Half-million dollar project will expand Alton Little Theater

ALTON – The time has come for Alton Little Theater to leave its legacy intact.

A half million dollar expansion in lieu of a brand new building is underway in Alton.

About five years ago, Illinois’ oldest community theater organized a fundraising campaign and plan for new construction on property donated by a patron. Then the pandemic hit and what was planned as a $6.2 million new construction project was recalculated to cost around $9.2 million.

According to ALT executive director Lee Cox, the solution was to expand the existing footprint of the Alton Little Theater Showplace at 2450 N. Henry St. in Alton.

“Everything was put on hold during the pandemic because so many people were out of work and going through a tough time,” she said. “The Alton Little Theater Board of Directors did not think the time was right to move forward.

“Our community has taken such a hit,” she said. “People didn’t have jobs. I didn’t think our community could support this kind of project.

“Two years ago we were in great shape – we had been given land, an endowment built up,” she said. “That 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 possible.”

Cox added that while the ALT tries for nonprofits, grants from national foundations are difficult.

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

Cox said ALT’s endowment was around $1 million, but the stock market took a hit.

“We always felt safe spending half of it getting Alton Little Theater back to pristine condition,” she said. CNB Bank stepped in and did 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 at the ALT with wood and non-slip carpeting in the auditorium.

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

On August 1, ALT plans to begin installing new, wider seats with lumbar support and rear-located cupholders that fold down to increase guest space and safety. The chairs are made by a company in Michigan; Buck’s Decoration Center in Godfrey will install them.

“We try to use the local whenever we can,” Cox said. “Buck found contractors who worked with Fisher Lumber Co. in East Alton, and the chairs need to be bolted an extra three-quarters of an inch into the ground.

“We’ll be shutting down ‘Shrek’ on July 24, so we’ll have August to work, work, work,” she said. “The next show opens on September 11.”

The ALT board plans to sell the theater’s 220 old chairs.

The expansion work includes a few local companies to set up a new marquee from a Chicago-area company, the closest the council can find. A new stage curtain with motorized rigging will also be installed, along with a state-of-the-art $100,000 pixel wall and laser printer.

“We’re still waiting for things to be in place,” Cox said. “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.”

All theater lights are now LED with state-of-the-art fixtures, which were completed with the help of the Wood River-based Alton Foundation. It cost ALT about $44,000 to replace the lights.

The theater restrooms will feature touchless fixtures and deeper sinks that are safer, deeper, and ADA accessible. The locker rooms will also be completely renovated and a shower, washer and dryer will be installed.

“After a show, I did about 30 loads of laundry with costumes for years,” Cox said. “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 construction sets sawdust. He can build anything and take anything down.”

Frakes also constructed four buildings within walking distance of the ALT Showplace. One of the largest houses artwork, rugs and other staged objects, including a huge dragon. Another houses a workshop where Frakes creates sets. One of the newest, a two-story structure, is filled with artifacts from estate sales and donations for props.

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

“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’s Party Store moved to online-only sales, Bob Baxter donated over 1,000 Halloween costumes to ALT, along with other items. In September, ALT plans to host a community Halloween party offering costumes for $5.

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

ALT owns around 4,000 costumes, which it also lends.

The expansion seems to come at a perfect time, as 100 new people have purchased tickets for the ongoing show, ‘The Wild Women of Winedale’, which runs until May 15.

Cox said that over the past two years, the number of season ticket holders has dropped to 600 from the normal 1,000.

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

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