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Residents hope to save Geneva Theater

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Kevin Hoffman
February 22, 2011
— They call it the dream.

The old, run-down theater in downtown Lake Geneva isn't the sight it used to be when famous performers and American icons entertained hundreds of guests. Instead, the building sits silent, slowly wasting away.


A small group of residents believe it can be saved, and the dream is all about preserving a piece of local history before it's lost.


"I think we want to make every effort to make something positive happen, here, and pursue every opportunity," said Ken Etten, Lake Geneva architect and president of the city Historic Preservation Commission. "I don't want to be the one five years from now saying, 'Why didn't we do something? Why didn't we try?,' and then look back and say, 'What a shame. We used to have a nice theater, and we let it go.'"


It's been decades since Will Rogers or the Marx Brothers graced the stage at the Geneva Theater. The community is known for its scenic outdoors, but few remember a performance by Bela Lugosi, a Hungarian actor famed for his role as Dracula.


The Geneva Theater today is all but deserted, and the owner is looking to unload the vacant building to someone willing to put it to use. Some hope that doesn't lead to more retail businesses.


It's not the businesses they fear but the loss of a local landmark. A newly organized non-profit group known as Friends of the Geneva Theater want to preserve and renovate it, bringing entertainment back to a stage that hasn't been used in years.


Etten and Elizabeth Chappell, board president of the Lake Geneva Art Museum, are leading the efforts, along with the group's 10-plus members. The project has drawn interest from history buffs, art lovers and philanthropists throughout Lake Geneva.


"If that building were to be torn down and turned into shops, there would never be a downtown theater again," Chappell said. "Over the years, (it's been renovated) so it's not historically accurate, but still, it has a little bit more character than any old building."


The task seems lofty and the group is only in its organizational stages, assigning duties to members. Next, they begin a massive climb to raise the building's $949,000 asking price.


Then there's the risk that while Friends of the Geneva Theater works to purchase the building, another buyer might scoop it up.


The theater was almost lost this winter when a developer from Illinois submitted an offer that was accepted by the owner. He planned to use it as retail space, Chappell said.


But at the end of January, after he had time to analyze the costs of renovation and other expenses, he withdrew his offer.


"We kind of had to hold our breath and wait to see if he followed through on his purchase," Chappell said. "When word finally came that he decided not to purchase the property, that in itself has opened up the door to this group."


Chappell in 2009 created the Lake Geneva Art Museum, but it's still in need of a permanent home. If the group can secure the theater, plans are to move the museum there.


That would leave plenty of space for the theater to be brought back to life, making it available for shows, films and other events. Etten envisions it becoming a cultural arts or performance center for the community.


The theater's price tag is just one hurdle. It opened in 1928 as a combination movie and vaudeville theater, replacing the Ford Opera House, Etten said.


Geneva Theater originally seated about 525 people, but reconstruction over the years split it into two theaters, Etten said.


Because of its age, it probably needs new wiring, heating and air conditioning, Etten said. He's also expecting to restore the theater and replace the roof.


"It's really been kind of an eyesore for a few years now," Chappell said. "It needs work but not so bad that it wouldn't be a wise decision to try and turn this into something that would be a little more lively."


Some movies were played and a few bands performed there over the past couple years, Etten said, but it's been a while since it's been a "full-blown theater."


He said several groups in the community would like to see the building come back to life. The city and chamber of commerce expressed support, but neither is in a position purchase it.


Friends of the Geneva Theater plans to explore all options—preservation grants, fundraisers, private donations. But this is just the beginning.


"If this building gets sold and made into retail space," he said, "then we missed a golden opportunity and can never come back."


To learn more


For more information about Friends of the Geneva Theater and its efforts to save the historic theater in downtown Lake Geneva, contact Elizabeth Chappell at (262) 903-8035 or Ken Etten at (262) 248-8391, Ext. 12.



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