ELIZABETHTON, Tenn. (WJHL) — The venerable Bonnie Kate Theatre hosts the first performances by its very own community theater group this month as the classic comedy ‘Arsenic and Old Lace’ premieres Friday at the 96-year-old downtown Elizabethton venue.

“When the audience comes to see the show, my hope is that we will be able to transport them to 1941, Brooklyn, New York, where they can meet the wacky Brewster family and all the people that come in their door and just have a thoroughly wonderful evening,” Renee Christian, an officer of the new Bonnie Kate Community Theatre, told News Channel 11.

Jonathan Brewster (John Schmidt) and his aunts Martha (Lois Masten) and Abby (Renee Christian) during a rehearsal for ‘Arsenic and Old Lace’ at the Bonnie Kate Theatre. (WJHL photo)

The group’s first production comes just weeks after the Friends of the Bonnie Kate non-profit learned it’s getting nearly $750,000 in grant money to boost its efforts to restore the theater. The $500,000 grant from the Appalachian Regional Commission, with a $236,000 match from the city, more than doubles the funds the non-profit had received previously and makes the $1.4 million full restoration a realistic vision.

  • Who: Bonnie Kate Community Theatre
  • What: Arsenic and Old Lace
  • Where: Bonnie Kate Theatre, 115 S. Sycamore St., Elizabethton
  • When: 7:30 p.m. Oct. 14, 15, 21, 22. 2:30 p.m. Oct. 16, 23.
  • More info: bonniekate.org

“Learning we got that grant on our third try was a big hooray, hallelujah, praise the Lord,” said John Huber, who with his wife Pam bought the deteriorating theater building in 2016 and deeded it to the City of Elizabethton.

The California transplants learned about the Bonnie Kate’s important role in the lives of generations of Elizabethtonians from a friend, the late Floyd Storie, and the trio raised about $100,000 with help from the East Tennessee Foundation for the initial purchase.

“The vision was always to try to fill the house,” Huber said with a rather motley collection of about 175 seats bolted to the worn floor behind him. “Initially there were no chairs. These chairs were donated by different churches.”

Friends of the Bonnie Kate’s John Huber shows renderings of what the $1.4 million Bonnie Kate Theatre restoration will bring to the 96-year-old building. (WJHL photo)

Over the past six years, the dedicated supporters made improvements as they were able, including a new roof, HVAC system and sound equipment. They began screening movies for kids and, more recently, bringing musical acts to the stage. A few plays have been performed along the way as well, including a 17-performance run of ‘Sound of Music’ by the Jonesborough Repertory Theatre when their home theatre was closed during the pandemic.

That run gave Elizabethton’s Main Street Director, Courtney Bean, a glimpse into how regular performances at the iconic building could benefit the entire downtown.

“The Bonnie Kate is such an important part of our downtown community,” Washburn said. “It’s exciting to see their growth and also activities within the Bonnie Kate. Having live theater at the Bonnie Kate for everybody to come and see and then go back out and engage with downtown is really exciting.”

Along with several hundred thousand dollars in other grants and donations, the board and its city counterpart are sitting at about $900,000. New facade and marquee work will begin soon, and before too long the house will be closed for up to a year as major interior renovations take place.

“We’ll have a beautiful auditorium and then eventually we’ll have a new stage and be ready to build it to what our vision is,” Huber said. “400 seats.”

Birth of a community theatre

Robert Clark, Marcia Ross and Christian form the backbone of the theater group and are playing critical roles in its first performance. Clark built the set, Ross is directing and Christian stars as one of the two kindly Brooklyn spinsters whose lives are not quite what they appear on the surface.

“It’s just such a fun one to do,” said Ross, who has directed several plays at the theater but never as part of an organized community theater group with its own home venue.

Clark is a master set builder. When Christian and her husband Mark moved to the area about a year ago after retiring, she eventually found her way to the Bonnie Kate project.

“I saw that there was a theater called the Bonnie Kate and I saw references to live performances, but I didn’t see any reference to a community theatre,” Christian, dressed as “Aunt Abby” and sitting at a table on set, said. She emailed Jeff Treadway, a board member who has done much of the grant writing for the group, and told him she’d love to be involved if there was a theater group.

“He said, ‘no, there isn’t — would you like to start one?'” Christian said.

The veteran of decades in the theater was sold, the leaders bonded and the Friends of the Bonnie Kate put moral and monetary support behind them.

“We want the people of Elizabethton to have a local outlet for theatrical endeavors,” Christian said. “If they want to do a show we don’t want them to have to drive all the way to Jonesborough to do it.

“We’ve got a theater that has tremendous history. She’s a little ragged around the edges but she’s going to be getting a facelift and a tummy tuck, and every other things she needs, and she will be glorious.

“When it’s all said and done it’s going to be a stunning facility to work in. Eventually we will have all of the backstage structure in place to support ongoing community theatre productions.”

Christian said that made choosing the first play important. She thought ‘Arsenic’s’ name recognition and large cast meant the new group would hit the ground running and cast a broad net — one that brought in a mix of highly experienced actors and others doing their first-ever shows.

“We’re saying, ‘we’re a brand new community theatre and we’re just starting out, but we’re going to start with a big bang with ‘Arsenic and Old Lace.’ Comedy sells, popular classic American theater that people love,” she said.

“We wanted to start off with something that was going to make people come to things that make them laugh. We’re trying to build a rapport with potential audiences in and around Elizabethton where they know that ‘oh, yeah, I want to go to the next show that community theatre’s doing at the Bonnie Kate because I really enjoyed the last one and I know they’re going to show me a good time.'”

Plenty more is on the horizon, starting with ‘Suessical,’ next March (auditions in early December). The large-cast musical will be the first show with kids in it, but Christian said she expects the community theatre to get very involved with local schools and other segments of the community as it becomes more established.

Bean, the Main Street Director, said that approach will help bring back to the fore what made the Bonnie Kate so special to generations of locals.

“History is really important to our community and so a lot of our community, they have stories about the Bonnie Kate from when they were younger, and they have memories there,” Bean said. It’s great that again it can be this active place for our community, because it’s really important to so many people here.”

Christian said the Bonnie Kate Community Theatre members, including the cast and crew of ‘Arsenic,’ aren’t taking that lightly.

“We’re very grateful to the [Friends of] Bonnie Kate, the board, for allowing us to have this space and also giving us their trust,” she said. “They literally put their money where their mouth is and gave us grant money to start this community theatre and we want to make sure what we do is responsible and that we give something back to the Bonnie Kate and become part of her legacy.”