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Return of Lake Geneva's historic movie house

Return of Lake Geneva's historic movie house

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Geneva Theater main pic

The Geneva Theatre Actors Guild’s next performances will be at the Geneva Theater, 244 Broad St. (File photo/Regional News)

It was the place where people saw their first movie on a big screen, where they had their first bucket of popcorn or their first date.

But the future of the theater at 244 Broad St., Lake Geneva, became uncertain after it closed in 2010.

At one point, there were plans to turn the historic building — which once hosted appearances by the Marx Brothers, Bela Lugosi and Will Rogers — into a boutique shopping mall.

Fate took a different turn, and in 2017, after a renovation, the Geneva Theater reopened.

Once again, the theater brings first-run films to downtown Lake Geneva, and the stage that once existed when the theater was built in 1928 has been restored.

Back in the early days of the theater, vaudeville acts performed at least twice a week as a way for owners of the single-screen movie theater to supplement their income.

“Just like they did in the late 20s and early 30s, we are using that stage,” said Marie Frederick, Geneva Theater’s events coordinator.

Frederick and Geneva Theater owner Shad Branen discussed how the history of the theater guided the new look and plan for the building.

In 1928, the theater was a single-screen auditorium, with 750 seats, including a balcony.

At its opening gala June 6, 1928, the theater hosted a screening of “Telling the World,” a comedic drama starring William Haines and Anita Page, released that same year.

Geneva and the Burlington Plaza theaters were both built in 1928 and operated by the same company, Community Theaters Inc.

The president of Community Theaters Inc. was William F. Pabst, whom Frederick believes to be a descendant of Frederick Pabst, who was perhaps most remembered as president of Pabst Brewing Co.

Coincidentally, Branen also owns the Burlington Plaza.

He said the purchase and renovation of Geneva Theater cost in excess of $2 million.

Over the years since its opening gala, Geneva Theater changed ownership.

During subsequent renovations, the single auditorium became two screening rooms, then four — three on the ground floor, and the former balcony was turned into the fourth room.

By the time Branen was involved, Geneva Theater had been gutted.

In the upper-level screening room, the wall with the projection screen had been torn down.

Roof leaks caused water damage in Theater 1, the location of the historic stage.

“Usually they’re in pretty rough shape,” said Branen, of old theaters. “Either they’re empty, and sitting empty, or they’ve been repurposed into something else, and to bring them back requires a lot of work because they aren’t the auditoriums that they were.”

Branen discussed renovation plans with Friends of the Geneva Theater, a citizen group which sought to turn the building into a cultural center.

He said they tried to keep as much of the old theater intact as they could, but changed other parts to create special event accommodations.

Much of Theater 1, including the stage and ceiling, was restored.

The wall to the upper-level screening room was rebuilt.

During the renovation, Branen discovered several features of the building that had been walled off — old staircases, including one which led from the main lobby to the old balcony, which is where an alcove now stands that displays old theater pictures.

He also found a basement wall signed by those who participated in previous theater programs and productions.

The wall has been preserved, and another next to it left blank, waiting to be signed by those who take part in future plays and happenings at the theater.

Now, the theater is a place where state-of-the-art projection and sound systems exist alongside images and artifacts from celluloid yesteryear.

A table that projectionists used to splice film reels together juts out of the wall near Theaters 3 and 4.

Frederick wants to create historic displays about the people who first opened the theater.

But in the last year, Geneva Theater has played host to various private and public gatherings — film festivals, comedy shows, productions by local theater groups.

People tell Branen stories all the time about movies they remembered seeing at Geneva Theater.

But to him, right now, Geneva Theater is a success story.

“The community of Lake Geneva played a big part in that,” he said. “It wouldn’t have happened without the community support.”

Visit geneva4.com to find out more about movie screenings and special events at the theater.

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