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About 400 attend Empress Theatre open house
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About 400 attend Empress Theatre open house

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Cheryl Paden was a cashier at the Empress Theatre when a young man noticed her.

He later applied for the job of theater doorman, because he wanted to meet her.

Richard Paden got the job.

It was 1973.

He was 18 years old. She was 17.

They started dating and married in 1977.

The Empress closed many years ago, but the Padens continue to be movie fans.

“We still love going to movies,” the Rev. Cheryl Paden said. “One of the things we probably missed the most in COVID was going to the theater. Before COVID, it was not unusual for us to go two or three times a month and see all the new movies coming out.”

On Saturday, the Padens were back at the Empress Theatre — this time for an open house, which featured Star Wars characters and free food amid the backdrop of historical perspective.

The Digg Site Productions in Fremont is raising funds to buy the historic building from local owner Curt Goracke as a home base for its work with plans to restore it, said Dana Reeves, chief executive officer and executive director.

Once restored, the Empress building will be the setting for a variety of educational and artistic opportunities.

The estimated $2.2 million project includes the building’s purchase, renovation/restoration and equipment.

After construction has started, the project is expected to take about 18 months with an anticipated completion date in mid-2022.

Fremonter Stacy Heatherly founded and serves on the advisory board for The Digg Site Productions, a nonprofit organization that focuses on educating youth on all processes of filmmaking. It also works to expand film opportunities for Nebraska film professionals in this state and throughout the world.

An estimated 400 people came to the open house, where they could learn about fundraising plans and the theater’s lengthy history.

People began coming to the Empress an hour before the open house’s 11 a.m. start time.

Gift bags, set to be given to the first 250 people who stopped by, were gone by noon, Heatherly said. Free hot dogs and popcorn were a hit with visitors, too.

Heatherly and Reeves were pleased with the turnout.

“It was beyond our wildest dreams. We were so moved that everybody came out, showed their support, and they were just as excited about the project as we all are,” Reeves said.

The theater was filled with people.

Characters from the Star Wars universe brought a little movie magic to the scene. A Storm Trooper and a Tie Fighter Pilot posed with Fremont Mayor Joey Spellerberg near a poster in front of the theater.

Heatherly is a friend of Todd Fisher, brother of the late actress Carrie Fisher, who portrayed Princess Leia in the Star Wars films. Todd Fischer has donated some memorabilia for a future, fundraising silent auction.

“We have 17 commemorative envelopes with the commemorative U.S.P.S. stamps that were made by the post office for Star Wars and they’re the only set in existence. That’s one of the items,” Heatherly said.

The other item will be a Lando Calrissian action figure. Actor Billy D. Williams portrayed the character, who became a general in the Rebel Alliance.

Star Wars characters from the popular movies were part of the open house that occurred days before the May 4 Fremont Area Big Give. The fundraiser features the theme “May the Fourth Be With You.”

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The Digg Site is one of 70 nonprofits seeking support via the Big Give.

“Everybody loved the Star Wars guys,” Reeves said.

Attendees also could learn about future plans for the building.

Besides serving as the headquarters for Digg Site Productions, the renovated building will include:

  • A place for tuition-free youth film camps, along with other film workshops and educational offerings.
  • An editing suite that filmmakers who come to town can use while filming in town.
  • A single-screen theater with about 200 seats, where a variety of films, including first releases, classics, artistic motion pictures, documentaries and experiential movies, will be shown. Films by Nebraska filmmakers will be shown here.
  • Creative space that provides a stage for all sorts of live performances.
  • A place where organizations can have meetings, presentations and private parties.
  • A venue for community art shows, concerts, private screenings and parties and the annual White Light City Film Festival.

Reeves said the renovation is designed to further enhance Main Street and the city’s historic downtown area. She’s glad many people attended the open house.

“We hope they saw what we see here as far as potential for the building and what it can do for downtown Fremont and the whole community and area,” Reeves said. “These theaters are forgotten. They get torn down and the history is lost when the buildings are repurposed.”

Visitors also had the opportunity to learn about the building’s history. Facts include:

  • Construction on the original theater started in 1914.
  • When the original owner started building the Empress, he bought the entire city block.
  • The original theater opened in 1915 and was “crowned” the Empress Theatre.
  • There was seating for almost 1,000 moviegoers when the theater opened.
  • Several of the original chairs will be refurbished and incorporated into the final design and restoration.
  • A lion’s head was positioned in the circle above the marquee on the front of the building. One is being replicated from the original that still exists.
  • The redesign that happened in the 1920s paid homage to the Egyptian style inspired by the discovery of Tutankhamen’s tomb.
  • The Empress was once home to a 10,000-pipe Barton pipe organ.

The Padens have good memories of their days at the Empress.

“It was a great job for a high school kid,” Cheryl Paden said.

At that time, as Empress employees, they had free passes to see movies at that theater along with other theaters the company owned in Fremont and surrounding areas.

Cheryl Paden was working when the disaster movie, “The Poseidon Adventure,” was showing at the Empress in 1973.

“That one had a huge crowd,” she said. “The theater was full. Every seat was full. The line went out the door and down the sidewalk to the end of the block.”

The theater balcony wasn’t opened very often, but it was used for this blockbuster movie.

Cheryl Paden remembers the grandeur of the beautiful, old theater. There was a lot of brass and the theater was brightly lighted.

The entire V-shaped sign would be lighted.

Richard Paden said he liked the elegance of the theater.

The Paden continue to appreciate the cinema.

“We’ve always loved the movies,” Paden said. “Always loved the popcorn. We actually bought a popcorn machine like they use in the theaters, so we could pop theater popcorn. We haven’t used it for a few years, but we’ve got one.”

Reeves and Heatherly appreciate the public’s interest in the Empress.

“We’re grateful for the community support and how the community is pulling together and rallying around this project,” Reeves said.

More information about The Digg Site and its fundraising via the Big Give is available at: https://www.fremontareabiggive.org/diggsite

Longtime Hollywood actor Randy Goodwin of Omaha talks with Molly Knoell of Fremont inside the Empress Theatre during an open house on Saturday.

Dana Reeves, chief executive officer and executive director of the Digg Site Productions, talks about plans for the Empress Theater in downtown Fremont.

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News Editor

Tammy Real-McKeighan is news editor of the Fremont Tribune. She covers news, features, religion stories and writes the weekly faith-based, Spiritual Spinach column.

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