The Show Must Go On 

Local children's theater will continue but where?

The play will still be the thing for Memphis-area youth next year, when its signature theater program gets revived in a new, although temporary, home.

Division of Park Services officials announced to Memphis City Council members this week that the Ewing Children's Theatre will be relocated to the Memphis Pink Palace Museum beginning January 2005. The program's revival comes 18 months after its original location was severely damaged by strong winds during the summer storm of 2003. The building, at 2635 Avery, was a community center, housing both the theater and a hobby center.

One problem is that the available space at the Pink Palace, an area in the original portion of the museum that years ago housed the Little Theatre, is not yet available.

"The mansion theater is currently under construction," said Dan Hope, public relations director for the Memphis Family of Museums. "It's enjoyed a wide use. We have had educational programs and speakers there, but the sound system needs fixing and we need to add chairs."

Ewing has operated in various locations during its 55-year history, including the Mid-South Fairgrounds. The program's founder and character actress, Lucile Ewing, established the program for children to produce and star in their own plays and presentations. According to Park Services director Bob Fouché, rebuilding the existing center would have cost the city more than $1 million. Insurance settlements totaling approximately $362,000 have been received for the facility. Fouché said additional funds could come from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).

"The FEMA application filed by General Services on behalf of all city properties has not yet been settled," he said. "Unfortunately, Florida had a series of hurricanes to come up and [FEMA's] attentions were on that, and they had not approved [our application]."

But even with additional monies, the existing building will still have to be demolished.

"There is structural damage to the system that holds up the roof, and some of the bearing walls or concrete walls came apart," said Wrensey Gill, Park Services administrator of planning and development. The heating and air conditioning system as well as ceiling tiles have fallen, letting in rainwater which has soaked the floor and stands two to three inches in some places.

"That started the mold and mildew, which over time has gotten worse and worse," he said. "It's been ruled that it would be a potential safety hazard. So we're now looking to demolish the building entirely. We are trying to decide the best location for a new theater program."

Gill said those involved with the theater agree that the new permanent facility should be exclusively their own and not shared with other programs. "We intend to talk to people who've been involved in the theater and have expressed their concern," he said. "The good news is that the program is certainly in good hands."

Fortunately for young thespians, city councilman Scott McCormick heads the committee overseeing the theater's future. McCormick, a veteran of the children's theater program, has requested an additional status report in January to ensure that the program is adequately functioning in its temporary location.

"Most people are more concerned with the program as opposed to the physical theater," said McCormick, who calls the program "a great outreach." "I'm not so sure that it requires building a new facility as opposed to finding a facility that might be appropriate and using the dollars that we get to refurbish [an existing] facility. My main concern is keeping the program operating."

Fouché said the insurance funds are being earmarked for theater use only. Once a determination is made on a permanent location, a new capital improvement project for the center will have to be created.

E-mail: jdavis@memphisflyer.com

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