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May 23, 2015

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Joe Downtown: Forty years later, Huntridge Theater owner returns to building and memories

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Sam Morris / Las Vegas Sun

Edythe Katz, one of the early owners of the Huntridge Theater, gets a tour of the theater in its current state Thursday, June 27, 2013.

Huntridge Owner

In this undated photo Edythe Katz, former co-owner of the Huntridge Theater, is seen talking to Launch slideshow »

Huntridge Theater Tour

Michael Cornthwaite gives Edythe Katz, one of the early owners of the the Huntridge Theater, a tour of the dilapidated theater Thursday, June 27, 2013. Launch slideshow »

At 93, Edythe Katz gets around with the help of a wheelchair, but her memory is sharp – particularly when recalling the details of a life immersed in owning the Huntridge Theater some 40 years ago.

Katz and her husband, Lloyd, took ownership of the theater in 1951. It closed in April 1977 after Lloyd couldn’t get the lease renewal.

The last show seen there was “Raggedy Ann and Andy: A Musical Adventure.” Tickets cost $3.50.

Katz returned to the site a few week ago. Downtown businessman Michael Cornthwaite, who has partnered with Joey Vanas to try to raise money to revive the theater, gave Katz a tour.

With help from Tiger Todd, founder and CEO of the Hero School, a group that helps the homeless, Katz was wheeled into the theater through the front door, past the old box office, now filled with junk.

“Oh god, this was the lobby,” she said. “It sure looks different.”

Todd eased her wheelchair down a ramp to the middle of the theater floor.

“What a mess!” she said. “What the hell is this?”

“It’s literally a storage facility now,” Cornthwaite said. “That’s what it’s become.”

Back in its heydey, Lloyd Katz described the Huntridge as “the most successful Disney theater in the West,” an odd image given Las Vegas’ shadowy beginnings. But then, as now, people longed for family entertainment apart from the city's adult offerings.

Edythe said the Disney company knew how well the theater did, and she and Lloyd once were greeted at the entrance to Disneyland by Walt Disney himself.

“You know, those were damn good days,” she recalled.

Katz and her husband used the theater to break racial boundaries, too. The Huntridge accepted everyone and didn’t seat customers based on their skin color.

“Yeah, we broke all that up, the Mississippi of the West,” Katz said. “I come from a group of people who experienced anti-Semitism, were railed against and not accepted by everyone.”

Martin Luther King Jr. came to Las Vegas twice, once in 1964 when he met with Mayor Oran Gragson and again in 1967 when he spoke at the NAACP Freedom Fund Banquet. During one of the visits, Katz said, he invited her to sit with him on stage.

The theater these days is in disrepair. It hasn’t been open to the public in about 10 years.

Cornthwaite and Vanas formed Huntridge Revival LLC, with the intent of buying the building and two more next to it from the Mizrachi family. The price is $4 million, and they guess it would take another $11 million to renovate.

The pair envision it being used as an independent theater and home for film festivals, live music shows and classrooms to teach the arts, as well as eateries and maybe a coffee shop.

The company started a fundraising campaign more than a month ago with the goal of raising $150,000, or 1 percent of the $15 million needed to buy and renovate the theater. As of Monday morning, it had raised about $129,000, with a little more than two days remaining in the campaign.

Cornthwaite says if they can’t raise the money, which is needed for soil testing and architectural renderings, Huntridge Revival won’t move the project forward. The fundraising campaign is key, he said, in that it shows the public’s interest in saving the building.

Katz perked up while talking about a space in one of the buildings earmarked for a museum dedicated to the theater.

“People would be interested in the history?” she asked.

Very much so, Cornthwaite replied.

“Well, when it’s a theater again, I want to come to the opening,” Katz said. “Even if you take me in my box.”

Joe Schoenmann doesn’t just cover downtown; he lives and works there. Schoenmann is Greenspun Media Group’s embedded downtown journalist, working from an office in the Emergency Arts building.

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