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Roxy Theater in Morton was exactly halfway through the rehearsal phase for “Mary Poppins” last year when the COVID-19 pandemic forced it to shut down. It was the biggest children’s theater performance they had taken on — some 70 local kids had learned their lines and were starting to take on choreography.
Now, the costumes sit in the building next door, which houses greenrooms, props and a ballroom where dinner theater events used to be held.
“Every time I go in there I get sad, because the costumes are all there,” said Jessica Scogin, vice president of the Fire Mountain Arts Council and Roxy’s children’s theater artistic director.
Aside from a few movies and events this summer, when the theater was open at 25% capacity, the facility has been shuttered through most of the pandemic. But the Fire Mountain Arts Council has maintained its position as a pillar in the community, finding other ways to boost Morton’s morale.
To cut through pandemic-induced heartache and monotony, the council solicited community members to perform in front of the theater doors. If you ask board member and on-site manager Brad Nelson, he’ll pull up videos on his phone of an Americana band belting out “American Pie,” a kiddo tap-dancing in a full-fledged hazmat suit, and Santa Clause (who looks suspiciously similar to Nelson) wailing on a saxophone.
Nelson and Council President Bruce Roberts also started up a video series where the two long-time residents would chat in front of the theater’s marquee, which regularly featured cheeky messages like “reality called … we hung up.”
“We tried to keep up morale with people, because we feel like that’s our mission statement,” Scogin said. “Even if the movies weren’t making money, we just thought at least people were doing something and feeling like we’re together.”
The pause in shows also gave the council time to renovate. They’re working on adding a wayne’s coat to the theater, installing new glass doors to give the entryway a more welcoming feel, and connecting the theater to the nextdoor greenroom so actors can walk between the spaces without getting rained on.
“I hadn’t been able to step back since I got engaged with the organization,” Roberts said. “Now we’re looking toward possibly finding the funding to build the backstage.”
While councils or boards of directors often stick to finances, Roberts said, the Fire Mountain Arts Council is largely hands-on. Roberts, for example, uses his carpentry skills to work on setpieces used in productions.
The council has been helped out by CARES Act funding, grants and donations throughout the public health emergency. Community funding has always been a linchpin in the theater, like when folks donated money to get new comfy chairs or a digital projector.
“We’re known in the county and the community, and seen as a good thing. So they know we’re reliable, and that if they give us money we’ll do something good with it,” Roberts said. “To me, that’s one of the lessons I’ve learned in this past year, is that we are really valued in the community.”
Not a lot of rural communities like Morton have a community theater, Scogin said. Six years ago, Scogin moved to town with five of her kids who loved theater, singing and dancing.
“So it was a really awesome thing when we got here and they had this,” she said. “I don’t think we would have stayed without it.”
Roberts said he knows of multiple instances in which the theater was a deciding factor for people choosing to continue living in Morton or moving there in the first place. He himself has been in the area for 31 years, and has been part of the Fire Mountain Arts Council since 2006. Nelson has been with the council since it first bought the theater in the early 2000s.
One thing they love about the space is that there’s something for everyone: improv, children’s theater, classical theater, concerts and an attached art gallery where local artists can display and sell their work.
“It’s just this cool, not-for-profit community thing that’s owned by the community,” Scogin said. “We try to reach everybody with everything we have.”
Scogin noted that community theater itself can draw in a wide range of people. From local highschoolers who frequent the theater to first-timers. She noted one instance in which a traveling health care worker tried out and became the lead in one production.
Now, as they look to reopen, Roxy Theater plans to restart work on “Mary Poppins’’ this summer. The show will take stage July 9 and 10. And weekend movies will start up March 19.
More Information on Roxy Theater
Location: 233 W. Main Ave., Morton