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Conklin Theater Group Gets An Encore In New Barn III

As many as 150 people recently participated in a ceremonial barn-raising event in Goodfield, but it wasn’t to help an ailing farmer.

It was the beginning of the re-birth of a theater that for 40 years hosted performances that drew full houses and television celebrities to Central Illinois.

Abbey Reel and Mary Simon will co-manage a new $1.5 million Barn III dinner theater that’ll host the Conklin Players Theater Troupe as well as events such as weddings and concerts. Reel, 36, who jokes she just paid off her college loan, is the daughter of Les Reel, who for many years owned and operated the Reel Livestock and Auction House in Congerville.

Bedroom with light peach walls, double bed, quilt hanger, mirror and wall hangings
Credit Colleen Reynolds / WGLT
A bedroom that has been restored to have the look and feel of the 1850s when it was first constructed. The brick home on the Barn III site will eventually host guests, possibly connected to weddings and events in the dinner theater building.

Les Reel and his wife, Carolyn, were friends of Mary Simon and Chaunce Conklin, who opened the Barn II Theater in a converted angus barn on Halloween 1975. Reel said her dad was about bringing people together and often hosted events, including benefits, at his livestock center.

“So to really carry on that feeling of community that he instilled in me and with the talent and expertise of Mary and the Conklin Players and to be able to offer them a home is a dream come true for me,” she said, smiling as she looked at Simon from inside an historic home that also sits on the site.

Mary Simon is helping restore the 1857 brick house where yes, Abraham Lincoln once slept, because he was friends with the owners. According to Simon, Lincoln also represented the family in a lawsuit over the building which she and her husband purchased in 1993 and rehabbed to run as a bed and breakfast for a little more than a year.

Now, she’s living in the house and she’s restoring it to eventually host guests for weddings or other events and to be rented by tourists looking for an Airbnb.

“It is strange for me to be back in this house and doing it again. I’ve walked around and I’ve said, ‘There’s something about this house and I guess I was meant to be in this house because now I’m living in this house!’” Simon added. “We never lived in it before.”

In the summer of 2015 a storm took out the former Barn II Conklin Dinner Theater and Simon couldn’t rebuild because of an ongoing insurance dispute. A year later Reel starting thinking about getting involved. As a teenager, she waitressed and also performed at the dinner theater.

In a year’s time, Reel and Simon have raised $84,000 in private donations, and they’re receiving a loan from the federal Small Business Administration. The loan is designed for entrepreneurs, but Reel said even though startups are touted as the economic engine driving the economy, local lenders were reluctant to take a chance on the project.

“Character loans are a thing of the past. You really have to show proof and show them the money up front,” said Reel. She credits Morton Community Bank’s Shelly Hunt and Marcia Schlicht, vice president of Growth Corp. in Springfield, for understanding their vision.

“It has been very difficult, but the bankers who stood by my side were the ones who came out to the property (and) visited,” Reel said. She believes the women, who recently had children get married, had a better understanding of the income potential from the wedding side of the business.

Already five weddings and a prom have been scheduled. Reel could get additional bookings now that The Barn III has a website complete with pricing and large photos showing what the site will look like when it’s completed. It also has T-shirts available for anyone who donates $50 or more to the theater-building effort.

The Same Only Better

RK Custom Builders of Congerville will construct the new barn to look almost identical to the Barn II, but with an elevator and a larger room housing the ticket office. It will have fireplace and comfortable seating for guests before shows and other events. A decorative silo will be a backdrop for photos.

Men work on the second story of a construction site to add an elevator shaft.
Credit Colleen Reynolds / WGLT
Builders are working on an elevator shaft which will make the second-story mezzanine handicap accessible, something that was not the case in the previous Barn II theater building.

The menu will also be the same, including the notable raspberry vinaigrette and coconut cream pie served at communal tables.

“We are trying to create the integrity of what Chaunce and Mary created years ago," Reel said. "It worked and it was successful and people loved that.”

She added, “I think there’s real value in people coming out and sitting there and looking at each other and enjoying a show and laughing and being able to have a conversation. So that’s our goal.”

One thing she hopes will be different is the bring-your-own-beverage option that stands because Simon and Conklin three times failed to convince voters to repeal Goodfield’s dry status that dates back to prohibition. Reel is optimistic because she believes Goodfield leaders are behind efforts to approve alcohol sales if she can get enough signatures for a November ballot question.

“We have other businesses knocking at our doors,” she said, referring to unnamed potential companies that want to sell alcohol and are said to be interested in locating just off of I-74. Award-winning Tres Rojas Wines, which has production in Morton, has asked customers on its Facebook page if they would like a site 5 miles south of the Goodfield exit along the Mackinaw River.

Construction keeps moving along but critical materials are three weeks behind scheduled delivery. Regardless, Reel and Simon are planning to launch ticket sales on Labor Day for the first show, a comedy called “Death by Golf,” which will star Simon and regular Bob Lane Jr. And the show will go on either in January or February 2019.

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GLT's full story.

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Colleen has spent most of her adult life working the streets and beats of Bloomington-Normal for WJBC-AM where she won numerous reporting awards for hard news, feature writing, and breaking news coverage.