Janice Lee thought the little theater in downtown Valley had been spared from mid-March flooding.
But Lee found a dramatic scene she never expected when she walked into the Elkhorn Valley Community Theater.
Sewer water had come up through the floor, rising halfway up the sloped room — known as the house — where a myriad of musicals have been staged throughout the years.
The water soaked seats and carpeting. It ruined sound equipment, props, costumes and other supplies.
“I was just sick,” said Lee, the executive and artistic director. “I thought, ‘Where do you even begin to get this much water out of here?’”
Two months later, Lee sat in the theater’s front lobby, recalling the people who came to help and all the work that’s been done so far.
Lee estimates the losses at between $25,000 and $35,000. About $12,000 to $14,000 has been raised in pledges, yet Lee notes that some items — such as costumes—never will be replaced.
But like the old adage states, Lee knows “the show must go on.”
And she’s determined to make that happen.
“I will have summer theater here, starting June 12,” she said.
Built in 1941, the stately structure at 101 E. Gardiner St., began as a movie theater.
The theater group started in 1982 in Elkhorn, then moved to performances to Waterloo before the building in Valley was purchased in 2006 and refurbished.
“It’s a great building,” Lee said.
Lee said the group, a nonprofit organization, raised money and put $250,000 into renovating the building.
There was a lot of community support for the endeavor.
“We had a couple of donors who really believed in what we did for children in the community and we did shows to raise money. It’s paid in for; it’s paid in full. We’re always in the black, but barely,” she said.
Only musicals are staged at this theater.
“I’m a lover of musicals,” she said.
Every other year, the theater stages “Scrooge—The Musical” at Christmas.
This year, the theater will present the musical, “The Best Christmas Pageant Ever.”
“Everybody loves that show,” Lee said. “You walk away ready for Christmas.”
Each winter—in late February or early March — the theater also stages a musical. The theater recently had a successful production of “La Cage Aux Folles.
And since 1992, the theater has had a summer theater for students in grades second through 12th.
“They study four different shows every year, then they do a performance of parts of each of those shows,” she said.
Lee has seen kids participate, starting in second grade, and continue until 12th grade—then return to help when they’re in college.
In the past, students also participated in a former youth choir and its reunions.
Lee estimates between 10,000 to 15,000 children have performed in the summer theater and in a former youth choir throughout the years.
This year, the theater director, who lives on an acreage 3 miles northwest of Valley, was looking forward to the summer theater.
Then came the flooding in March.
At first, Lee and her significant other, Carl Morello, wondered how bad the flooding could be.
After all, they’d not seen significant flooding before.
But water eventually came from the north and rushed like a river along the east and west sides of their property. Water came within 25 feet of their barn, then receded during early morning hours.
Roads were covered.
“We couldn’t get out for days,” Lee said.
Lee called people in Valley, who figured she wouldn’t have any water in the theater, because there wasn’t any on the sidewalk.
She’d learn differently after arriving at the theater on March 18.
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Lee walked into the lobby and saw no water.
But when she walked into the house (where the seats are), she began to smell something.
It didn’t bode well.
She flipped on the lights and the house was flooded with water up to Row G — halfway up that room. The water hadn’t come from the street. Instead, it came up from the floor.
“It was a terrible mess,” she said.
About 70 of the 170 seats were soaked as was carpeting. The piano was in water.
So was everything under the stage, including lots of sound equipment, some waiting-to-be-installed light equipment, costumes, props and a stash of lumber for building sets.
Items were floating in the sewer water.
Lee planned to get some sump pumps, but that wouldn’t be easy.
“There was not a sump pump to be had, because the whole area was flooded,” she said.
So Lee called her daughter, Leah Arington Kolar, who owns Theater Arts for Kids in Lincoln, and asked her to bring sump pumps.
She brought four.
Chuck Oddo of Ginger Cove came with volunteer Dick Pierson. Oddo ran the sump pumps for days to get the water out.
“He (Oddo) was a hero,” Lee said.
“We got it (the water) all out and we turned off the pumps,” Lee said.
But when they returned the next morning, the water was all back.
“I about cried,” she said. “The water table was still so high that it seeped back in. It was so bad.”
Water would be pumped out for days. Ken Petersen, a theater member who lives nearby, kept moving the sump pumps around to get rid of the water.
In the meantime, volunteers worked to get stuff out from under the stage.
Costumes had to be tossed—including petticoats from the “Oklahoma” musical.
One of the hardest blows came when Lee found that penguin costumes from the Mary Poppins’ show had to be discarded.
She’d spent several summers going to stores to find flippers that she’d painted orange so children portraying the little penguins could dance in the number, “It’s a Jolly Holiday.”
Those costumes went into the dumpster.
Everything that had been floating in the sewer water had to be tossed, including 18 Christmas trees and decorations.
Lee estimates that the water reached 32 to 35 inches high, but wicked up the walls. The walls — up to 5 feet — will need to be replaced.
A cleaning service used an antimicrobial to keep bacteria and mold from growing, Lee said. A dehumidifier also was used and the heat cranked up to 90 degrees.
“This went on for weeks,” she said, adding that fans still are being utilized.
The cleaning service has treated the 70 affected seats, which it believes can be saved, Lee said. The carpet was cleaned and it’s hoped that it can be saved, too.
If not, it will cost thousands to replace, she said.
About 30 people — paid workers and volunteers — have been working to clean the theater.
Lee said she made Facebook posts, telling what happened and has received some donations.
The cleaning service has been paid. Lee was surprised to learn that it cost to rent dumpsters, but noted that “you don’t realize how much things are going to cost.”
She trusts, however, that the theater will be ready for the summer production, which includes shows on Aug. 3 and 4.
And she’s grateful.
“This is a theater,” she said. “In time, we’ll get it back to normal. We did not lose our home or our livelihood. So many people in this area and other areas across the country have lost so much that we really can’t whine about this.
“In the grand scheme of things, we were very fortunate. I still have a house. I have stuff. There are people who have no stuff. It’s gone.”