Thousands of pieces of gum — in every color and flavor — littered the front walkway.
The carpets were caked in decades worth of grime. Trash was piled in the back. Fewer than 30 percent of the lights worked. And the seats hadn’t been cleaned since the theater opened in 1988.
With years of neglect and lagging business, the Blue Springs 8 Theatre, the only move house in that city, had turned into a no man’s land. By the time Dickinson Theatres went bankrupt last year, it barely had a heartbeat.
Owner Bob Hartley, who had leased the property to Dickinson for several years, faced a very serious choice in late 2012: put the theater out of its misery or jumpstart it back into revival.
His soft spot for the silver screen won out.
Surveying the dismal scene, he knew it was going to take a lot of money and a lot of time. But his dream of turning the theater into something bigger fueled his enthusiasm.
“I saw it as a chance to bring hope and inspiration to Blue Springs,” Hartley said. “The ideas started flowing, and I quickly realized that this could easily be more than a place to show movies. It could be a place to bring the community together.”
Hartley and his team met with Mayor Carson Ross, the City Council and people from the Blue Springs School District. They met with senior citizens. They met with students. The ideas started flowing, and Hartley listed the possibilities.
The theater could be used to host sports banquets, showcase away games from the Blue Springs high schools, feature local musicians, premiere independent films, and serve as a church location on Sunday mornings.
But first they began with a massive deep cleaning of the theater. In March, they started a complete renovation.
New carpet was laid, new seats were installed, the entire theater was painted, movie equipment was converted to digital, new screens were put up, the parking lot was resurfaced, and the street sign was cleaned up.
Hartley financed the $1 million cost himself. In June, the management team held a ribbon-cutting ceremony.
Since then, the theater has been packed. It’s a sensation that manager Kevin Barnett hasn’t felt since working the concession stand at Blue Springs 8 Theatre in 1990 right after high school.
The theater was booming until 1995, when the AMC theater opened in Independence, he explained.
“Looking out the window these days and seeing the parking lot completely full shows our hard work coming to life, which is awesome,” Barnett said. “The best part has been watching people walk inside and their faces light up. They just can’t believe it.”
Movie-goers have been flocking to the newly renovated theater for more than just a box-office hit, however. The theater provides perks, such as free small popcorns on Sundays and special classic film showings for older adults.
Hartley and his team are also working with Blue Springs South High School’s television broadcast students to create a newsreel to play before movies, which will highlight positive events going on around town.
“We get to create a magical environment, a place where people can escape from the perplexities of their life,” said Juan Swart, the operations director for Blue Springs 8 Theatre. “We’re so thankful the community has embraced us and welcomed us with open arms.”
The appreciative feeling is mutual.
“You can feel the change instantly,” said Blue Springs resident Carol Journagan. “It feels clean and fresh and the seats are a pleasure to sit in. It makes me smile, it’s so delightful. I’m thankful Blue Springs has this gem.”
The mayor agrees.
“I am very pleased to have a cutting-edge movie theater here in Blue Springs,” Ross said. “The owners of the Blue Springs 8 Theatre have proven to be great partners in many community events, and I look forward to their continued success here.”
Amidst the glowing feedback and huge crowds, Hartley hopes even more people realize the theater could be a nice place to spend a fun afternoon with the family or a romantic evening with a high school sweetheart. After all, the theater isn’t just his, he pointed out with a smile, it belongs to everyone.