Jon Bokenkamp thought it was the end of the World.
Bokenkamp, 38, a native of Kearney, Neb., and a successful Hollywood screenwriter (“Taking Lives,” “Perfect Stranger,” “Bad Seed”), moved back to his hometown five years ago. The World Theatre, a former vaudeville house built in Kearney in 1927, was in its last throes.
“There was a new multiplex in town, and the World was run down,” Bokenkamp remembered. “But this was the theater where I fell in love with movies.”
He sat in the balcony for what was to be the World's last screening in November 2008, a romantic comedy starring Patrick Dempsey.
“When they turned off the marquee, I got emotional,” he said. “I had a romantic idea about running a movie theater.”
Bokenkamp decided to try to save the World.
The payoff happens this weekend as the World Theatre celebrates its grand reopening with a three-day celebration after a $1 million makeover.
Omaha's own Oscar-winning director-screenwriter Alexander Payne will be there Friday night for a 6:30 p.m. champagne reception, an audience Q and A at 8 p.m. and a screening of the Billy Wilder classic “Some Like It Hot.”
A Saturday reception will include tours of the renovated theater and an 8 p.m. showing of the Oscar-nominated 2011 documentary “Exit Through the Gift Shop.”
The celebration wraps on Sunday with a 2 p.m. screening of a family film, “The Princess Bride.”
The movies chosen for the reopening reflect the programming Bokenkamp plans for the World on a regular basis: a mix of classics, small independent films and family movies.
“I personally want to see stuff I know won't show at the multiplex,” Bokenkamp explained. “In Kearney we have no clue about many wonderful movies that just don't reach us.”
The restoration effort began as the World's marquee flickered out, in what Bokenkamp calls an “Aha!” moment. Looking across the intersection from the theater, he took in the former post office, which now houses the Museum of Nebraska Art. He had a vision of what the World could be.
At first, he admits, he was thinking vacuum cleaning and paint. The initial goal of the World Theatre Foundation he started was to raise $150,000 in a “Ninety Days to Save the World” campaign.
They raised over $175,000 and started thinking bigger as local enthusiasm for the project built. A community development block grant and a grant from the Peter Kiewit Foundation expanded the horizon of what was possible.
The World now has new plumbing, new electrical, a new marquee with lots of flashing bulbs, new rocker seats with flip-up arms, a new period ticket booth and concession stand, refurbished bathrooms and repaired plaster detailing.
Joe Nye, a Beverly Hills interior designer originally from Kearney, helped with planning decor that features raised-panel mahogany woodwork and marble, replicas of old movie posters, art deco light fixtures, red upholstery and a red curtain that parts to reveal the screen. Phil Cudaback, a Kearney architect who has designed movie theaters elsewhere, also volunteered to help.
The first big job was tearing down a wall built in the 1980s that split the auditorium into a twin theater. Reconfigured, it now seats about 400. The final push was to raise $75,000 for a digital projector and sound system.
Keith Terry, a University of Nebraska-Kearney faculty member who once taught Bokenkamp, wrote a book about the theater's history. The World opened Nov. 14, 1927, as part of a national chain of World Theatre vaudeville houses that included ones in Omaha (1506 Douglas St.), Fremont, Columbus, Neb., and McCook, Neb.
“Kearney had a population of just 6,000 at the time, but on opening night they filled the place twice, and it held 1,100,” he said. With radio in its infancy and no television, he said, people went to the movies much more frequently.
By the mid-1940s the World was purely a movie theater, as vaudeville had died out. It was never locally owned, he said, and the last owner was Central States Theatre Corp. of Des Moines.
Bokenkamp knows the job of saving the World isn't over. Even with just one part-time employee and lots of volunteers, the theater still needs $90,000 a year to survive. Tickets are $5, and concession items range from $1 to $3 so that families can afford to go together, he said. Rental income for non-movie events may help.
“We need to sell 300 annual memberships,” he said. “We know we're not going to get rich. But as long as we can keep the doors open ... .”