Although the old Gem Theater in Pioche has been closed for around two decades, local residents and current owners Ron and Michelle Orr hope it might reopen for business someday.
One problem is the old bathrooms, or more specifically the lack of bathrooms that are ADA accessible according to today’s standards. The Orr’s need to purchase adjacent property in order to expand, but have not yet convinced the current owner to sell.
The Gem Theater was built right next to the historic Thompson Opera House in Pioche in 1937.
Many first-run movies from Hollywood’s Golden Era played to audiences in Pioche and those from other surrounding communities who came out for a night at the movies.
The first movie, a silent film, was shown at the Opera House in 1915.
For a time, the Opera House removed its original signboard and advertised itself as Thompson Electric Movies. A generator provided electricity.
When sound came to Hollywood, theaters around the country made the changeover as soon as they could. The Opera House did the same.
However, by 1935 the building was in decline, so in 1937, the new Gem Theater was built right next door. The two share a common wall.
The Gem Theater closed in the 1990s.
In 2018, Ron and Michelle Orr, owners of the building, posted on their Facebook account their interest in restoring and reopening it.
However, in a post on Facebook Mar. 14, 2019, the Orrs noted they were saddened to say, “The Gem project will not be moving forward unless we can resolve the ADA handicap/bathroom issues. Currently, there are two very cramped toilets for 250 seats that are not accessible by anyone with limited mobility.”
Mrs. Orr says the seats that are in the theater “are the old thin, cramped ones that a larger-sized person couldn’t fit in. Our plan was to remove some seats to widen the aisles so wheelchairs can have access.”
She said, “We’ve had engineers and architects try to help out, but our solutions are limited. Our only hope for the Gem is to purchase rights to the small driveway next to it and build bathrooms onto the existing structure. So far, no luck, as the land isn’t ours to build on. No bathrooms equals no theater. We refuse to set Porta Potties in the alley, so the project is dead until bathrooms can appear from thin air.”
In a later interview with the Record, Mrs. Orr added, “taking out the concession stand would cause us to lose some grant funding because now we are messing with the historic integrity of the building.”
She continued, “Even though we are an official nonprofit project, our intent is to help revitalize the business area of town and bring Main Street back to life and do good things for the community with urban development. The best way to revitalize a town is to have a cornerstone business, and when you open a business [like the Gem], it has a ripple effect down Main Street. When movement starts to take place, there will be a growth factor. We don’t want to change what’s here, rather keep it authentic and rustic, but restored.”
Sadly, Orr said, the most up-front problem is the owner of the building directly south of the Gem who also owns half of the alleyway between them. She said that owner “has shown no interest in selling [the building], or selling the small driveway area next to it, and that’s too bad.”
She added, “There’s a lot of revenue that could be generated with this. We’d like to buy the driveway section, but the problem is there is a sewer line underneath, so we might need the whole lot.”
She said, “We are going through the grant-funded interior environmental phases on the building being conducted by the Brownfields Coalition. It’s all in the lab right now, and once we determine how bad it might be, then we can seek a grant to help us with cleanup.”
The Orrs, a fourth-generation Pioche family, have purchased the old bank building and are buying the Odd Fellows Lodge. “It’s in escrow right now. We would like to bring old-world Pioche back to life, but without the theater, nothing is going to happen,” she said.
In 2011, Mike Connelly, a filmmaker from Seattle, brought in a crew, hired a few local people and made a short film proposing to fix up the Gem and include it in the National Trust for Historic Preservation.
The film can be viewed online at https://vimeo.com/84973980.