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A LITTLE HISTORY ABOUT THE GENEVA THEATER - Opened June 6, 1928, as a theater and vaudeville house. - Performers have included Will Rogers, Bela Lugosi and the Marx Brothers. - Originally was a one-screen theater, since divided into four smaller screens. - It was closed in summer 2008 for renovations and reopened, but has been closed and up for sale for quite awhile.
January 19, 2011 | 08:56 AM
Since the summer of 1928, the Geneva Theater has been a fixture in downtown Lake Geneva. For a long time, it was the only theater in the area.

But, things have changed. The property has been on the market for $949,000. Now, with a possible purchase of the property in the works, some local historians are hoping a piece of the building's history can be saved.

Lake Geneva Historic Preservation Committee Chairman Ken Etten said a number of interested community members have met to discuss the future of the building. He also has discussed the possibilities with local leaders and groups.

Currently, there is an option to purchase on the building by Mid-America Development Partners, a real estate development firm headquartered in Oak Brook, Ill. Etten said most developers of the property would be looking at converting the building into retail space.

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But, Etten said he hopes his group and other interested community members could work together with a potential developer to save at least a part of the theater for use as a community arts and performing center. Etten suggested saving the original part of the theater and using the remainder for retail business.

"Nobody will ever build another theater here," Etten said. "It's a one-time situation."

Etten has received verbal support from Mayor Jim Connors and the Lake Geneva Economic Development Corporation. However, money is another issue. Neither the LGEDC nor Connors said there is any funding available to preserve part of the theater.

Etten said raising money would fall on a committee, which he suggested could be called the Friends of the Geneva Theater. Through that, funds could be raised privately and grants could be obtained.

"The key thing is to get community support and business support for this concept," Etten said.

Already, Etten said Elizabeth Chappell, of the Lake Geneva Art Museum and JaNelle Powers from Pelajia Productions along with members of the Lake Geneva Symphony Orchestra, all have shown an interest for the theater to be developed as a Community Cultural Center.

Etten called the building a "historic landmark" that could be "home for live theater, concerts and the arts."

"This may be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to do something positive for the city of Lake Geneva that could disappear in the very near future," Etten wrote in a letter to Joe Cardiff and the members of the LGEDC.

Etten named Woodstock, Ill., Crystal Lake, Ill., and Cedarburgh as three communities that have created a home for the arts in their community.

"Now is the time for the citizens of Lake Geneva to take action and work together to create a performing arts/cultural center that will be a focal point within the downtown and benefit generations to come," Etten wrote.

Connors said he thinks creating a community cultural center would be "great" for the downtown and a "boost."

However, he said any city involvement would be premature as long as there is an option to purchase on the table. He also said the city could be involved, but it should be a private effort funded by community members, not public funds.

"We would be willing to work with them," Connors said about a committee. "This is all premature if that purchase goes through."

Etten said another meeting of the group is scheduled for Feb. 2. They hope to know whether the purchase has been finalized and whether the buyers are interested in working with his committee and the city to save a part of the facility.

He admitted the building needs a lot of work to bring it back to one-screen theater. But, he also said it will take a lot to make the current facility into retail.

"I am hoping if someone buys the property, they would be willing to work with us," he said.

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