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Sheridan's WYO Theater Turns 30, Celebrates Community

Catherine Wheeler
The WYO Theater in Sheridan celebrated its 30th birthday on Thursday, September 12, 2019.

The WYO Theater in Sheridan as people know it today almost didn't exist, and that might be surprising since it's a highlight of downtown.

The WYO Theater opened in 1923 as the Lotus. It played talkies, or early movies with audible dialogue, and became a movie theater for a good portion of the 20th century. But in the 1980s, its then-owner moved on to a different venue. That left the WYO in disrepair.

A group of community members wanted a place in Sheridan to experience the performing arts, like live music or musicals and plays, so they decided to do something about it.

"They saw there was a need for this particular kind of entertainment facility in Sheridan, and so they formed a group called Save the WYO," said WYO Executive Director Erin Butler.

The group's goal was to raise awareness about the building and the money to save it.

"The city saw there was an interest and that these people were working very hard to save this old historic building. So they bought the WYO and then leased it back to Save the WYO Inc. for something like $10 a year," Butler said.

The building reopened in 1989. On Thursday, September 12, the theater celebrated its 30th birthday with a party. Pat Tomsovic, who was a part of the Save the WYO group in the '80s, remembered the week it opened back up.

"We had some seats, but we really didn't have any lights, so it was sort of a dark performance. And the lobby was barely done, and the dressing rooms were sort of nonexistent. So it just opened with the bare minimum," she said.

Dick Davis was also a part of that group and remembered after the initial opening, they still had things to be concerned about.

"Then we had to worry about how to keep the doors open and raising the money for the ongoing operations," Davis said.

Since then, the WYO has had to work hard to keep the lights on. But that hasn't prevented the theater from growing.

Within the last decade, the theater worked with the city and Sheridan College to raise money, get grants, and take over the neighboring historic buildings to expand its offerings. In addition to its main stage, the WYO now has the Mars black-box Theater, classrooms for the college, rehearsal spaces, expanded stage wings, a community costume area, a new box office and office space.

Tomsovic said being in the WYO today is surreal.

"I'm a Sheridan girl. I was born and raised here. I'm sitting here in what used to be Sweetbriar Clothing Shoppe and right next door was Oswald's Jewelry. And I'm seeing this theater grow. Now it's part of this huge performing arts complex," Tomsovic said.

The whole space is now known as WYO Performing Arts and Education Center. Butler, the executive director, said the goal is to broaden the definition of performing arts.

"I think it's changed the way people perceive the performing arts. Because they've come to the WYO and had different experiences, they feel more ownership of the space, and then they can perhaps feel more comfortable coming to something they might not otherwise attend," she said.

Tomsovic said the community's support of the WYO has always been crucial.

"If you've worked in theater you know that performing artists who come in charge a lot of money. And we never make money on that. The money to keep the WYO theater open has to come from lots of other places: people who sponsor the shows and then generous benefactors. And Sheridan is lucky that way," she said.

Chairman of the WYO's board Gene Sturlin agreed.

"The WYO is actually the gem of the downtown. Night after night, weekend after weekend something is going on in the WYO. And it's generally something that is enlightening or entertaining and someone is learning something and someone is coming away smiling and someone is happier than when they got there," Sturlin said.

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