John Viars
John Viars
Amid a crowded field of large arts and culture capital projects this year, including the Des Moines Social Club’s fight to renovate the downtown fire house and the Des Moines Symphony’s 75th anniversary multi-million dollar fundraiser, the Des Moines Community Playhouse has raised more than $3.4 million to expand and renovate the Playhouse building.

“We got in there and put a stake in the ground,” said John Viars, the community theater’s executive director. “We haven’t had a campaign since 1993, so it’s our time and our turn, because we have to do it.”  

The Playhouse was able to raise one third of its $10 million goal thanks to the help of some large corporate donors, including Bankers Trust and Ruan Family Foundation, Prairie Meadows Racetrack and Casino, The Principal Financial Group, the Community Foundation of Greater Des Moines and the James and Helen Hubbell Charitable Foundation. 

Debbie Hubbell, one of the funders campaign’s co-chairs said the Playhouse titan’t intend to fundraise alongside so many other arts organizations. The campaign originally was planned to begin in 2008. Marketing studies and feasibility studies were even completed. But the struggling economy forced leaders to hold off. “The climate was just unfriendly,” she said. 

So they waited until the economic climate improved to resurrect the campaign. “Other organizations must have been doing the same because several popped out of the woodwork,” she said. But Hubbell is confident the fundraising committee will be able to reach its goal of raising $5 million by the fall, especially once construction begins. “It’ll pique the community’s interests,” she said. 

The renovations have to begin soon because one corner of the building is sinking. Built on top of a landfill, the corner slowly has begun to twisting and separating from the rest of the building. 

The first phase of construction includes fixing the structural deficiencies, adding parking and updating the main stage. Phase two will give the Playhouse room to grow by adding more costume and storage space as well as building a new two-story educational wing. Housed in an old movie theater, the Playhouse has been creatively using space in ways it was never meant to be used. This is especially true when it comes to classroom needs, Viars said. 

More than 10,000 children and teenagers participate in the Playhouse’s educational programming throughout the year. That number has grown over the years, making it the largest children’s theater program in the country, and is projected to keep growing. Currently, there’s a waiting list each summer because the Playhouse is at capacity. 

“Every inch of space is being used,” Viars said. “We have people teaching classes in stairways.” 

The new area will hold four to five classrooms to help alleviate some of the overflow. Viars said the Playhouse has been committed to providing education programming for more than 60 years, which produces more engaged citizens. Studies show that children involved with the arts are more receptive and inclusive to people with ethnic or racial differences, he said.