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What happened in Lyons, Nebraska (pop 851) has happened to communities throughout the world. Small Town Main Street has suffered as goods, services, entertainment—and the jobs that go with them—move away. Today, the price of bread depends far less than it once did on the cost of wheat and far more on the cost of packaging, advertising, and transportation. The mom-and-pop shops that once made up downtowns are being undercut by international discount retailers that benefit from economies of scale. Buildings that once housed bowling alleys, barber shops, bars, theaters, and restaurants also can no longer compete and have closed their doors. As a result, the social bonds and everyday experiences that these spaces once provided, have virtually disappeared.

The Storefront Theater is a pioneering social initiative at the intersection of community life and sustainability. It is a unique event space that transforms Main Street into an outdoor theater by using an abandoned storefront wall in downtown Lyons as its site. The wall is modified with two hydraulic cylinders so that the awning and false front fold down over the sidewalk with the push of a button, providing seating for 100. Both the seats and the screen retract and disappear when not in use, giving the impression that there is nothing unusual in this town, leaving only word-of-mouth accounts for inquiring visitors.

STOREFRONT THEATER -2016 from matthew mazzotta on Vimeo.

The project began when artist Matthew Mazzotta (SMVisS ’09), who was invited to organize a project in Lyons, asked people from the community to join him in a ‘outdoor living room’ placed on Main Street as a way to provoke discussion and capture stories and ideas. During these discussions, many community members reveal fond memories of a once-thriving downtown and express a strong desire to see downtown become the center of community life once again. One person points out a downtown building that is only a storefront, a wall with no building behind it, which becomes the site of the project.

As the community pulls together to build the retractable theater, a local retired postman who dabbles in movie making asks to be part of the project. The concept of a documentary for the opening night of the theater is developed called “Decades” – a story of Lyons downtown from the founding of the town to the present day. To help the amateur filmmaker realize his dream of creating a feature film, over 100 people in this 850-person town volunteer by following his shooting schedule and showing up in period costumes and their vintage cars.

Since the opening, The Storefront Theater has hosted a number of events organized by the people of Lyons and the surrounding towns and cities, including several movie screenings, video game nights, and music concerts. The new energy that the venue has brought to Main Street has also inspired another Lyons native to purchase the empty building right next to the theater and turn into an art gallery that had its first show in December and is booked with a different show for the next 6 months.