Temple Theatre has made the most out of its ‘pandemic break’ with improvements and additions to its 95-year-old building
By Billy Liggett
The pandemic closed the curtains on live theater around the world in 2020, and Sanford’s Temple Theatre wasn’t immune to the economic hit.
But Temple’s leadership — producing artistic director Peggy Taphorn and associate director Gavan Pamer — didn’t let the shutdown become a period of inactivity. The two oversaw a laundry list (nearly three pages long in bullet-pointed 12-point type) of much-needed improvements to the historic building in downtown Sanford that will see its 100th birthday in 2025.
With live shows slowly returning to the stage in 2021 — Temple just finished its run of “Can’t Help Falling in Love” in February to capacity crowds of just 25 people and has more shows lined up this spring — patrons and performers are returning to dramatic changes, from upgraded sound and LED lighting systems to additions and renovations to its next door rehearsal studio.
When crowds do return to full strength in the (hopefully) near future, an evening at the Temple will feel like a whole new experience, says Taphorn.
“So many theaters that I’ve worked at or that we’ve worked with across the country have furloughed entire staffs or completely shut down [since last March],” she says. “We were really mindful of finding ways to use our staff during this pause. Before all of this, there was never enough time to do what needed to be done. I think it’s amazing what we’ve managed to do.”
“We’ve accomplished more in the past year than some can’t do in a matter of 10 years,” adds Pamer.
Taphorn is no stranger to challenges at Temple Theatre. Less than a year after she arrived in Sanford to take over the struggling theater in 2007, she and the rest of Sanford were faced with an economic recession that hit her new city particularly hard. She was forced to trim staff to stay afloat, and according to Pamer, she vowed then that she wouldn’t do that again.
“She’s our Scarlett O’Hara,” he jokes. “As God as my witness, I’ll never be hungry again. And because of her foresight, we didn’t have to shut down [during the pandemic], because we had a prudent reserve, and she has a plan.”
That plan has involved more emphasis on tuition-funded youth programs and small capacity, small-cast shows featuring a mixture of professional paid actors and local talent who pay for the experience. The Temple has also experienced an uptick in donations during the pandemic to make up some of the revenue lost from ticket sales and sponsorships.
They’re still nowhere near where they were in the three years prior to the pandemic, when large-scale shows like Beauty and the Beast, Oliver!, Big River, A Christmas Carol, Grease and Footloose drew consecutive sold-out crowds. According to Taphorn, Temple Theatre had something going on 342 nights a year before the pandemic and served more than 40,000 people. This year, they’ve served 700 people, including the young people taking part in education programs.
“Obviously, it’s not the best business model, and certainly not something we want to repeat,” Taphorn says. “But there’s hope.”
It’s only fitting with the recent news that the Masonic Lodge building — just two doors down from Temple Theatre — is getting a facelift and new lift coincides with the theater’s recent upgrades. Temple’s name comes from its proximity to the Masonic “temple.” Built in 1925 by Robert Ingram Sr., who also owned Sanford’s Coca-Cola bottling company), Temple was considered a “modern playhouse” at the time in a town of only 3,500 people.
For decades, Temple was the center of entertainment for the region. It was frequented by Vaudeville stars and was home to road shows and burlesque and “moving pictures” in the 1930s. Community productions remained into the 1960s, but the Temple closed in 1965 and stayed dormant for 16-plus years. Ingram’s son, Robert Ingram Jr., sold the theater in 1981, and the building was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1983, which afforded it a large grant from the state. A major refurbishment led to the reopening of the building in 1984 — the first community show was “Chicago” — and ticket prices were a mere $3 to $4.
The theater underwent several changes after that. It originally sat 500 people, but in the 80s, seating was reduced to 334 (roughly where it stands today). The balcony was reconfigured (removing two rows of seats to install a “tech office”) in 1996, a light truss was added in 1997, and the roof was completely replaced in 1998. The last major renovation before Taphorn’s arrival in 2007 came in the form of the now iconic copper letters that spell TEMPLE above the marquee — constructed by King Roofing in Sanford — in 2000.
That marquee and the building facades bear the first upgrades you see before stepping foot inside. New, brighter lights surround that marquee, and new blue awnings (paid for with a 50-percent matching grant from Downtown Sanford Inc.) cover the entrances to the rehearsal hall, concession/reception area and business offices.
The front lobby and ticket area maintains its art deco tiling — the original tiles from 1925 — and the newest addition is a wooden media center (for playbills and other printed media) constructed by technical director John Wampler, with design that matches the art deco feel.
Inside the actual theater, the first thing you notice is the major upgrades to LED lighting on the stage. The set in February was for its show, “Can’t Help Falling in Love,” and featured digital pink curtains and an LED star backdrop that can change colors and patterns on command.
The sound system also received a major upgrade with the installation of new speakers under the balcony for those sitting on the back rows on the first level. The new sound was supposed to premiere with Temple’s biggest show planned for 2020 — “Mama Mia” — but the pandemic dictated otherwise.
“It’s one of the upgrades the people are really going to notice,” says Pamer. “We had a concert here recently, and Bill Freeman [of Freeman Productions of Sanford and overall sound whiz] said the sound was a huge improvement. Everything’s more focused and balanced — it sounds so much better in here now.”
The interior of the theater has a fresh coat of paint, as does the stage (the proscenium arch is next up). The stage is also home to new curtains and drapes, and the lighting is all new LED for a brighter, crisper production.
Perhaps the biggest improvements have been made in the area the fewest people actually get to see. Temple’s backstage dressing rooms and waiting areas have long been considered somewhat of a (much loved) mess. That area has now been cleaned from top to bottom, and the old concrete floors have been covered with a new resin flooring. The walls were scrubbed and bleached, and old storage areas were transformed into extra dressing rooms.
The renovations don’t end with the theater. The first floor of the rehearsal hall — which was once planned for a black box theater for smaller-scale productions — is now clean and cleared out and home to not one, but two donated grand pianos — a Steinway donated by Tony and Missy Wooddell and a George Steck donated by Steven Bunting. Upstairs, new paint and lighting were added to the education office, and a storage area for costumes was converted into a cutting room manned by costume shop manager and graphic designer Alex Allison.
The list goes on. And there’s still more to do. Both Pamer and Taphorn say none of it would have been possible without community support, specifically over the past year.
“We’ve been really fortunate that our donations are actually up, comparatively, over other seasons,” Pamer says. “It doesn’t cover everything we’ve lost with not having shows, but it’s keeping us alive.”
WHEN ‘LIVE’ RETURNS
While numbers are falling on active COVID-19 cases in Lee County and across the country — and vaccines are providing hope as more and more people are getting the U.S. closer to herd immunity — there’s only faint optimism in the live theater community that full-capacity shows will return any time soon.
“There’s a timetable, according to state and federal entities, of at least two years before we’re fully recovered, and live theater is back to where it once was,” Taphorn says. “So, if that’s the case, that’s three years of lost momentum. Even if the pandemic is mostly gone, people have to get back in the habit of going out again — going out to restaurants, going to see a show. Then there’s the large groups who make up our Thursday and Friday matinees — buses full of people from 63 counties here in North Carolina. That’s going to take a while, too.
“But we’ll get there. Luckily, I have a great staff, and most of the stuff we’ve done in the past year has been through sweat equity. It’s kind of cool to be able to look at this list and say, ‘Wow, look at what we’ve done.’”