By Jon Johnson
SAFFORD – Gila Valley Central has been covering various beautifications efforts recently, but one of the biggest has to be the renovation of the old Safford Theatre on Main Street.
Recently, the project received a $50,000 boost from the United Way of Graham and Greenlee Counties, with an assist from the city of Safford.
Safford Planning and Community Development Director Dustin Welker spoke to the Safford City Council at its Nov. 13 meeting and advised that the United Way had agreed to the donation. The only rub was that the money had to go to a nonprofit or government organization, and the project is being handled by the Safford Downtown Association, which is not a nonprofit. Welker then requested the city act as the physical agent and then pass on the funds to the project.
Welker told the council that he believes the theatre will increase economic activity in Downtown Safford.
“I think it could be a great venue for a number of things and a great addition to Main Street,” Welker said.
After a short discussion, the council unanimously approved to act as the go-between, with the exception being Safford Mayor Jason Kouts who abstained from voting since his construction business has been contacted as being a potential contractor on the project.
The Safford Downtown Association has partnered with the Gila Valley Historic Preservation Committee along with others to rebuild the Safford Theatre into an open-air performing arts venue for concerts, movies, theatre, and events. The property is currently owned by the Gila Valley Historic Preservation Committee.
It’s been 42 years since the Safford Theatre on Main Street last played a movie, (Camino Y El Mio on Oct. 6, 1975) and, after several failed starts a couple of influentially-backed groups are in the process of re-making the facility into an open-air venue.
According to plans, the back three-quarters of the facility will be resurrected as an open patio with a stage at the northern end of the building, and the front quarter of the building will be restored in grand style with new restrooms, concession stand, and a ticket booth. The group hopes to have the theatre reopened by October 2019.
History of the theatre
The theater opened in May 1911 as the Airdome Theatre and was enclosed with a building and a roof in October the same year. It was remodeled in the fall of 1915, and the Safford Theatre as it is now known – complete with high brick walls stuccoed on the outside and plastered with stenciling and paneling on the inside – came into being.
Those high brick walls have ended up being the theatre’s latest threat of demise.
In 1983, Rudy Maldonado, then grants coordinator for Safford, contacted the State Historic Preservation Office to discuss nominating the building to the National Register of Historic Places.
Maldonado was informed then and again in 2004 that the building was too deteriorated to be considered for nomination and the city had not demonstrated the historical significance of the structure.
In 2005, then owners David and Susan Duros planned on tearing down the theatre and putting up a parking lot. After removing the front, however, they discovered an architectural style they felt was worth preserving, thus starting an epic 12-year-long odyssey to save the Historic Safford Theatre.
The building was previously condemned in 2007 after David and Susan Duros asked the city to consider taking over the title. The request prompted a thorough evaluation by city staff, Durrant Architects, and TLCP, a structural engineering firm, to identify the condition of the theatre and address any structural concerns.
Then-Special Projects Manager Robert Porter and then- Planning and Community Development Director Pete Stasiak gave a report to the Safford City Council in October 2007. Porter reported the walls were made of unreinforced masonry, and the city erected a 6-foot fence to deter the public from entering the building due to the rotting condition of the walls, roof, and trusses.
Restoration plans continued to be stalled due to lack of funding, however, and in 2007 the alley behind the theatre from Central Avenue to 5th Avenue was eventually closed.
Faced with the disheartening news, the Duroses attempted to receive Heritage Fund grants from Arizona’s State Historic Preservation Office, but the preservation project went slowly, at best.
However, the dangerous roof situation that caused the city to close off the alley was taken care of when the roof was dismantled in 2010. The front facade was then given a facelift through donations from local businesses and volunteers working in conjunction with an Eagle Scout project by Boy Scout Trevor Efros in August 2011.
A fire then erupted in the theatre in April 2013 and was so dangerous to fight it prompted Safford Fire Chief to say he wouldn’t send any of his men back into the structure if another fire broke out.
In 2015, the Safford High School Art Club painted the facade of the theatre for the Safford High School 100th anniversary All-Bulldog Reunion.