High school students lead effort to protect Liberty Theater
At heart, Libertyville High School senior Anna Burns seems to be an old soul.
When she wanted to learn more about her 1930s-era house, she went to the Cook Park Library to do research. There, she spent an afternoon talking with Jenny Barry, president of the Libertyville-Mundelein Historical Society, and soon became a volunteer with the group.
And when she learned the 80-year-old Liberty Theater on Milwaukee Avenue was for sale and facing possible demolition, she and fellow students enthusiastically adopted its cause and have been working to save the building where Marlon Brando once worked as an usher when he lived in the area and attended Libertyville High School.
Burns, as manager of Project Liberty, a student-run not-for-profit group, is leading an effort to protect the theater and its role as a community landmark.
Besides claiming Brando as an alumnus, the theater in 1942 was the world-premiere location for the film "Desperate Journey" featuring Errol Flynn and Ronald Reagan.
Project Liberty formed in mid-July to grow public support for the theater and encourage prospective buyers to maintain its "legacy of entertainment and community service."
Last month, Burns asked the village board to continue a moratorium on downtown demolitions and presented 105 signatures of support for the group's effort.
"While on our campaign, we have been introduced to incredible testimonies about the history of the theater, and not just one or two -- many people have come forward to tell us stories about their grandparents meeting at the movie theater, or that the theater was their first place of work," she told the board.
Although she has lived in Libertyville for only four years, Burns said seeing "It's a Wonderful Life" during the holidays and attending movies at the Liberty nearly every weekend with her family are among her favorite memories.
She and others were recruited to lead Project Liberty by recent LHS grad James He, who created the group.
In the case of the Liberty Theater, the spark was word in July that the building at 708 N. Milwaukee Ave. was available for $3 million and being marketed as a redevelopment opportunity.
A Facebook post by Mayor Terry Weppler cemented the effort.
"Here's your chance if you love the Liberty Theater," he wrote. "Since the theater is not profitable the likelihood is that the building will be torn down and a new multistory building will be built in that location."
Raising money to buy the theater was unrealistic, so the group shifted gears.
"We are here to raise awareness for the historical location and express the business potential of running the theater instead of tearing (it) down," He said.
Fundraising has been slow, with $1,081 of a $15,000 goal contributed as of Friday. Donations are tax deductible and will be used to create promotional merchandise, shirts, and yard signs.
With He studying accounting and finance at Indiana University, LHS students took the reins and are working to spread the word about the Liberty's uncertain fate among downtown businesses and residents.
There is some time, as the theater and other downtown buildings have been protected from demolition since Oct. 28, 2014, when the village imposed a moratorium to allow work on a potential historic district designation to proceed. Since then, the measure has been extended in six-month increments and is scheduled for another review this month.
No applications for redevelopment of the theater have been submitted. Dan Hiffman of NAIHiffman, the real estate company marketing the property, declined to comment on any interest or possibilities for the property.
"While I'd love to see it happen, I don't see anybody raising $3 million," Weppler said. "My hope is to get a developer who will consider building around the current theater and saving the marquee, even if it doesn't stay a theater."