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Fixing up the downtown West Bend Theatre

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The historic downtown West Bend Theater is making way for its next chapter in life.

Last year in October the additional second-floor balcony was removed and the interior of the theatre returned to its original format.

The sculptured face above the main stage was unveiled. It traced to ancient Greek when ‘masks,’ made from clay or wood, served as a universal symbol for drama.

The sculptures had huge wide open mouths and at one time there may have been three in the main theatre including satyr, comedy, and tragedy.

The West Bend Theater, which opened Nov. 16, 1929, sparked memories for a couple others in the community including Jack Koehn, 84, of West Bend who remembered when his dad’s jewelry store was to the immediate north of the theater.

“It was under the name Walter J. Koehn Jewelers,” said Jack Koehn. “I was in high school and worked as an usher at the theater. I felt like I grew up there with our store next door.”

Koehn started at the theater in 1945 when he was 16 years old.

“Elmer Albright was the manger, ‘big’ Bill Thelen was the projectionist and there was a Barton pipe organ in the orchestra pit. We packed that theater on Sunday with a matinee in the afternoon and another showing at night for adults. It was the place to go,” he said.

In the 1940s, when West Bend’s population topped out at 5,000, a ticket to the show house was 10 cents for kids and “maybe a quarter for grownups” said Koehn. “Popcorn was a nickel and it was a bag full, with real butter.”

Koehn said ushers were dressed in a simple sport coat and armed with flashlights and an assignment.

“We had to seat people and you shined the flashlight on the floor and they had to follow the beam,” he said. “We also klomped kids on the feet with that light; keeping their feet off the backs of the seats; that was our main job.”

Mary Ann Anderson of West Bend also recalled a fond memory of the West Bend Theater that dated to 1975 where she met “a very cute and charming young man.”

“Lee lived in my apartment complex and actually helped me move the day I arrived,” she said.

Lee asked Mary Ann out to dinner and a movie. “We saw Jaws,” said Mary Ann. “It didn’t really hit me as my kind of movie. I clearly remember where we sat in the balcony.”

Mary Ann talked about the movie, the suspense, the music and the ‘jump-and-scream moment.’

“As I jumped, Lee calmly took my hand and held it for the rest of the movie,” she said. “This began a delightful courtship and two-and-a-half years later we married and had our wonderful family, a son and daughter.”

Theater owner Matt Prescott said he will be leaving the theater’s historic detail in place as he works to bring in the next stage of development.

Prescott and his company, Madison-based Ascendant Holdings, bought the old theater in May 2012.

Photo courtesy Roger Strack.

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