Expansion underway for Alton Little Theater legacy

ALTON – The time has come for Alton Little Theater (ALT) to leave its legacy in good shape.

An expansion instead of a brand new building is underway. About five years ago, the oldest community theater in the state of Illinois organized a fundraising campaign and a plan for new construction on property donated by a patron, but the pandemic hit.

What was going to be a $6.2 million new construction project would now cost $9.2 million. The solution was to expand the existing footprint of the Alton Little Theater Showplace at 2450 N. Henry St., Alton, explained ALT executive director Lee Cox.

“Everything was put on hold during the pandemic,” Cox said of the brand new build, “because so many people were out of work and going through a tough time. The Alton Little Theater board didn’t thought now was a good time to move forward Our community took such a hit, people didn’t have jobs, I didn’t think our community could support this kind of project.

And grants from national foundations are tough, but the nonprofit Alton Little Theater is still trying.

“These are very difficult to get because we own our own building and have an endowment,” Cox said. “We get turned down all the time because these are given to theaters with fewer resources, which is understandable.

ALT’s endowment was around $1 million, but the stock market took its toll, Cox noted.

“We always felt safe spending half of it getting Alton Little Theater back to pristine condition,” she said.

“Two years ago we were in great shape, we were given land, an endowment built up. It stopped, and now the construction costs have gone up so much, which has changed the trajectory So we will renovate and expand as much as we can.”

CNB Bank stepped in and made a $500,000 valuation for the expansion.

“CNB has been nothing but supportive,” Cox said. “They said we were in good shape with the endowment and the money. They said we could spend half a million dollars and everything would be fine.”

Cox and ALT Creative Director Kevin Frakes’ goal is to leave the building well-equipped for a smooth transition when they retire at the end of 2025.

“We want the building to be a total asset to his continuing legacy,” Cox said. “From design to costumes and lighting, I teach others how to do my job; it’s my job. Kevin and I really want the theater to do one for a smooth transition that no one even notices. “

Already new flooring is in place, with wood and non-slip carpeting in the auditorium.

“The only thing that’s changed is the ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) easement,” Cox noted. “Kevin Frakes totally rebuilt the entire ADA section with a three foot easement and more room on each side.”

Starting August 1, the auditorium will also begin installing new seating, with wider chairs featuring lumbar support and cup holders located in the back of each seat.

“The cup holders will fold down so there’s more room and it’s safer when people are trying to come and go,” Cox said.

The chairs are built by a company in Michigan, but Godfrey Buck’s Decorating Center company will install the new seats.

“We try to use the local whenever we can,” Cox said. “Buck found contractors who worked with Fisher Lumber Co., East Alton, and the chairs need to be bolted an extra three-quarters of an inch into the ground,” Cox said. “We’ll be closing ‘Shrek’ on July 24, so we’ll have August to work, work, work. The next show opens September 11.”

The ALT council will sell the 220 old chairs from the theater.

The expansion plan also includes a few local companies to set up a new marquee, which is from a Chicago-area company, the closest the council can find. A new stage curtain with motorized rigging will also be installed.

In addition, a state-of-the-art pixel wall, costing approximately $100,000, and a laser printer will be installed.

“We’re still waiting for things to be in place,” Cox said of the materials and items to be installed. “We’ll be able to do bigger shows, with four technicians running a show. Already ‘Barry Manilow’ was everything we dreamed of. People thought they were in Vegas.”

Already, all lights in the theater are LED with state-of-the-art fixtures, which were completed with help from the Wood River-based Alton Foundation. It costs ALT approximately $44,000 to replace all the lights.

Restrooms in theaters will include touchless fixtures and deeper sinks.

“It will be much safer and drier with deeper sinks that don’t splash and are ADA accessible,” Cox said. “The toilets were only added in 1991, but there have been many changes.”

The locker rooms will also be completely renovated and a shower, washer and dryer will be installed in the building.

“After a show, I did about 30 loads of laundry with costumes for years,” Cox explained. “And, like, in ‘Shrek,’ all these guys have all this green makeup on, and they can’t start going out like that. We really need to have those things here. And Kevin gets so dirty with sets of sawdust construction. He can build anything and take anything down.”

Frakes also built four exterior buildings a stone’s throw from the Showplace building, Cox noted.

One of the largest new buildings houses artwork, rugs, and other stage elements, such as a huge dragon. Another building houses a workshop from which Frakes works building sets etc.

One of the newest of the four buildings is a two-story building, filled to the brim with items from estate sales and items donated for props.

“When Mary Dixon moved to Florida, she gave us a beautiful couch that we use now,” Cox recalled. “We have tons of stuff and props that we can now use and even lend,” which the theater does on a regular basis and especially for Alton High School and its students who regularly volunteer at ALT Showplace. ALT recently lent a jukebox for an outside production, and even has a coffin, for example.

“The fourth building we call ‘Little House on the Prairie’ because it has china, glass and all kinds of little paraphernalia, everything you can imagine,” Cox said.

When Alton’s Baxter party store moved to online-only sales, Bob Baxter donated over 1,000 Halloween costumes to ALT, along with other items that could be used as props and more.

In September, ALT will host a community Halloween party where guests can get a Halloween costume for $5, before Alton’s Halloween season kicks off.

“It’s a Halloween town,” Cox said. “We’ll keep a few costumes but we don’t need 30 mouse costumes.”

ALT has approximately 4,000 costumes, which it also lends with props and sets.

The expansion seems like the perfect timing as 100 new people have purchased tickets for the ongoing show, “The Wild Women of Winedale,” through May 15. In the last two years of the pandemic, season ticket holders had fallen to 600 from ALT’s normal 1,000.

“But we know we still have to replenish those season ticket holders,” Cox said.