By TYLER ELLYSON
KEARNEY – The World Theatre is more than a cool spot to watch a movie or live performance.
It’s a downtown Kearney landmark.
Built in 1927, the historic Masonic Temple building and former vaudeville theater serves as a community gathering place that brings people together for shared experiences.
“When you walk into The World Theatre, people know each other by name,” said Ryan Range, a junior at the University of Nebraska at Kearney. “That idea – The World Theatre being more than just a movie theater or a building – is something I thought was really cool.”
Range, who is studying multimedia production with a film studies minor, highlights the local theater’s history and impact in a documentary he produced through UNK’s Summer Student Research Program. The Monroe native and Twin River High School graduate also showcases the community effort that’s helped the nonprofit, volunteer-run movie house survive.
Located at 2318 Central Ave., the previously shuttered theater reopened in June 2012 after three years of renovation work and a communitywide fundraising campaign launched by Kearney native and Hollywood screenwriter Jon Bokenkamp, creator and executive producer of the hit television series “The Blacklist.”
Range’s documentary, “When The World Closed,” focuses on this effort, as well as recent improvements to the theater’s balcony, stage, dressing rooms and lobby. He also looks at the innovative steps taken to generate revenue during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“When COVID hit, that’s when we decided we had an opportunity to look at things through a different lens,” said Range, who worked under the mentorship of Jacob Rosdail, an associate professor in UNK’s Department of Communication.
“I wanted to show how the community was coming together to help The World while conveying that sense of immediacy and urgency,” Range added.
In the midst of a capital campaign to pay for the most recent renovation project, The World Theatre was forced to close its doors in mid-March 2020. The organization had to get creative to cover ongoing expenses.
“When The World Closed” follows along as the theater transitions to selling curbside concessions before opening a pop-up drive-in at the Buffalo County Fairgrounds, generating enough revenue to share with other area nonprofits.
“I’m consistently blown away by how supportive our community is of The World Theatre,” said Bokenkamp, the nonprofit’s founder and creative director. “Everyone contributes in their own way – some financially, others by donating their time or services, others by visiting the theater as customers. You saw that kind of support at the pop-up drive-in this summer. That was a tremendous success for The World, and I think it was also a success for the community as it gave people a safe place to go during a rather dark and lonely time.”
Range’s documentary includes interviews with Bryce Jensen, the theater’s executive director, former board member Molly Trettel, former UNK communication professor Keith Terry and Kearney native and actor Joe Knispel, a volunteer during curbside concessions. The 13-minute film also features an original score from UNK sophomore Cassie Brown, a journalism and music double major from North Platte.
Range finalized the documentary last semester, and it was accepted in February as an official selection for the 2021 Omaha Film Festival, scheduled for March 12-13 at the Aksarben Cinema. “When The World Closed” will screen at 8 p.m. March 13, and it will also be available online from March 14-21. More information on the Omaha Film Festival is available at https://off21.eventive.org/welcome.
For Rosdail, it’s the first time one of his students has received this type of recognition.
“I’m very proud of Ryan’s accomplishment,” he said. “The level of ambition and work he put into this project is some of the best I’ve seen from a student since I’ve been here.”
Rosdail is also working with Jensen on a plan to screen the documentary, along with other UNK student projects, during an event later this month at The World Theatre.
“Hopefully Ryan’s film will remind people that it’s not just the spectacle of what’s on the screen that makes going to the movies such an important experience,” Rosdail said. “It’s about being with other people and sharing a story together.”
“With so much streaming and television, we’ve sort of lost the art of gathering together in a dark room to watch a story unfold,” he said. “You can’t put a price on that kind of shared experience.”
The World Theatre hosted its first event in nearly a year when Crane River Theater presented “Pretty Fire” late last month. “The Blacklist” viewing parties resume this week, and movies will return to the screen soon.
“I’m thrilled to see people in the space again,” said Bokenkamp, who attended UNK from 1991-93. “It’s been a rough year, but when people get back into the space, I think they’re really going to love what they see.”
Range and Rosdail plan to be there to capture this moment for an updated version of the documentary.
“We still want to get that shot of them firing up the projector again,” Rosdail said.