On any evening, sidewalks purr with pedestrian chatter. Friends meet, families gather and the velvet curtains rise inside the historic performing arts venues of our communities.
Since the late 1800s, these structural wonders have proved vital components in the cultural fabric of their Wisconsin communities. Venues like the Grand Opera House in Oshkosh and the Capitol Civic Center in Manitowoc give local talent a place to perform, non-profits a place to raise funds and residents a place to make memories that will still flicker a century from now.
Behind the curtains are some of the state’s longest-operating, most beloved performing arts centers, with histories rich in community engagement, arts education and preservation.
Grand Opera House
In summer 2009, hundreds rallied along Algoma Boulevard to demand that the Oshkosh Common Council members vote to make emergency repairs to the 660-seat Grand Opera House’s roof, trusses and attic floor system, and to get the valuable arts asset back up and running.
Through its evolution from movie house to adult-rated theater and back to performing arts center, the Grand has remained a supported, invaluable community resource in Oshkosh.
“One of my favorite things is that, 127 years after it was built, it is used much in the same way in which it was originally intended,” says Joe Ferlo, executive director. “It was meant to be a place where the community came together, either as performers or to watch performances of the touring artists of the era.”
Repairs also include new roof shingles, a smoke detection system, copper rain gutters and emergency lighting system. The opera house is slated to re-open in September.
On Stage at the Grand: Wisconsin’s oldest-operating theater is home to Water City Chamber Orchestra, Eclectic Arts/Oshkosh Community Players, high school and community theater groups, educational programs, art walks, weddings, “Top 100 Preview Night” and outdoor events like “Movies in the Park.” More at www.grandoperahouse.org
On a frigid Valentine’s Day afternoon in 1930, more than 5,000 theatergoers lined Washington Avenue in downtown Green Bay to be the first to glimpse the new Fox Theatre, as Meyer Theatre was originally named.
The grand-opening gala featured footage of Green Bay Packer game victories, a recital on a prized Wurlitzer pipe organ, a feature film and cartoon.
Before the Depression bankrupted the owner of Fox Theatres Inc., the first few golden years brought Hollywood to Green Bay. On the silver screen, patrons fell in love with actresses like Sidney Fox in “Strictly Dishonorable.”
When the venue re-opened in 1933 as the Bay Theatre, guests enjoyed live performances by Louie Armstrong, Donald O’Connor and Dale Evans.
After a $5.5 million renovation to restore its original Spanish atmospheric structure, the restored Meyer Theatre boasts a star-lit ceiling, the original Wurlitzer organ and a full season of live performances.
Let Me Be Frank Productions became the main tenant four years ago and has performed 102 dates per year to 20,000 guests.
“It was like giving me the key to the golden city,” says Frank Herman, Let Me Be Frank founder. “It is a landmark, first of all, because it’s the former Fox Theater; second, it supports the community.”
Terry Charles, of managing group PMI, says Meyer is essential to economic and cultural stimulation in Green Bay.
“If you ask anybody who has anything to do with downtown Green Bay, they will tell you the Meyer has become the catalyst for bringing people downtown,” Charles says.
On Stage at Meyer: The non-profit theater gives Green Bay Civic Symphony, Allouez Village Band, Barb’s Center for Dance and other local groups a place to perform. More: www.meyertheatre.org
Capitol Civic Center
After 90 years as an arts anchor in Manitowoc, it’s hard to believe Capitol Civic Center was nearly razed. Local arts advocates spent five years creating a nonprofit, Society to Preserve the Capitol, to save the facility.
“The vision was to have a home for the local arts organizations in Manitowoc, and that’s very robust especially for a town of its size,” executive director Jim Kreutzberg says of the renewed vision for the Capitol at re-opening in 1987.
Recently designated for economic development, downtown Manitowoc is a focal point for culture. The Capitol, and all who perform there, are key to that cultural development, Kreutzberg says.
“Giving an opportunity for local people to perform is an important function,” Kreutzberg says. “When it comes down to it the more of that kind of activity there is, the richer everybody’s life is in the community.”
On Stage at the Capitol: Local dance company shows, Clipper City Cordsmen concerts, community events, youth programs, children’s choirs and holiday celebrations make for busy seasons at Capitol Civic Center today. More at www.cccshows.org
The Grand Theater
Margie Brown led the crew that prevented New London’s Grand Theater from becoming a parking lot.
Brown says that in its heyday, the theater housed minstrel and vaudeville shows and was most known as the community’s gathering place. “It was called Grand Opera House,” she says. “There were town dances and the prom was held there for several years.”
After former owners “let it go,” a nonprofit called Friends of the Grand was formed to save the theater. Led by Brown, they found Rogers Cinema, an ally in the Wisconsin theater chain. It’s now New London’s prime movie house, showing films on four screens.
It has yet to rediscover its early history as a live performance venue. “I would like to pull the movies into three screens and use the Grand as more a civic center for entertainment,” Brown says. “It’s my dream.”
Thrasher Opera House
When electricity became available in 1912, the Thrasher Opera House purchased a projection system and began showing silent movies. Tickets were 25 cents and wooden kitchen chairs were arranged in groups of five. Townspeople walked or traveled miles by horse and buggy to the Green Lake venue to see films.
Unlike movies today, 20 to 30-minute intermissions were the norm. “Between the first and second reel, they had to shut down and rethread the projector,” executive director Roby Irvin explains. “Everyone went across the street and got their mail and opened it as they got ready to watch the second half of the movie.”
The only theater around with removable seating, the Thrasher was a bustling center for dances, school plays, even basketball games and proms—until the 1940s, when Fabrico turned the venue into a sewing factory to manufacture bags and gloves. It became a boat warehouse in the mid-1960s. “That’s basically what it was—an eye sore and place filled with trash—until 1996,” Irvin says.
With oil stains removed, the Thrasher was restored and re-opened in 1997 after 50 years of no shows.
Unique removable seating makes for a coveted locale for jazz, bands, community theatre, visual art, weddings and more. “We see ourselves as an anchor, not only bringing arts to locals but bringing tourists into town to help our businesses in the community,” Irvin says.
On Stage at Thrasher: Find out what’s abuzz online at www.thrasheroperahouse.com
Windhover Center for the Arts
Fond du Lac makes a destination of its city with irresistible restaurants, art galleries, local retail and a historic Masonic temple, which was transformed into the Windhover Center for the Arts. “We’re a center point in the community, and we’re leading the charge in the arts district,” executive director Kevin Miller says.
Opening again in 2000 after a $2.2-million restoration, Windhover now helps youth programs help fill gaps in school arts programs and, as a quality-of-life venue, it draws new business talent to the area.
On Stage at Windhover: Home to the Fond du Lac Arts Council and Children’s Chorale; Foot of the Lake Poetry collective. More at www.windhovercenter.org
Donna Theater/Third Avenue Playhouse
The 500-seat Donna Theater opened in 1950, constructed out of an early 20th century feed store building along Third Avenue in Sturgeon Bay. It remained a downtown attraction in the heart of the community until the late 1990s when it succumbed to competition from a new multiplex in Egg Harbor.
Around the same time, a small group of local arts advocates were looking to establish a performing arts center. “The locals had great affection for the Donna and certainly didn’t want to see it become just this big, vacant eye sore,” says Jude Drew, executive director of Third Avenue Playhouse (TAP), which has operated out of the old Donna since 2000.
After TAP took ownership of the building in 2005, the group redid the roof, reupholstered seats, installed a film screen and preserved structural integrity of the building. It’s since become a place to see live community theater, local music and attend events by nonprofit and civic groups.
“There’s a great deal of ownership in the community for TAP,” Drew says. “This is the place their friends and children perform.”
On Stage at the Donna: See what’s on stage at www.thirdavenueplayhouse.com
George Gerold Opera House
Well-to-do farmer George Gerold built Weyauwega’s only opera house in 1915 for $15,000.
From the time that Gerold was fitted with a movie screen in the early 1920s, the opera house was a hot spot for movie dates and community events. The Jungle Room, a prohibition-era speakeasy, also operated out of the building’s downstairs area.
With various changes in ownership between 1930–1960s, the Gerold remained a community theater, a place for high school dances and campaigning politicians to deliver their speeches.
The building officially closed in 1993, sitting empty until Ian Teal and Kathy Fehl created the Weyauwega Arts Organization, a nonprofit that resurrected the theater. “We want to engage the community, but also a big part is to educate kids and get them involved in the arts,” Teal says. “The goal is to get the arts out there for the community because you’ve got to be creative to make changes in the world.”
On Stage at the Gerold: Part of arts advocacy group Arts Wisconsin, the Gerold hosts live concerts, dinner-and-film evenings, features an art gallery next door and has made a documentary with local students called “Getting to the Bottom of Lake Weyauwega.” More at www.wegaarts.org
—By Sarah Owen