Panida Theater

Panida Theater
300 N. First Ave, Sandpoint, 263-9191.

Panida a historical ruby in North Idaho's crown.

In the historical preservation department, Coeur d’Alene should harbor some serious envy toward its northern little sister. Where Coeur d’Alene mercilessly razed its majestic old 7th St. High School building, Sandpoint recently saw their crumbling former Sandpoint High building given some TLC and rechristened as a Business and Events Center. From the renovation of old bridges and farm buildings into shopping centers, or even the long term kitsch of places like Connie’s Lounge and Dub’s Drive In, Sandpoint has always seemed more attached to the idea of perpetuating its past than Coeur d’Alene, who’d rather keep a fast eye toward modernization and future development.

In no example is this circumstance more true than with the story of two North Idaho movie theaters, both roaring and glamorous in their vintage heyday, and both collapsing in ruin by the mid-1980’s. Julie Andrews in “Victor/Victoria” was the last film star to dance across the screen at Coeur d’Alene’s Wilma Theatre before the building was shuttered for good. After years of vacancy and decay, the grand old dame was finally taken to the ground after the heavy snow of winter 1997 caused the roof to collapse.

Sandpoint’s Panida Theater was destined toward a similar fate in 1985 when huge chunks of ceiling came crashing down inside, instantly short-listing it for the wrecking ball. At the time, it was so rundown and rickety that it was being used merely as storage for local drama troupe the Unicorn Theater Co. who held their actual performances in less unsafe venues. Refusing to stand by and watch the wonderfully unique old venue become rubble, community members rallied together, selling hand painted lobby tiles and personalized sidewalk bricks to supporters including the mayor and the governor.

In less than 90 days, the required $40,000 dollars was raised toward the purchase price of $200,000. The now community-owned Panida was primped, polished and given new life solely due to the hard work of volunteers and business owners who donated anything and everything needed to restore it to its former grandeur.

Last autumn, I was fortunate enough to spend a rainy afternoon touring the Panida with longtime Executive Director Mary Bowers. You can really tell Bowers loves her job; although I’m sure she’s led dozenss of tour groups through the theater in her 20 year tenure, she bounced around the place like a playful child, telling stories and letting everyone get a glimpse of her secret playland. She led us out of the drizzle and into the plush lobby of the Spanish Mission style building. Overwhelmed, I ogled at the over-the-top detail of the art-deco style wallpaper and carpet, amazed at the lion’s head and blue-tile fountain alcoves, and breathed in air fusty with the pong of Idaho history.

She took us up the narrow curved stairway to take in the dramatic views from the balcony, which with its overstuffed red velvet loveseats and comfy chairs makes for possibly the single most luxurious place on earth to relax and enjoy a show.

Bowers took us next into the main auditorium and up onto the stage, which creaked and groaned underneath her as she animatedly filled us in on some Panida history. On opening day in 1927, original owner F.C. Weskil dedicated his new theater “to the people of the PAN-handle of IDA-ho” (hence the name), a place for locals to enjoy talkie films and vaudeville shows. Some swear that Mr. Weskil still haunts the aisles of the Panida; various employees have reported experiencing that not-so-alone feeling and hearing disembodied footsteps on the stage stairs and elsewhere. Many residents also joyfully recall longtime owner and former Sandpoint mayor Floyd Gray, who in the 40’s and 50’s drew in audiences by giving away free groceries during his “Farmer Gray” shows, which were broadcast live on the local radio station.

An amusing and bizarre reminder of Panida history remains on the left-hand interior wall, where some kind of repair work way-back-when required the repainting of a section of one of the intricately stylized art panels. When the hired repair team refused to recreate the mural for a reasonable price, the house manager had the inspired idea to let his children climb ladders and repaint it. The result was a comically disastrous parody of the neighboring panels; what once was an ornate and proud deco flamingo was now a quaking, vomiting vulture indiscreetly laying three eggs. To top it off, whoever was responsible for the creation of this foul creature felt the need to sign their initials “H.J.” underneath, as if it were truly a masterpiece.

The Panida Bird of Horror is itself enough reason to check the place out, but the real reason folks come in from the hills, valleys, and cities is the refreshingly diverse variety of films and live entertainers Bowers and crew manage to bring in year after year. Some of the larger names who have stood in the Panida spotlight include Bonnie Raitt, Arlo Guthrie and Wynton Marsalis. Gonzo comedian Gallagher recently performed a sledgehammer-and-watermelon-less show there, which was nice for the upholstery, but probably a bit boring for attendees. Equally, the theater is host to hometown events such as school talent shows and “Lost in the 50’s” concerts.

Coming up in April, the Kahurangi Dance Company will be dropping in from New Zealand to perform and “Hamlet” will be staged yet again as part of the Idaho Shakespeare Festival.
The Panida’s ongoing Global Cinema series continues tonight with the Cannes award winning “Persepolis”, a wonderfully animated autobiography of a girl coming of age in Iran in the 80’s. Next weekend, April 3-5 is a showing of the acclaimed film “The Great Debaters” starring Denzel Washington and Forest Whitaker, followed by the Romanian art-drama “4 Months, 3 Weeks & 2 Days” on April 17 and 19. The Panida is truly a cinematic mecca for those who’d rather poke a Twizzler in their eye than watch whatever the latest drivel is at the mainstream movie megaplex.

Sandpoint is truly lucky to have had community members with enough vision and sense of history to rescue the Panida from demise. I sometimes imagine how fantastic it would have been if Coeur d’Alene had been able to somehow save and renovate the Wilma when it had the chance. The arty image that the Lake City tries to project with its downtown these days would be enormously behooved by an historic sliver screen showing indie flicks and film festival winners. Barring a couple of small fixtures that lived on after the Panida managed to obtain them, nothing remains of Lady Wilma and but enormous memories and an incongruously small patch of grass where she once stood.

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