A storied past and a bright future
By Abigail Thorpe
“People often ask about ghosts in the theater—and yes we have some—but we also have the spirit of all who have performed there, been entertained there, and all who have cared for it over the many years,” says Patricia Walker, executive director of the Panida Theater.
For more than 90 years, the Panida has served as the heart of the downtown community and arts scene. From film festivals and dance recitals to the yearly Follies, concerts and even a wedding or two, it’s brought joy, fun and a sense of community engagement to our small downtown—and there are more memories to be made.
So named for the PANhandle of IDAho, the Panida first opened its doors in 1927. Built by F.C. Weskil, it was designed in the Spanish Mission style and intended as a multi-use vaudeville and movie house.
In its early years, a sign hanging backstage reminded people how to pronounce Panida: like Canada instead of with the long sound of the “I” in Idaho, and on opening night, patrons marveled at the intricate architecture and interior, unlike anything else seen in Sandpoint then, or to this day.
“The marquee has continued to light up even when times were bleak over the years, and people would save up to come to the theater and escape and be carried away and see friends,” muses Walker. “More than one young man stole his first kiss in the balcony, and you sense the spirit of community pride when you walk in.”
Today, an event at the Panida draws people from all over the area, as well as neighboring states and even Canada (during normal time when travel is permitted). The ornate theater can seat up to 500 people, with great acoustics and clear views from every seat. A state-of-the-art sound system and digital projector system has brought the Panida into the modern age, but its historic character remains, the result of no small effort.
“Decades of glory faded into years of neglect before major fundraising and restoration efforts by the Sandpoint community reopened the Panida as a nonprofit organization in 1985,” explains Walker. “Today, it still takes continued fundraising and tremendous effort to keep it preserved, protected and serving the community, and it is still worth all the effort.”
The Panida is a cornerstone of cultural activities for Sandpoint and contributes significantly to the local economy, but as a nonprofit it relies on community support. “The Panida is the heart of the community, and it takes everyone to keep it beating,” adds Walker.
Its mission remains simple: To share and protect the historical integrity of the Panida, providing a space to enrich the community culturally and economically through entertainment, education and community involvement.
As an arthouse, the Panida isn’t just a typically commercial movie theater. During an average year, patrons can enjoy local and global film festivals, movies and presentations, concerts from local and touring artists, dance performances, comedy, live theatre, educational speakers and presentations, and even private events like weddings.
But keeping a historic building preserved and functioning as an ongoing cultural hub of the community is no small task. Throughout the years, large projects have been ongoing to keep the Panida in its original beauty. Currently, the Panida team is working on gathering bids to repair the original marquee. Parts have broken over the years, and there are several inoperative neon components. Efforts are underway to restore it to its original functionality and look while utilizing more energy-efficient LED lights behind the letters.
They are also looking to continue the restoration of the interior with repairs to the proscenium, a continuation of Greg Marsters from Custom Plaster’s painstaking work to restore the ceilings.
As a result of the many efforts over the years, the Panida Theater, which is on the National Register of Historic Places, has received special recognition from the governor of Idaho, the Idaho Commission of the Arts, the Idaho Centennial Commission and the U.S. Department of the Interior, and has even been honored with “Take Pride in Idaho” and “America” awards, and received the coveted Orchid Award for historic preservation from the Idaho Historic Preservation Council.
While the theater has been shuttered due to the pandemic, they have made an effort to still offer films and new virtual theatrical performances online to continue bringing arts and culture to the community—even the ever-popular Banff Film Festival was held online.
In a typical year, 52 weekends offers ample opportunity to present a diverse range of events and performances, including the widely popular Banff Film Festival, The Oscar Shorts, Panida’s selection of A-list Oscar contender films, the Manhattan Short Film Festival, Panida Playhouse Player live theatre shows, and the beloved Follies burlesque from Angels Over Sandpoint.
Typically, The Follies takes place in March, packing the Panida with tickets sold out in advance, and local performers practicing for weeks and months in anticipation of the adult variety show. This year The Follies has been postponed, but Angels Over Sandpoint and the Panida still hope to bring it to Sandpoint in early October, health conditions permitting.
In addition to featuring national talent, the Panida also highlights the achievements of local talent in film, screenplays, musicals and acting through events like the Hearthside Stories, Festival of the Bards, Sandpoint Filmmaker Network events and more.
The community is invited to rent the space for local fundraisers and community offerings. The Pend Oreille Arts Council holds seasonal concerts there with artists from around the world, and local performers from the Music Conservatory and Sandpoint High School have frequently graced the stage.
“With an emphasis on bringing in a broad variety of arts and entertainment, the Panida continues to be the heart of our downtown, our community and the gem of North Idaho,” says Walker.
As a nonprofit, the Panida relies on the donations and fundraising it receives, as well as the income generated through programming to survive. In addition to ticket sales, revenue comes from concessions like beer, wine and other items to help offset expenses to keep the theater running.
In addition to the main theater, the Panida also operated two storefronts on either side of the main theater, as well as the Little Theatre, which offers dinner theatre, comedy shows, presentations and workshops, and has even served as a dressing room for large productions like The Nutcracker.
“Where the main theater is more limited in what can be done there, the Little Theatre can be conformed to fit the needs more easily, making it a tremendous asset,” explains Walker. “The Panida also has a large group of volunteers, and the income they save the theater by their efforts keeps much-needed revenue in-house.”
Once programming resumes, the Panida is excited to offer a new loyalty card program for loyal patrons who want to make the most of the exciting events and programs the theater offers. For those who would like to stay updated, there is a fantastic weekly newsletter you can subscribe to on the website at Panida.org, and if you’d like to help support continuing efforts to keep the Panida as a thriving heart of our downtown community, online or mailed donations are always welcome.
For many, the Panida Theater is at the heart of the community and cultural spirit we so treasure in downtown Sandpoint. Here’s to many more memories to be made at our Sandpoint playhouse, vaudeville and movie house.