Nov. 28, 2016 – West Bend, WI – Is revival of the Historic West Bend Theatre a road paved with good intentions? Neighbors are starting to wonder.
Over the weekend theatre doors were opened to the public as curious neighbors signed a petition and took a look inside.
“I would like to see shows with comedians and old movies,” said Elizabeth Bartelt, owner of All in Books and one of 300 who toured the building. “Bring back the nostalgia of why the theatre was here in the first place. It would be a shame for an 80-plus year building to go to the wayside.”
Scott Evenson also toured inside the theatre. “I would like to see it stay; it’s the anchor of our city,” he said.
Several displays presented during the open hours offered options on what direction people would like to see the theatre take. Choices included foreign films, live bands, plays, and events like weddings.
“The most popular listed on the board was classic films,” said Evenson. “For myself I’d like live bands and musicals.”
The theatre is a hot topic. It marked its 87th anniversary on November 26.
Since about 2007 the theatre has gone dark. There have been some recent rumblings about a possible sale or even razing the building for an outdoor amphitheater. None of the rumors have been confirmed by building owner Matt Prescott.
What has been confirmed is a December deadline regarding the renovation or removal of the bridge behind the theatre. The downtown West Bend Business Improvement District put forth a $75,000 surety to save the pedestrian bridge that extends from the back of the West Bend Theatre over the Milwaukee River.
That deadline, now a year later, is just a couple weeks away.
During Sunday’s West Bend Christmas Parade an attempt was made by historian Terry Becker to rally some support for the future of the theatre by having people gather below the West Bend marquee for a photo.
About 30 people drifted over to the theatre but came away disappointed.
“It’s just disorganized,” said Bartelt. “People are looking at information. I asked if they were going to do the community picture and nobody answered me.”
Chris Witt of West Bend came away frustrated too. “I want something to be done with it,” he said. “It’s too historical of a building to just be sitting empty for as long as it has been. There’s discussion of bringing Music on Main inside during the winter. We need to bring people to downtown; there are too many dead buildings. The entire community needs to be behind this.”
Becker said he thought a rally under the marquee would illustrate community support for the theatre. Photographer Evenson was set up across the street and waiting for a large crowd to gather. A handful of people arrived and were informed by a representative “the photographer didn’t show.”
Becker said he saw the rally as a “Hail Mary” of sorts to illustrate the community support for the theatre’s preservation and renovation as expressed by many on social media.
“It was a disappointing turnout,” Becker said. “I hoped word of mouth over social media would have resulted in a much larger crowd.”
However, Becker’s “Hail Mary” may have worked. A man did express interest in the theatre. He said he was rebuffed by organizers gathered under the marquee.
Attempts are being made to contact the man and inquire about the seriousness of his intentions moving forward.
Photo of the Nov. 27 gathering under the theatre marquee courtesy Scott Evenson.