The latest incarnation of the Benson Theatre brings back a variety of arts and entertainment to the Omaha metro with the mission to serve an all-inclusive audience.
The historic landmark building has been given new life multiple times, transforming itself to meet the need of the moment. In 1923, The Benson Theatre entertained audiences as a vaudeville theater until 1939. As films grew more popular, the theater became a movie house before being sold and converted into an appliance store and later a ceramic shop and warehouse.
After years of dormancy, the building came up for sale in 2012. The inside of the building was gutted into a lifeless mound of rubble. Initial plans called for a nightclub or other venues, but nothing stuck.
Amy Ryan, executive director of the Benson Theatre, envisioned the next transformation for the space. She spearheaded a $7 million construction project to preserve the building and add her own sparkle to the vision. Ryan and her team put their faith and passion into creating a venue that would entertain audiences for years to come.
“We are blessed to have this space,” Ryan says. “With the support we have received, we are able to take this space and hold it for others to bring in issues that we care about through art.”
Today, the highly popular theater provides a diverse range of events that go beyond entertainment. Benson Theatre offers a cycle of connection through philanthropy and education. Audience members are an important part of that cycle and mission to support local artists and the community.
Ryan says finding community leaders in the neighborhood to support bringing in academics and artists is key to growth.
Ryan brings over 25 years of management experience. She also founded the Pizza Shoppe Collective, and eventually the B-Side, which operated until 2021. The smaller venue provided a space for fundraising while the Benson Theatre was under renovation.
Before taking over ownership of the Pizza Shoppe and theater, Ryan worked at a shelter for women and children.
Whether it was waiting tables or serving the needs of victims, Ryan says she always focused on listening and responding to the needs of the community.
Ryan, who grew up in North Omaha, says she’s always known the potential of the area. She envisioned a diverse community that embraced all facets of life, the arts, philanthropy, and entrepreneurship.
“I grew up here –it’s always been a love of mine.” Ryan says. “We know there are marginalized populations of people who we wanted to focus on.”
In every endeavor, Ryan says she makes sure her values come first. In her mission to create a safe space for art, she’s created a community fund that helps assist friends and neighbors with the cost of the use of the space.
Her vision for Benson Theatre provides a unique and all-inclusive space where anyone could not only see the arts but be an active participant. The space honors its historical roots and offers new and innovative programming.
The Benson Theatre exudes a cabaret-style ambiance that can transform the space from intimate poetry slams, to mosh pits and concert seating. The space boasts state-of-the-art sound and lighting systems and any form of entertainment such as film screenings, educational workshops and concerts.
Ryan’s Director of Communications in the project, Paul B. Allen IV, shares Ryan’s vision of how the theater can take community education and entertainment to the highest form.
“The beauty of the place is the diversity of all the things that we can do,” Allen says. “And building communities around the different subsets of art to allow for people to come in and have a support group to help each other further each other’s craft.”
The Benson Theatre has created relationships with other partners such as Adair Dance Academy, House of Afros Capes and Curls, TEDxOmaha, and WhyArts. Allowing other organizations to use the space is part of the theater’s plan to connect audiences with local talent.
“Our business model is really about partnerships,” Ryan says. “We are a shared community space that an artist or a nonprofit can utilize for education and creative programming.”
Ryan, Allen, and the whole team have invested much time and effort into making the theater a comfortable, safe and accessible place for all audience members. For example, an adult changing table can accommodate up to 400 pounds and a hearing loop system is installed on the floor for the hearing impaired. The theater also offers free headsets with closed captioning, and a compression swing in the green room for those who suffer from anxiety or who are on the autism spectrum. In addition, booth seating can be moved to make way for wheelchair users.
“People have come in tears and said, ‘I have never been able to come somewhere and know I can go to the bathroom and my caretaker can come with me,’’’ Ryan says. “It’s a really special thing.”
Ryan and Allen stress the importance of the community taking advantage of sharing art in the same space.
“We are both responding to the needs as well as giving people a place to be all at once,” Ryan says. “It’s almost irresponsible to not have an education factor attached to what we do—not just to give people a voice, but also open them up to a community that offers education on how to use that voice.”
The unique aspect of the Benson Theatre is that anyone who enters the space feels welcome to be who they are and enjoy the elegance of the space without ever being looked down upon.
Ryan, who prides herself on pushing the boundaries, and going outside the box, says she’s excited about what the future holds for the Benson Theatre. Perseverance and respect for the Benson neighborhood inspired a passion project that transcends traditional theater space.
“My joy in life personally is when I stand in the back behind 200 people and they are all laughing at once or hugging or applauding an artist or seeing a young person on the stage shining with their best potential,” Ryan says. “There is nothing like it; it’s powerful to let it happen on its own naturally.” ◆