The Benson Theatre building at 6054 Maple St. was pretty rough when the nonprofit spearheaded by Amy Ryan purchased it from a local developer in 2016.
“It was considered demolished,” she said. “Before we renovated it, it was just a warehouse of sorts for exercise equipment. It had morphed so many times, [there] was concrete over the stage hiding the stage. You had to get down in the guts of it to even see what the stage was.”
The facility originated in 1923 as a theater, first operating as the Benalto — likely named for the community of Benson and a nod to Rialto, a popular name for theaters at the time — until 1926. With seating for 400, it featured vaudeville performances, film screenings and various community events. In its next phase, the building was part of the Epstein Theaters chain until 1953. It then served as home to a series of retail businesses as it aged and deteriorated.
Ryan, who had owned and operated the nearby Pizza Shoppe Collective from 1995 to 2017, said she felt compelled to resurrect the theater building.
“I had such a love for the neighborhood already that when the building became available, I jumped into building a nonprofit to hold space for people in the community like kids and older adults and people with specific needs who didn’t really have a home in Benson,” she said. “I started the nonprofit through a fiscal sponsorship with the Omaha Community Foundation in 2011. Back in 2005, even at the Pizza Shoppe, I was like, ‘We’re going to do this somehow.’”
Fundraising continued after the building was purchased and renovation began. It wasn’t easy, Ryan said.
“The price of the construction kept going up,” she said. “The back wall fell down at one point, I think that was in 2018. Because the building is 100 years old and had not been cared for over the years, it was in bad shape.”
History in the Details
There were also discoveries, from beautiful masonry to crafted wood accents that had once graced the front exterior and were carefully wrapped and stored. Diamond-shaped features were reinstalled. The restoration team also found more mundane items like war bonds and an old bottle of whiskey.
“They were able to restore the apron of the stage. We’ve painted it, but it was vaudeville, so you can imagine the tap dancers, the musicians, the poets touching that over time. The little dents that are in it all mean something,” Ryan said. “It was really important that we saved as much as we could.”
A digital display in the lobby includes historic pictures of Benson “so people can always keep these memories,” Ryan added.
“We can appreciate how long that creative energy has existed in this space, and we are continuing on a legacy that started 100 years ago,” Deputy Director Maddie Radcliff said. “Seeing some of the elements that still exist from when it was originally the Benalto are really special to all of us.
“In the lobby, we have a couple of gold lines inlaid in the floor. And one of them shows where the original bar was and one is where the original box office was. It’s a subtle way to remember what the space was and how it has changed … I think Amy in particular did a really beautiful job of modernizing the space while really honoring the legacy of what it has been over the years.”
Marketing Manager Beaufield Berry said the vision for the restored Benson Theatre, which opened in early 2022, was to serve as an inclusive, accessible space that is welcoming to everyone in the community.
“So, it really goes beyond just theater and performing arts,” Berry said. “We are able to host public forums and deep-dive discussions with community partners, we’re able to host one-of-a-kind shows.
“They may struggle to find where they can put on a performance or whether they belong, and how do they find a space that’s right for them? One of the beautiful things about our mission is that we are a house of yes. If you can dream it, you can do it here. You’re going to have a great support team with our wonderful staff, and we’re really flexible, we love collectively watching people’s artistic dreams come true. It’s more than a theater. It really is a community gathering space and we try to serve in all areas of that promise.”
Artists and Dreamers
Benson Theatre, both the nonprofit and the facility, are still finding their identities, Berry said, with a mission to serve but also sustain the building and its services.
“We’re all dedicated to figuring that out. What’s unique, other than the beautiful building itself and the way that Amy was able to bring the money to bring the project to fruition, is our staff. We are a cohort of artists and dreamers,” she said. “We work really hard to make sure that we are honoring everyone’s time and creativity when they come in and giving them the best we can provide them.”
Benson Theatre’s 8,700-square-foot facility can be configured for a variety of events. It features on-site staff, a state-of-the-art audiovisual system, and bar service and a catering room are available.
Radcliff said Benson Theatre has hosted or booked hundreds of events from music performances and plays to classes and collaborations like for the Benson Film Festival. The Benalto Cinema series is a new program launching in 2024.
“Another one is the Benson Social Series. This is something that we’re kind of bringing back; they used to have some ‘social clubs’ in the early ‘20s in the Benson neighborhood,” she said. “What we are doing is inviting people who have a really big social media following to come and perform on the stage and bring those kinds of acts to Omaha … it’s going to run a gamut. But it’ll be a really interesting way to bring the people that we see on our Instagram feeds and social media to life for us.”
She added, “Regardless of your age, or your interest, we’re going to have something for you. We do everything from workshops to corporate events. We’ve offered think-tank events for corporations. We are having our first wedding reception in 2024.”
Benson Theatre celebrated the 100th anniversary of the facility in November with the Benalto Ball, a benefit the staff intends to make an annual event.
“It was a really beautiful night for people to come through the space and feel it in a new way —with lights and flowers and music and jazzed up in the way I think it may have been 100 years ago — and connect with our team, our sponsors, and our friends in the community,” Berry said.
There are numerous ways community members can support the Benson Theatre year-round, she added.
“Pick a few shows and come out and see them; this supports not only the theater but also all of the hardworking artists that come through and really put their heart and souls into their work,” she said. “Grab some tickets for friends and come to the show and enjoy yourselves. I think that you’ll end up coming back time and time again.”
Labor of Love
“I can speak to the incredible generosity of so many of our founding donors,” Ryan said. “The Simon Family supporting Benson Theatre is just an incredible honor (the Simon Catering Facility is named for the family’s legacy), as well as the Mammel family, the Hamann family, Mike Cassling, the Amis family, and Chip Davis, among many others; the collective effort of stakeholders is the reason that Benson Theatre is here … Benson Theatre will always need community support to keep it open. We can generate revenue through ticket sales and facility rental, but Benson Theatre will always have a need for continued support.”
Transforming Benson Theatre has been a labor of love, she added.
“When you see a group of people all laughing at the same time or, or teared up and moved by an artistic expression or a person’s life experience that is able to be shared, or a discussion around hard issues, or how excited kids get when they’re on the stage playing around — it’s just so worth it,” Ryan said.