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Thunder Bay Theatre needs complete renovation

Theater suffered significant collateral damage from John A. Lau fire

News Photo by Darby Hinkley Thunder Bay Theatre Artistic Director Lucas Moquin leans on the exposed brick wall between the stage and backstage, talking about damage to the theater.

ALPENA — Northeast Michigan’s only year-round professional theater will need a complete renovation after the fire that destroyed the John A. Lau Saloon next door caused considerable irreversible damage to the Thunder Bay Theatre building.

TBT is located on the corner of 2nd Avenue and Fletcher Street in Old Town Alpena. The neighboring saloon was demolished on July 21 apparently caused by a welder working on its roof.

Thunder Bay Theatre Artistic Director Lucas Moquin talked this afternoon about the damage done to the theater, lobby, bathrooms, upstairs apartments, and basement of the building, which will also require a new roof and electrical work.

In a walk-through, Moquin pointed out warping in the lobby’s original hardwood floor, which had been completely refinished when the lobby was renovated and reopened in May 2019. The building, originally built in 1889 and reconstructed with brick in 1904, now smells like a backwoods bonfire.

“The whole lobby is destroyed,” Moquin said, looking down at what used to be a beautifully finished floor — now a warped mess. “The lobby, specifically, especially the beautiful hardwood floor, was kind of my baby. And I made sure to keep this space as clean as possible because this is the first thing that a patron sees when they come into the theater. So, when I first got into the building after the fire, this was the first place I checked. And it was devastating. It was devastating.

“This is the original hardwood floor from when the building was constructed,” he said. “It’s all going to have to be ripped up and replaced.”

On the lobby walls, water from fire hoses damaged the drywall, and water remains in the large round light fixtures, pointing to a need to overhaul the building’s electrical work.

“A lot of the damage is water damage,” he said. “Almost all of the lighting fixtures have water in them.”

The bar is coated in mold, as is the basement, where much of the theater’s props and costumes were stored and had to be thrown out.

“The whole basement is destroyed … The entire rafters and ceiling is all mold,” he said at the top of the basement steps, shining a flashlight down at the mold. “Everything that was down there — 95 to 97 percent of it had to be thrown away. Props, costumes, everything. Archival photos, archival tapes, everything had to be ditched.”

News Photo by Darby Hinkley A hunk of ceiling fell on the stairs leading down from the upstairs apartments above TBT.

Lucas Moquin shows some of the damage to the lobby of Thunder Bay Theatre in the video below. Story continues below the video. On mobile? Turn your device horizontally for the best viewing experience.

In the theater proper, the stage will need to be replaced, but the seats are unscathed.

“The stage got completely destroyed too,” he said. “The seats are fine though. The seats didn’t get wet. They’re just going to be real smoky for a while.”

Above the stage, “part of the ceiling is coming down here, too, from all the water damage,” he pointed out. “Every time it rains, too, because of all the holes in the roof from the fire, we keep getting water coming in, wreaking absolute havoc.”

News Photo by Darby Hinkley Glass shards coat the burned flooring in the upstairs apartment closest to the John A. Lau Saloon.

He said the roof has needed replacing for a while, but now it’s imperative.

“Before the fire, we already knew we needed a new roof,” he said. “But, the thing is, you can’t replace or fix the roof — you certainly can’t replace it — without fixing the masonry, and, once you do that, you have to replace all the windows and the doors and adjust all the floors and everything. So the building is going to have to be rebuilt, basically.”

He said the building is insured, but it will take time to determine the monetary extent of the damage after insurance adjusters assess everything.

“It’s too early to tell, yet, how much will be covered — the extent of what we can do without outside funding,” Moquin said.

Upstairs, Moquin lived in one of the six apartments in which the professional actors live when they are in town. His was on the farthest side from the John A. Lau, but it still has smoke damage and he is currently not living there. He is living in an apartment owned by a friend who said he can stay there as long as is needed.

News Photo by Darby Hinkley A shattered window in one of the six upstairs apartments, caused by the force of the hose spraying water in to keep the flames from destroying the living area.

“The bathroom looks like a war zone,” he said as he walked through one of the apartments. “This building isn’t fit for anything right now. It’s not inhabitable.”

As for the closer apartments separated only by a firewall between the TBT building and the Lau, they are trashed, with water damage causing the ceiling to cave in in various places, ripping through the floors and shattering windows. A shard of glass from a window bursting actually projected into the side of a refrigerator like a thrown knife, Moquin said.

“It’s kind of a surreal thing,” he said of having both his livelihood and his home destroyed on the same day. “Not many people can say that the building where they work, the building that is their livelihood, is also their home. So I was in shock for days afterward. And it didn’t even really hit me fully until probably three days after the fact. And it still feels weird, like this shouldn’t really be happening, but here we are.”

Current programs have been halted at Thunder Bay Theatre, including the children’s play, “The Wizard of Oz,” which had already been rescheduled twice because of the pandemic-related shutdowns and was slated for this fall. It has now been canceled.

“We are just eternally grateful that they were able to keep the theater standing,” Moquin said of the firefighters who battled the blaze. “We’re very grateful that they were able to save the structure.”

News Photo by Darby Hinkley The ceiling had to be torn out at the top of the upstairs for firefighters to access the firewall.

He said the TBT board president bought enough JJ’s Pizza for them and they took it to the station as a thank you for all their hard work.

“Right now the only thing we can really do is wait and see what the adjusters say, what the contractors’ estimates are,” Moquin said. “We just have to kind of wait for a little while right now … We’re just kind of taking it as it comes, one day at a time.”

News Photo by Darby Hinkley Thunder Bay Theatre Artistic Director Lucas Moquin points to water damage in the ceiling from the warped and wet stage.

News Photo by Darby Hinkley The stairs leading to the basement are coated in mold.

News Photo by Darby Hinkley Thunder Bay Theatre Artistic Director Lucas Moquin points to a huge warp in the lobby floor nearest the north wall, which was closest to the John A. Lau Saloon, which was destroyed by a July 21 fire.

News Photo by Darby Hinkley A light fixture in the lobby contains water.

News Photo by Darby Hinkley The original hardwood flooring, refinished in May 2019, is now warped and bowed from the water damage as firefighters battled the John A. Lau Saloon blaze on July 21. A reflection of a rainbow flag in the TBT window is seen here.

News Photo by Darby Hinkley Chunks of the ceiling fell on this chair in one of the upstairs apartments above Thunder Bay Theatre.

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