SHERIDAN — It was 1989. The Berlin Wall had come down, and Madonna’s “Like a Prayer” topped the charts. People strolled past the former Lotus Theater in downtown Sheridan wearing acid-wash jeans, sporting perms and drinking Clearly Canadians.
For seven years, a nonprofit called “Save the WYO” had worked tirelessly to reopen the downtown theater, which had been operational from 1923-1982. After extensive community involvement, fundraising and remodeling, the theater reopened in October of 1989.
“So many people of the original ‘Save the WYO’ campaign are still around, and when they come to the space now, they are kind of flabbergasted,” said Erin Butler, executive director of the WYO Theater. “At the beginning it was such a struggle. They were up against a lot, and they just wanted to save the space. They couldn’t think, ‘We want to grow and get bigger.’ They just wanted a place for this kind of activity.”
Now, 30 years later, the WYO has undergone several major renovations. On Sept. 12 from 5-8 p.m., the WYO Performing Arts and Education Center will celebrate its 30th birthday with a free event designed to inspire, educate and entertain people of all ages with performances and workshops in every space of the iconic downtown Sheridan theater.
The birthday celebration will include old movie screenings in the main theater, known as Sophie’s Stage. When the WYO Theater opened in 1923 as the Lotus, its biggest feature was the screening of silent movies and then, in 1929, talkies. The WYO will screen a selection of the best of that era.
The celebration will also include theatrical shorts in the black box performed by drama students from local high schools and colleges, modern dance workshops for all ages in the dance studio taught by Stephanie Koltiska and a children singing workshop at Tandem Rehearsal Hall.
There will be a pop-up museum in the lobby with storytelling about the different stages of the WYO, from 1923 until 2019, and a magic show in the lobby performed by local magicians to passersby. Refreshments will be available at the Lotus Café, with complimentary bites in the lobby. Both alcoholic and nonalcoholic drinks will be available at a cash bar, including Sheridan Beer and signature cocktails inspired by stages of WYO history.
The grand finale will take place at 7:30 p.m., when everything will stop so all present can sing “Happy Birthday” to the WYO in Sophie’s Stage, paying homage to the people of 1989 who saved the WYO, and to honor past and present board members and volunteers.
“For 30 years, not only has the WYO inspired the community and remained a cultural focus point, but we have grown,” Butler said. “I think that speaks to the general love of the place and how much people appreciate not only the arts in general but the WYO specifically.”
Many Sheridan residents have deep roots at the WYO. In 2018, when Richard and Tami Davis and Pat Tomsovic were named the WYO Performing Arts and Education Center’s Lotus Award recipients for the year, they recalled the early days. The Davises, in fact, met at a summer production in the 1990s and married soon after. Their entire family was active in the theater community for decades. Tomsovic was an original member of the Femme Finales, a theater group that was instrumental in saving the WYO from demolition in the late 1980s.
“This small community seems to have always had an appreciation and love of all forms of art, both visual and performing,” Tomsovic said. “The wonderful thing about Sheridan is that it’s small enough to allow even amateurs such as myself to be very involved with making it all happen.”
The WYO has always been a place where people can gather, communicate, enjoy one another and be inspired by what they say and hear, Butler said.
“To celebrate that is really exciting — and 30 years is a long time,” Butler said. “When you think back to the beginning of the WYO, in 1923 when it was built, it was a theater. Here we are in 2019, and it is still a theater. These places remain. They go through transformations and change, but it is a place that is stable and it remains a staple in downtown.
“It is hard to imagine what the WYO will be 30 years from now, but I would guess that it will remain and be a beacon for downtown,” Butler said.