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Pearl gains non-profit status

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Rhea Verbanic, left, president of the board for The Pearl Theater, Inc., and building owner Carolyn Testa stand inside the renovated church that nows serves as a performance space and launches this week as a non-profit, membership-based organization.

BONNERS FERRY — For the past year, this community has been home to one of the best-kept secrets in the regional entertainment industry. Next week, a newly formed non-profit group will start doing everything it can to change that.

The story starts back in the fall of 2010, when Carolyn Testa caught a concert by the Shook Twins – a performance that took place upstairs in the fire hall. She loved the show, but found the venue lacking in terms of atmosphere and aesthetics. Soon after, Testa learned that the Community Fellowship Church was up for sale and went by to tour the building.

“When I looked at the church, I thought, ‘We need something like this — a place where talented people can perform,’” she said. “I purchased it as a curiosity, but when I went inside, I immediately saw the potential for a theater.”

Originally constructed in 1892 as the first Catholic Church in Bonners Ferry, the 1,250-square-foot building underwent a complete overhaul in its transition to a performance space that, since October 2011, has operated as The Pearl Theater.

Tesla used recycled materials such as the old middle school bleachers and gave them new life as hardwood floors and stair treads.

She painted the interior on her own, had a full-scale stage built and added top-notch sound and lighting equipment to the theater, all with the aim of attracting quality acts that passed through the area, as well as offering a professional-caliber stage for local plays and events.

Fast-forward one year and a couple weeks or so, and the Shook Twins are scheduled to make another of their popular swings through town — this time scheduled for a show this Friday at The Pearl.

The same group that inspired the creation of the theater will play a starring role in its next stage of evolution, according to Rhea Verbanic, president of the board for a non-profit group called The Pearl, Inc.

In lockstep with the Shook Twins concert, the group will launch its membership drive that same night to raise visibility and boost attendance.

“There has been only a vague awareness of the theater,” Verbanic said. “At the same time, the stuff that has come through here in the past year has been mind-blowing. Now we want to get more people in here to check it out.”

What they will find “in there” — beyond top-flight performances — is a stunning renovation that has created three distinct seating areas. And with a capacity limited to less than 160 people, every seat is a good one.

General seating is located on the main floor, directly in front of the stage.

Balcony seating offers a higher vantage point and padded pews, while café seating is arranged on comfy stools around elevated tables adjacent to a commercial kitchen that serves beer, wine, coffee, snack plates, savory baked goods and sweets.

Virtually all of this has been in place for a year, Testa pointed out, but her status as a one-person show kept a lid on how much time she could invest in getting the word out.

Enter The Pearl, Inc., which will use committees to handle everything from building maintenance and publicity to grant writing and fundraising.

On Friday, the non-profit will begin offering memberships ranging from $5 for students to considerably more for those who want to act as patrons of the arts.

“One of the questions we’ve heard about this drive is, ‘Why be a member?’” Verbanic shared. “You join something because you believe in it. If you love the arts — if you support the arts — you should be a member.”

From the time Testa bought the building, there has been “a misperception in town that the theater was hugely profitable,” the board president continued. To the contrary, the combination of equipment, taxes and general upkeep has required a new direction.

“We had to rethink how we’re doing this,” said Testa. “The necessity for becoming a non-profit was to save the theater.

“I’m a renovator — it’s what I love,” she added. “But I just wanted to build the theater. It never occurred to me that nobody else was going to run it. By working smarter, we feel like we can build the audience.”

The handoff seems to be taking place at an opportune moment in the old building’s long history.

For one thing, the membership drive will be announced to a packed house.

Add to that a community that has more than its fair share of actors and musicians and an existing performance venue that is just waiting to feature them, and the future looks bright, Verbanic predicted.

“There’s something in the water here in Bonners Ferry — there’s an amazing pool of talent,” she said. “Then Carolyn had a vision for a theater and spared no expense to make it happen. If you think performing arts are an important part of any community, become a member and have a say.”

Tickets for the Shook Twins show are $15, available in advance at Mountain Mike’s and Bonners Books.