Neon lights up the Melba Theatre in downtown Houston. 

The luster of the neon returned late last week to the Melba Theatre in downtown Houston as an extensive renovation of the 1938 icon continues.

The project began last fall and includes extensive construction and renovations at the Melba Theatre, closed since the early 1980s, and adjoining business properties. A lobby was expanded, a concession area included, new restrooms added and dressing rooms developed. An early 1900s cigar case from Blankenship Drug, one of the town’s first businesses, is in place in the concession stand. Instead of displaying tobacco, it will pitch snacks. The first neon “M” that graced the front of the structure will sit lit in a corner along with two original chairs — which promises to a popular spot for this generation’s selfies taken by phone. Eighty years earlier, it was an occasional black and white snapshot.

Downtown Houston Inc., the organization leading the project, said Monday occupancy of the building is expected this fall after several improvements are completed:

•Sound and lighting installation required for productions, meetings and other events, which might at some point even include an occasion movie. That work may begin as early as this week.

•Hanging of curtains around a new stage that is considerably bigger than the original one built by the original owner, Bessie Kelly. It is now 25 feet in depth and fills the width of the building. Curtain material — to act as a sound barrier —  was installed earlier on walls. 

•Final finishes on the neon is required on the front exterior of the building and around a marquee, which also is being refurbished. Employees with Missouri Neon in Springfield worked four days last week.

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•Installation of seating on the just-painted original concrete floors. It is estimated 166 will be included. A campaign is under way to raise additional funding for seating. Many families, businesses and classes have joining together to adopt a seat or multiple ones, but additional help is needed. The cost is $250, and a name plate is added to the chair that recognizes the donor or honors someone. Chairs will be ordered soon to allow for a fall opening. Tax-deductible donations can be mailed to Downtown Houston Inc., P.O. Box 170, Houston, Mo. 65483 or dropped off with volunteers Vera Gladden, Becky Edison, Kathy Richardson or Brad Gentry.

Flooring that includes tile in the concession area and restrooms and carpet in the lobby and dressing rooms was finished Friday. Carpet work will return for the aisles after seats are installed.

Organizers met last Thursday to work on a rental agreement for the use of the Melba. A full day of usage will cost about $100.

Funding for the project comes from donations through the Missouri Neighborhood Assistance Program and private and corporate donations and grants.

Chairs will be ordered soon to allow for a fall opening. Tax-deductible donations can be mailed to Downtown Houston Inc., P.O. Box 170, Houston, Mo. 65483

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