Patrick Robinson
Isaiah Dummer and Tom Lin are the partners in the remaking of the Des Moines Theater. They want it to become a community hub, be family oriented and bring in retail business around it. The early plans call for a 36 month development process. CLICK THE PHOTO ABOVE TO SEE MORE

SLIDESHOW: The heart of Des Moines is about to get an upgrade; Des Moines Theater under new ownership

The Des Moines theater in recent months has sat as a derelict in the heart of the city. It was once a beautiful entertainment venue for the community and a glittering show place for motion pictures. Over time as the movies moved to multiplexes, and televisions grew in size and entertainment became available literally at your fingertips it's doom became seemingly inevitable. But that's about to change if plans being made come to fruition. The theater has just been purchased by developers Tom Lin and Isaiah Dummer, of Dreams Construction.


Lin is a major property owner in West Seattle where he owns the historic Alki Homestead plus the land and buildings on Alki Ave. s.w. that are the site of Slices Pizza, Wheel Fun Rental and Coastal Boutique. Some of the buildings were remodeled by Dummer and it will be up to him to manage the construction makeover of the theater which has been closed for more than 18 months.

Early plans
They want to bring in the "right kind of retail " to fill in the spaces just adjacent to the theater in the approximately 9800 sq. foot building. Lin's Alki tenants have indicated they would be willing to open another location in Des Moines, notably Slices Pizza and Coastal Boutique. More are needed but conversations have already begun with some potential candidates. They hope to get a beer and wine license as well. In essence they plan to bring back first run films, but add live entertainment, and make the theater and spaces attached all work together to form a revitalized community hub. Wheel Fun rentals, a bike and pedal cart rental company has looked at Des Moines too and while they won't join the theater proper, they could potentially occupy a space near the Des Moines Marina where a two mile paved path was recently completed.

While plans are still in flux, they see it as being complete within 36 months. Lin said he believes it will create approximately 30 jobs for the area.

The Des Moines Historical Society provided some history:

"The Des Moines Theater was built and operated by Del and Wally Osterhoudt, opening in March of 1947.

At that time the three other nearest theaters were in White Center, Burien and Kent. The Des Moines theatre is in the south and western portion of a large two-story brick building. One of the original building tenants was the Des Moines Drug Store, in the northeast corner of the building. It was the only pharmacy between Kent and Burien at that time. Offices for Dr. Frank Underhill and Dr. Youker were on the second floor. The theatre building also housed Del’s Service Electric and Osterhoudt Enterprises.

Inside the theatre, the seats for 400 persons were covered in turquoise velour backs with rust-colored leather cushions. The walls were decorated with maroon and gold tapestry cloth. The foyer featured a full length and width mirror at the rear with a refreshment booth running along one side. The two-tiered theatre was also fully carpeted. The original marquee had a novel marine motif in the ceiling made of rose and white neon tubing and featuring a ship’s wheel."

The theater was purchased by Richard Pappas and from a point in the 1970's the theater began showing “adult” movies.

The historical society adds, "Eventually a U. S. Supreme Court decision allowed cities to control where such uses could be placed within their city limits. After public hearings in 1989, the city adopted zoning changes which no longer allowed adult theatres to be established in the downtown area," though they continued until 1992.

After that new seats were installed, reducing their number to 323 total and 2nd and 3rd run films were shown. For its last seven years, until 2009 it showed first run films.

"In recent years, the Des Moines Theatre has generously shown free movies to celebrate Des Moines 50th anniversary, has twice housed a live VICTORIAN CHRISTMAS musical program (a full house), and has donated movie posters to benefit the charitable events of the Des Moines Legacy Foundation."

In the last 20 years
After Pappas died in 1999, his widow and estate ran the theater managed by Joel Thompson. During his tenure Pappas, who also owned a company that transfers old films to video called Seattle Motion Picture (SMP) managed to collect a large assortment of projectors of all kinds plus assorted outdated gear that was sold at auction. "He would go to an auction, see one item on a pallet and buy the whole thing," said Dummer. As a result most of the rooms adjacent to the theater were filled to the ceiling with what amounts to junk. But Ron Tennison of SMP has been busy clearing it out and plans to go through it for parts since in addition to film transfer they also repair old projectors. Pappas widow now requires assisted living so the money from the proceeds of the sale will go to support her. The sale was managed by their daughter Norma Pappas who also owns a theater in Arlington.

Speaking of old projectors, standing in the lobby today are two 1950's vintage Simplex XL projectors. One or both may stay with the theater as reminders of the facility's past.

What they are planning
"Our idea is to have a movie theater where people can buy food and go in," said Lin. The goal is to make the theater a community hub by bringing in live music, and other kinds of performance art. But they want to go well beyond this. Since they have space in the building now designated as apartment/offices they can attempt innovative ideas. One they are considering is the creation of a video editing area, equipped with gear that could be used by area students to create their own video stories, or use some of the spaces for private events that would tie into the theater itself.

Since big bulky projection equipment is no longer needed (they'll use all digital projection), another idea is to create a lounge or VIP area upstairs and call it "The Projection Room"

But while profit is important for Lin and Dummer they say a more important goal is to create something positive for the community that is family centered, and that will become a true resource for Des Moines.

The role of the city
Making that happen of course requires help from the city. Over time the City of Des Moines has earned a reputation as being hard for developers to work with. Economic Development Manager Marion Yoshino and Des Moines Councilmember Carmen Scott said that for the past six years they have been working hard to turn that reputation around. "We now have a city council that wants to see development and redevelopment, so it's a new era. The attitude of the city is different. It's undergone a real, radical change," said Yoshino. "It was a lot of work to turn the whole big ship around, (…) revising ordinances, making sure that every person and every procedure was customer friendly, expediting every development process, next day inspections, walking out orders, evening and weekend appointments, it was everything that we could do."

Lin has been impressed. Not only by the willingness to assist him but by the contrast with his experience in Seattle where his projects have been held up by what he considers an unnecessarily slow bureaucratic process. "

One aspect that Lin and Dummer both regard as pivotal is parking. The building has 22 assigned angle spaces and they estimate a total of "200 within reasonable walking distance." But for a 300 seat plus theater that's still a limiting factor. As a demonstration of how excited the city is to see genuine economic development happen, Scott and Yoshino approached the owners of the empty lot directly across the street. Owned by two brothers, they've agreed to allow the city to use if for parking if the city will clear the shrubs and trees and level it. Even the rule stating the lot must be paved has been waived for two years meaning a crushed rock lot would be permitted. The lot would add "around 30 spaces," said Scott.

Scott sees this effort as extremely important. "It brings back a community purpose to one of our historic buildings, right in the heart of downtown with charm and character that is very different than what you find in new buildings. It will bring opportunities to get the community involved in performing arts or galleries and art, live or filmed entertainment, it creates a whole new synergy around what used to be the heart of downtown, and it still can be," she said.

If the parking lot can be secured, and the right extra retailers persuaded to open locations and, if the city's requirements can be met, Lin and Dummer believe the rest will fall into place. The first year will be about architects (Alloy Design Group will handle this job) and engineering then "sitting down with the city and letting them know what we'd like to do," said Dummer. The very first thing to do will be to completely re-do the roof since it now has leaks but there are questions about sprinklers, seismic bracing and more.

Lin and Dummer are excited to be restoring and rebuilding a fixture in Des Moines and see a day in 2014 when it will once again be a place of pride for the community.

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