmann are getting the word out to the community on attempts to restore the theatre back to its 1921 roots.
“This building has been a part of Gillespie since 1921,” Nelson said. “It’s been part of our local history with arts and entertainment for lots of years.”
A year ago, the Gillespie Ministerial Alliance met and someone asked if anyone was going to run movies.
“And my little head spinned off of my neck,” Erdmann joked.
Nelson said the right concept was needed to make it a reality. Also, talking to the major and making sure the community wanted a theatre was also a priority.
“We formed a board,” Erdmann said. “That’s the mayor (John Hicks), Pastor Nathan and myself. We discussed what kind of movies we wanted to run. I maintained from the beginning that this town wants the black-and-white classic movies. Nobody is doing what we’re now doing.”
First-run movie theatres are located all around, in Litchfield and Carlinville, but finding the old-time movie theatre in this area was not an easy thing to accomplish.
“We started in June – ran three films over the summer – all Disney flicks,” Erdmann said. “We’re very family friendly and very careful what we run.”
Nelson said his goals at the time was to run the family-friendly movies to be able to do something with the community, as well as have the Sunday church services.
The mayor wanted something to be done to keep it a part of the community.
“The mayor remembered when this was a viable movie house,” Erdmann said. “It was important to him to have something be done to keep it as part of the community.”
As far restoring the current building, it will take a lot of time, work and money, but there are plans to have it put into shape, rather than have the building become demolished.
Erdmann recalled a theatre in Anna which met its demise, and is now a vacant lot.
“We’re trying not to have that happen here,” Erdmann said.
The Canna is planning a May, 2019 weekend of Howard Keel movies, in commemoration of Keel’s 100th birthday.
Keel, born and raised in Gillespie, starred in many 1950 musical films and was an actor on the CBS hit show Dallas in the 1980s
But to restore the Canna to how Nelson and Erdmann see fit, it will cost around $3 million in various restoration projects.
Those projects would include restoring and lowering the roof; resorting the flooring and electrical and the marquee; adding a digital projector; recruiting volunteers; outside walls restoration; window restoration; concession stand and lobby restoration.
Currently, the entrance sits at an angle off of Chestnut Street. The goal is to make the entrance along the main wall facing the street like it had originally been when the Canna opened. Concession stands would be moved to where the current entrance sits, with restrooms just to the south of the concession stand area.
Nelson said getting the roof fixed is the number one priority, but they continue to reach out and draw people to the Canna for events.
Recently, the Farm Hands Quartet, Grand Ole’ Opry veterans from Nashville, Tenn., performed at the Canna in front of a huge gathering of patrons. Nelson and Erdmann were very pleased with both the performance and the community support for the event. ‘We had to put more seats in for the Sunday event – it was full,” Nelson said.
“The area concept is growing,” Erdmann said. “We are reaching people miles away. It’s been a fantastic journey and this town is beginning to get into this.”
While it may be 10 years or longer until the final dream is realized, the goal is still to make the Canna become the happening’ place to be in Gillespie.
“Our dream is to restore it and open people’s minds to old classic movies,” Erdmann said. “It’s not a Gillespie thing. It’s a Macoupin County thing. This could be great.”
Getting Gillespie’s theatre back in operation could also lead to growth not only in Gillespie but in surrounding communities.
Nelson found a correlation between the church and theatre.
“There’s one body but many parts trying to keep this organism alive,” Nelson said.
Nelson was impressed by seeing how many families are taking advantage of the Saturday night movies to spend an evening together.
“The community is beginning to trust us – they know we’ll be here on Saturday night and its a family friendly place.”
The Canna is looking into hosting some fundraisers. One idea is a Trivia Night, but there are so many of those going on in the area, that may be pushed back to the late summer/early fall.
“We’re looking at a 10-year project,” Nelson said. “There obstacles to overcome, but it’s possible.”
The Canna is always seeking volunteers to help keep the theatre going. They are also seeking additional sponsorships.
In 1921,John Peart and sons built the facility in hoping of attracting more people to Gillespie. It was managed by Francis Peart.
By 1928, it was reopened as the New Pert Theatre, operated by Raymond Peart and James Shea. By 1930, it was remodeled and named the Lyric Theatre. In 1956, it reopened as the Canna and operated by the Canna Anna civic organization.
The theatre has been used for high school productions and other events in the past.
“This was one of the first theatres in Macoupin County,” Nelson said. “The Perts owned one in Warden, Livingston, Carlinville, Litchfield. They had what they called the Pert theatre circuit. They owned all these theatres and got the movie industry going.”
The Eisentrauts were the previous owner of the Canna, and tried to make it work, but with the changing of the film quality from reel to digital and having just one single screen, it wasn’t feasible to do so.
Nelson knew of Cary Eisentraut and asked if he could rent it out for the Assembly of God church, as the previous church location was running out of space.
“The agreement was that when we bought the theatre, he would continue running movies but that he would rent from us if he found a digital projector,” Nelson said. “He was never able to find one and he purchased Carlinville’s theatre.”
Now the Canna is in the hands of folks who want to see a theatre thrive in Gillespie, keeping the dream alive.