Fire razes Triumvirate Theatre building in Nikiski

A bouquet of roses at the Triumvirate Theatre space Sunday, Feb. 21, 2021. (Sabine Poux/KDLL)

A fire decimated a beloved community theater in Nikiski this weekend.

Triumvirate North, the primary theater space for the nonprofit Triumvirate Theatre, burned to the ground early Saturday morning.

No one was hurt, but the fire completely razed the space. Investigators are still working out what caused it. But one thing’s for certain: Come time to rebuild, there will be no shortage of helping hands.

“It’s really kind of hard to describe what that feels like,” said Triumvirate executive director Joe Rizzo. “To get this tremendous amount of support from not only people that are in our little theater family and people that have had kids on our stage, but also people we don’t even know, have been reaching out to us.”

“It’s really overwhelming in the backdrop of such an emotional thing in watching this building go up that we’ve worked on for 10 years,” he added.

Triumvirate Theatre put on shows from that Nikiski space for seven years. Before it was a theater, it was North Road Motors, an old mechanic’s shop.

Refurbishing the space was a multi-year labor of love from a crew of volunteers, including Nikiski High School students in a Kenai Peninsula Construction Academy class.

Renovations didn’t stop then. Triumvirate had just put new siding on the building earlier this month. Last year, it built a two-story addition, which included a green room space dedicated to Rosie Reeder, who ran the used bookstore that supported the theater for over a decade.

Firefighters think the fire originated from that addition. The Alaska State Troopers received a call around 3:15 a.m. Saturday from a passerby who spotted the fire. Two minutes later, they dispatched the Nikiski Fire Department, said Nikiski Fire Chief Bryan Crisp.

When they arrived, fire engine and three water tankers in tow, the fire had already engulfed most of the building. The roof and siding collapsed, which made it difficult to get under and put out the hot spots.

“That’s why we were there until like 1:00, 2:00 that afternoon, because there were little pockets that were covered up by that siding and that sheeting from the roof,” Crisp said.

He said they knew then that most of the building would be a total loss. They were able to keep the front part of the building from collapsing, but the fire still destroyed the ticket counter and lobby space there.

With backup from Kenai and Central Emergency Services, Nikiski Fire set up a water shuttle to bring thousands of gallons of water to the fire. Nikiski doesn’t have fire hydrants because it doesn’t have a municipal water system. The closest hydrant is at the Baker Hughes Building in Kenai, about a mile south of the theater.

To set up the water shuttle, Crisp filled tankers elsewhere and dumped them into swimming pool-like tanks at the site. Then the tankers drove back to fill up and do it all over again.

“And basically it’s just a round-robin thing,” he said.

When a fire causes a death or destruction of a high-dollar amount, the state sends in someone from its fire marshal office to help investigate.

Fire Marshal Office Supervisor Jeff Morton said the cause and origin investigation will likely take a month or more to finalize. He said his office is working with the building insurance company, which is doing its own investigation, and anticipates they’ll have a final report by April.

The building is covered by a $700,000 insurance policy. It’s owned by North Road Properties, a company members of Triumvirate board set up in its early days.

“Originally, when that building came up for sale, Triumvirate Theatre, which was a relatively new organization, they didn’t have the collateral or the history or anything to be able to buy that building,” Rizzo said. “And so myself and a couple of the board members said, ‘OK, well, we’ll mortgage our house and buy this building so the theater will have some place to be.’ And so what we did is we purchased the building and then we were renting it to the theater operations.”

They’re still figuring out how much insurance will cover. Rizzo guessed it’s worth about $500,000, but he won’t know until assessors come.

Triumvirate doesn’t have insurance on the assets inside the building, including the stained glass chandelier that exploded in the fire or the set pieces from years of shows.

They’re hoping the community can help spot those costs, though they’re asking those who want to help to wait to pitch in until they have more information. Rizzo said his board is in the process of setting up an account with the Kenai Peninsula Foundation so people can donate directly.

Scott Wilburn is ready to help rebuild when he can. His entire family has been involved with Triumvirate since they moved to the area a few years back.

“So we need to let the dust settle and just be ready to go when the Rizzos call us,” he said.

Thirteen-year-old Alisha Wilburn played Anna in Triumvirate’s 2019 production of “Frozen.”  She says she’s been watching their website since COVID-19 started for announcements.

“I really want to get into another play. I love acting,” she said.

Scott Wilburn is an aircraft mechanic who pitched in on the set, both for “Frozen” and “Pirates Past Noon” a year later. He said meant a lot to them that the Rizzos were so inviting when they had just moved from out of town.

“It was definitely a warm theater,” he said. “I liked the size, it really did keep it a lot smaller and intimate and more personable. And it let younger stars come to shine versus being swallowed up by a large theater.”

On top of the theater, there was a lobby with couches and a fireplace around which castmates would gather during rehearsals.

“Our hearts are bleeding with them right now,” said Lara McGinnis, manager of the Kenai Peninsula Fair for 14 years. “Joe Rizzo poured his heart and soul into that with so many children to build it. I know it’s a lot of adult volunteers but when kids pour their hearts into something like that and you see it disintegrate, it just hurts in ways that can’t be put into words.”

She said she spoke with Jim Stearns, executive producer of SalmonFest, who reached out to ask what they can do to help.

“They are so loved and acknowledged by the entire entertainment community on the peninsula. We will all be there,” McGinnis said.

Kenai Performers, who put on T.S. Eliot’s “Murder in the Cathedral” last weekend and this upcoming weekend, is sending donations from the production to Triumvirate. Donations can be made in person at the shows, now sold out, or through the ticketing website for those attending the livestream.

Those gestures and an outpouring of support on Facebook show there’s an entire community ready to help.

“They’ll get it back and it’s going to be better,” said Scott Wilburn. “Bigger and better than before.”

At least one person, Rosie Reeder’s daughter Rhonda McCormick, is already taking steps to beautify the spot. Driving past the ruin, you might see it —  propped up on a red crate, backset against a heap of ash, a bouquet of yellow roses.

KDLL - Kenai

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