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Shelter from the storm

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The Walnut Street Theater stands across from the street from Bolivar’s city hall on Thursday, Feb. 11. 

Over the more than 20 years it’s been open, Emily Westerfield said Bolivar’s Walnut Street Theater has come to be known as a home to everyone. 

The former church building, which Westerfield said was built in the 1800s, was opened as a theater in 2000. She’s currently a member of the theater’s board of directors where she serves as public relations and fundraiser chairperson. 

Since 2000, the theater’s put on around 100 productions, she estimated. 

And, over that time, the relationships its patrons and artists have built have been as important as the stagecraft performed under the lights. 

“This is a place where people who feel like they don't fit anywhere else feel like they fit in,” she said. 

But, the future of that refuge for the artists and their art is in danger, said Betsy House Johnson, Westerfield’s mother and the director of the theater. 

Roofing issues, which have plagued the old building for several years, have advanced to a stage they can no longer be ignored, she said. 

“We have had leaks on occasion, but now the roof over the tech booth and our lights and sound area has gotten to the point where there’s an actual hole,” she said. “We’ve got tarps over things, because when it rains outside, it rains inside, too.”

Johnson said the City of Bolivar recently condemned the building, rendering it uninhabitable until the roof is fixed. 

Westerfield said she understands the city’s concern. 

“I don't blame them,” she said. “It’s not safe. We’ve known that, and we’ve done everything we  can to fix it. We’ve actually had a structural engineer say it would be a shame to condemn this building because it’s solid. We just need help to fix the outside.”

Designation on a state or federal register of historic places would help qualify the building for grants but comes with the stipulation that it is restored as a church, Westerfield said. 

“We’ve learned there are limitations,” she said. “We need private funding so we can return it the way the community needs. They need a community theater.”

Now, she said, it’s up to the community to help. 

A fundraiser, posted on the website GoFundMe, is seeking $20,000 to fix the building’s roof. 

The page to donate is available by searching “The Walnut Street Theatre Needs A Roof!”

A link is also posted on the theater’s Facebook page. 

As of Thursday, Feb. 18, the effort had raised $625. The theater’s board has also sought help with grants, but so far hasn’t received any. 

That can be frustrating, Johnson said, because many more people have appreciated the theater than have so far supported efforts to reopen it. 

“Right now we have 82 seats,” she said. “We were sold out most of our shows our last year.”

Westerfield agreed. 

“There are way too many people in this community that love theater, and we can't wrap our heads around that we can’t get help right now,” she said. “They’re going to miss us when we’re gone. We need the community to step up. If everybody in this community gave a dollar to this theater, we’d have our roof.”

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