Panida celebrates 90 years in Sandpoint

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(Photo by DAVID GUNTER) Panida Theater executive director Patricia Walker, left, and board chair Nancy Foster Renk prepare for the theater’s huge birthday bash this Saturday, when the downtown Sandoint historical landmark turns 90 years old.

How do you say Panida, anyway?

SANDPOINT — As Saturday’s 90th birthday celebration approaches, it’s a good time to revisit something original owner F.C Weskil thought important enough to tell his audience of dignitaries at the dedication ceremony the night before the theater opened to the general public.

Following opening remarks from the mayor and various representatives of philanthropic and fraternal organizations, Weskil himself took the stage and dedicated the Panida Theater to the “people of the Panhandle of Idaho.”

Ah! So there’s the answer to the perennial Panida pronunciation puzzle, right? Not so fast, the owner said. His address included very precise instructions on how to pronounce the theater’s name ­— and it was definitely not the “Pan-Ida,” he insisted.

“The correct pronunciation is with a short ‘i’ and the accent on the first syllable,” Weskil said.

“While, of course, this will lead to the calling of the theater the ‘Pan,’ it is desirable that the correct pronunciation of the name be known.”

By DAVID GUNTER

Feature correspondent

SANDPOINT — She has always been a babe, but you’ve got to admit, the Panida Theater makes turning 90 look very good.

On Saturday, the theater will celebrate that milestone with a special birthday party that re-creates some of the venue’s colorful past while looking forward to its illustrious future. In both cases, it has been the people of Sandpoint, more than the edifice itself, that breathe life into the old gal.

Nine decades notwithstanding, the repairs and renovations to the Panida have resulted in an historical landmark that is being reintroduced to some factions of the community, while being introduced for the first time to others.

“We still have people come here for the first time who have lived here all their lives,” said Patricia Walker, executive director for theater. “I’m shocked by that, but it’s also a cool thing.”

If ever there was a time to meet the downtown icon, Saturday’s celebration might be it. Along with entertainment associated with the various decades that have rolled by since the theater opened on Nov. 22, 1927, there are a few surprises in store for those who attend — including a chance to watch a movie short that delighted people when the Panida was first unveiled to the public.

Just as the gobsmacked audience did 90 years ago, present-day patrons will watch silent film star Wallace Beery in a comedy titled, “Now We’re in the Air.”

“One fun tidbit is that we were able to find a clip of the first film shown here,” Walker said. “It had been completely lost until recently.”

Standing in the auditorium today — which is, after all, still the heart of this lovely nonagenarian — it’s hard to recall that she had a massive midlife crisis back in late ‘70s and early ‘80s. To be honest, she was falling apart. With her ceiling plaster dropping in Greyhound bus-sized chunks and rows of her seats yanked out to serve a newer theater a few blocks away, she was the poster girl for dishevelment and disrepair.

Not for the last time, the citizens rallied to her cause and saved her from the wrecking ball by purchasing bricks and tiles and pulling together enough dough to start the process of buying the building. The timing couldn’t have been better, as the only other interested bidder at the time planned to scrape the site and build a convenience store.

Fortunately for Sandpoint, there were enough young people and newcomers who could still see her potential and enough elders and old-timers who remembered her in her prime. Some of them could still remember walking through her doors for the first time back in the late-‘20s.

It was F.C. Weskil — who owned other theaters around the Pacific Northwest before turning his sights to Sandpoint — who masterfully spooled out the building process and let local interest build to a fever pitch as opening day drew closer. And once the mission-style exterior was mostly complete — a style very much in vogue back then and also used on the similarly vintaged post office building down the street (now the First American Title building on Second Avenue — Weskil began the process of teasing the public’s curiosity with a series of perfectly timed news stories.

“A newspaper blurb from that time said that the people who’d only seen the exterior were in for a real treat,” said Nancy Foster Renk, board chair for the Panida and the theater’s resident historian. “They promised that it was ‘beautiful beyond description.’”

So it was that, one day before the official opening, Weskil invited a handpicked audience of civic leaders, local notables and the press for a special dedication and preview tour on Nov. 21.

On that Monday evening, a reporter for the Pend d’Oreille Review wrote up the reactions of the gathered minions for that week’s newspaper.

“The guests entered the lobby and received their first impressions of the beauty of the theater,” the article read. “Soft-shaded lights, thick carpets, a fountain and artistically decorated walls and ceilings caused them to stop and gasp.”

Even today, this grand dame still has the ability to charm those who come into her presence, especially when they see her for the first time.

“New people coming to town are always intrigued by the Panida, because it’s not a common thing to have an old theater that’s been kept up and restored,” Walker said.

Two factors continue to make that possible, according to the executive director and the board chair — community support and tireless volunteers.

“We have a wonderful group of volunteers and we can’t overstate their contribution,” said Foster Renk. “They’re willing to work for a bag of popcorn.”

The 90th birthday celebration will double as the theater’s fall fundraising event, with funds going toward ongoing upkeep and maintenance, as well as the “unsexy things” such as paying for the high heating costs that come with keeping an immense, old theater warm during the winter. And though funding those things might lack the sizzle of the major capital improvement projects that have kept the Panida in fine fettle as she ages, Walker sees it as an investment in the entire local economy.

“If the Panida’s doors didn’t open, our whole downtown economy would change,” she said. “I think people sometimes think that, because we’re so busy, we don’t need the community’s support like we used to. But the need for that support never goes away — we need it in order to stay busy and keep bringing all those films and concerts to the community.”

“Besides, when anyone turns 90, there are always things that need a little love,” Foster Renk added. “And the Panida needs a little extra love right now.”

Saturday’s event will include birthday cake, live performers and film shows, as well as a pre-show Panida Art reception next door in the Panida Little Theater. The art show starts at 6 p.m. and the birthday celebration gets underway at 7 p.m.

Cost for the night is $25, which includes entrance to both events.

The theater invites anyone with historic photos, posters, news clippings or other Panida memorabilia to contact the theater so that such items can be borrowed for display during the celebration.

For information call 208-263-9191 or visit online at panida.org.

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