Saving The World in Kearney
June 25th, 2012
Kearney, NE – A Hollywood screenwriter returned home to Kearney, Nebraska five years ago and quickly began restoring one of the city’s oldest buildings. But what began as a renovation project ended up being much more – a rallying point for his community that re-connected him to his old home.
“I don’t think anyone’s in here… hello?” On a recent evening in Kearney, Jon Bokenkamp was knocking on the ladies’ bathroom door at the newly renovated World Theater in Kearney’s old downtown. “This is ridiculous. I’m even excited about the bathrooms, right?”
Bokenkamp is the president and founder of The World Theater Foundation. Pointing out vintage black and white tiles, he explained, “There were two stalls back there for the women’s bathroom and this was like a smoking lounge… so it’s kind of cool to see.”
“I came in here many times with my kids and they were like ‘Oh God, do we have to see the theater again?’ But I was like, ‘Yeah, I just want to see what they’ve done with the floors, and whether they put the walls in. So it’s been a really cool process seeing it come together.”
Bokenkamp grew up in Kearney, but he and his wife moved to Los Angeles and lived there for 14 years. He’s a screenwriter, who has worked on several successful Hollywood films. But the couple couldn’t see themselves growing old in LA. So about five years ago, they decided to move back home and back to family. Bokenkamp said it was the right move, and he loves Kearney. But it has been an adjustment.
“I sort of expected, oh, I have friends there from high school and college,” he said. “I know lots of people. But the people I’ve reconnected with are very few and far between.”
“Culturally,” he said, “it’s been a bigger shock than I ever expected it to be.” Not to rag on his hometown, he explained, but there’s not as much emphasis put on creativity in Nebraska or careers in the creative arts like he was used to in LA.
“So there’s a little bit of a learning curve there,” he said, “and sort of trying to find a way to fit in.”
Soon after he re-rooted in Kearney, Bokenkamp found out the old movie theater downtown was about to close its doors. He quickly decided he wanted to bring it back.
“I just had a very romantic idea about being involved in the movie theater,” he said. “Partly because this is the theater where I fell in love with movies.”
“This was a place, as a kid, that was very special to me,” he said. “So when it closed in 2008, it was just a very sad thing.”
The theater has a long history in Kearney. It first opened in the 1920s, and began as a vaudeville theater before it started showing movies in the 1930s. But as the city grew, Kearney moved further away from the old downtown that was once its hub. The suburbs stretched and people headed to the malls. In the 1980s, after a failed decision to turn it into a twinplex, it began its decline.
“There was a smell to this theater in the old days,” Terry Sinnard, also from Kearney, said with a laugh as he checked the theater out Saturday night for a preview screening. “This place is bizarre,” said Drew Sinnard, his 11-year-old grandson. “They tried really hard to bring it back to what it really looked like back then, and this place is just amazing.”
Terry Sinnard said the theater serves a greater purpose than simply screening old classics. It’s an anchor for a small town, which like many others, often loses its young people to the cities.
“We haven’t had anything like this in Kearney, with this kind of atmosphere, you know the beauty of the old theater,” Sinnard said. “We have some newer things, but like this that’s preserved the old, the way it used to be. And I think that’s fantastic for Kearney.”
It was early on in the project when Bokenkamp got a sense there was tremendous interest from the community. What began with $10 t-shirt fundraising efforts turned into a million dollar project funded by city and state grants and private dollars.
Bokenkamp said he never expected how much restoring a community anchor would mean to everyone – or to him.
“I had one girl, a high school girl came up to me, and she’s like, this is so cool, how do I volunteer? And it was so cool, I actually get emotional,” he said, beginning to choke up with tears. “It was so cool to see that this 16-year-old girl wanted to get engaged in what we were doing.”
Bokenkamp said it was a “watershed moment.” “I realized oh, it’s about volunteering. It’s about engaging people and investing them, which was never my intent, but I realized at some point that’s the only way that this was going to work.”
The grand opening of The World Theater in Kearney is Friday night. Renowned filmmaker and Omaha export Alexander Payne will present the first film, which is “Some Like it Hot” and host a Q&A with the audience.
From then, the plan is to screen a mix of classic, alternative and family movies. Bokenkamp said he’d like to mix it up and keep people guessing – perhaps screen the occasional foreign film for the international students at the University of Nebraska Kearney or host a back-to-school event with the Boy Scouts.
Whatever the community calls for, he said, and what it needs.