Dr. Bert Thomas says you can’t put a price on what the OKLA Theatre means to the McAlester area.
Thomas is president of the Ardeneum of Oklahoma Charitable and Educational Foundation, owners of the OKLA Theatre at 18 Choctaw Ave. The Ardeneum is offering to sell the OKLA to the city of McAlester for $1, as long as a few conditions are met.
Meanwhile, work on the OKLA remains underway, with reconstruction of the OKLA ticket booth the most recent addition visible from Choctaw Avenue.
Thomas said what the Ardeneum is offering to McAlester is more than a theater— it’s all the memories and emotions that many McAlester-area residents have of the OKLA, which closed its doors as a movie house in 1989.
“As a little kid, I remember walking up to that ticket booth,” Thomas said, noting that many others in the McAlester-area have OKLA-related memories of their own.
“We’re hoping the city will take this in the spirit in which we’re offering this,” Thomas said. “Sixty years of kids went to this theater.”
Prior to the McAlester City Council hearing details of the proposal from City Tourism Director Billy Sumner, Thomas delivered a refurbished rack of three original seats to the theater. All 500 of the seats inside the OKLA were removed during portions of the renovation process.
After he delivered them, Thomas sat comfortably in one of the seats to show it could still be used today.
The proposal for the Ardeneum to gift the OKLA to the city of McAlester has already been improved by the Ardeneum’s Board of Directors. Members of the 501 (c) (3) organizations has three requirements from the city in exchange for signing over ownership of the OKLA. They include:
• Requiring the city to complete renovations to the OKLA.
• Preserving the OKLA’s historical significance.
• Using the theater for the community’s benefit.
The requirements are outlined in Resolution 19-1 passed by the Ardeneum’s Board of Directors on June 27:
“Whereas the city should fail to renovate the OKLA Theatre within five years of the passage of this resolution,fail to preserve the historical significance or fail to use the OKLA Theatre for the benefit of the community, ownership shall revert to the Ardeneum of Oklahoma Charitable and Educational Foundation, Inc.”
Does that mean the Ardeneum would claim ownership of the OKLA should revert back to the organization if the city does not complete all renovations within five years?
“Oh, no, no, no,” Thomas said. He said as long as the city was making good progress, the Ardeneum would be satisfied.
“Our mission is not about making money,” Thomas said. “Our mission is to help McAlester, grow the community and enrich the community.”
While a phrase like “preserving the OKLA’s historical significance” might seem self-explanatory, what exactly does the Ardeneum mean by including it in the proposed agreement?
Using a hypothetical example, Thomas said “I don’t want them to turn it into a video arcade.” While some modern touches are required, such as with already-updated electrical work and hopefully, a state-of-the art sound system, the Ardeneum is looking for the character of the OKLA to be preserved.
What about the requirement to use the OKLA “for the benefit of the community”?
“If you took it and leased it to somebody, that’s not our intent,” Thomas said. “Our intent is to use it for the good of the community.
“It’s all done with good thoughts and a good heart,” Thomas said.
Asked about how the offer to the city came about, Thomas said the Ardeneum obtained the OKLA a number of years ago after purchasing it from a private individual.
“We originally got it to preserve it — to make sure nobody tears it down,” Thomas said. “We’ve watched the revitalization of downtown McAlester.”
Thomas said the First National Bank is an anchor on the east end of Choctaw Avenue — and the Ardeneum Board is hoping he OKLA will once again become an anchor on the west end.
He noted that while the Ardeneum is known as a supporter of music and the arts, a revived OKLA could also serve as a location for conferences, business meetings and other activities, along with providing a new venue for plays, concerts and, perhaps, even movies.
While work remains to be done, Thomas said there is all new electrical wiring in the building. Plumbing and water supply issues have also been taken care of by the Ardeneum and an asbestos removal project has been completed as well.
While, Sumner planned to present the OKLA Theatre proposal to the city council Tuesday night, the meeting agenda did not call for any action or vote by city councilors. That proposal is to be placed on a future council agenda.
Inside the OKLA, work remained underway Tuesday, with Jared Sutmiller and Clark Leeper, of Pioneer Construction, continuing renovations in the OKLA’s lobby.
Referring to the theater renovations, Sutmiller said “What I like about this is half of it’s creating.”
Leeper said the first movie he ever saw inside a theater was at the OKLA.
“I was 9-years-old,” Leeper said. “It was ‘Beetlejuice.’ I remember it vividly.”
Standing on a ladder, he drilled another screw into place near the ceiling.
“I’m just happy to be a part of this,” Leeper said. “There are lots of memories.”
Contact James Beaty at firstname.lastname@example.org