The stage is being set for the purchase of the 86-year-old West Bend Theatre by the West Bend Cultural Alliance.
At a meeting of the board of the Alliance Tuesday night, discussion centered around saving both the theater at 125 N. Main St. and a covered walkway across the Milwaukee River that is connected to it but out of use.
“We’d like to purchase the theater so it can truly be a community theater,” said Nancy Storrs, who founded the Alliance in 2011 and was elected to serve as its president at Tuesday night’s meeting. “We will be setting up a fundraising task force for its purchase.”
The Alliance would like to restore the old theater — but any rehabilitation of the building into a venue for community use depends on preserving the covered walkway that was scheduled for demolition.
“The first real step in this
A8 “The first real step in this project is going to be the bridge because without it, there is no second step.”project is going to be the bridge because without it, there is no second step,” Storrs said.
Therese Sizer, member of the Alliance board, asked about the importance of the famed “bridge to nowhere.” A new bridge is going to be constructed by the city just a bit north of the covered walkway to go between the new vest pocket park and the Museum of Wisconsin Art on the other side of the river.
“The new bridge is too far. We’ve been told that people do not want to have to park and then walk very far, especially if the weather is poor,” Amy Zimmer said.
It is great that this group is working to renovate the theater. Any time a group of people pool their private resources together to try to build a business in the city, it should be applauded. But a few things strike me as dubious.
First, I’m not sure the market is there for what they want to do. Don’t get me wrong, I thoroughly enjoyed the ambiance of the theater the one and only time I was in it. It was pretty cool. But it has been closed for almost a decade and it wasn’t exactly a huge attraction before that (hence, it went out of business). I’d venture to say that the vast majority of folks in West Bend have never been inside the theater. So what the group is trying to capitalize on is the nostalgia for what most people have never experienced and the famous sign.
As a business, I question what the audience is. They are talking about audiences of 500 people. What will draw that? Is the intent for the theater to offer stage shows? It’s too small to get any large show – particularly on a regular basis. Will it be for local artists? Those aren’t likely to draw 500 people on a regular basis. Will it show movies? That’s what it tried before and it will struggle to compete with modern theaters.
I’m just having a hard time imagining the audience that will sustain a theater business in that facility. The advocates cite other theaters that have been renovated and are a “success.” Are they? The Milwaukee Theater and the Pabst Theater are open and operate, but they also operate at a loss with substantial taxpayer support. And those theaters are in a much larger population center than West Bend. Is that a model that works for West Bend? I don’t think so. I don’t see any appetite for taxpayer support of a theater nor are the advocates asking for it (yet). So the theater will have to survive as a profitable private venture competing with those existing theaters for acts and audience – not to mention all of the other entertainment choices of consumers.
Also, locally, bear in mind that both the West Bend High Schools and Kettle Moraine Lutheran High School have both just constructed Performance Arts Centers that are beautiful, modern, and seat far more people than the downtown theater, so the probability of the downtown theater even being the selected venue for local plays and performances are limited.
I have no doubt that the theater operators could probably pull together a show or two a year that fill the house, but I have a hard time envisioning a sustainable business.
Finally, there is the obsession with the bridge. I just don’t get that. If the theater is going to have shows that draw enough people to fill it, the fact that patrons have to walk 100 feet north to a bridge is hardly a rational deterrent. While the covered bridge has a marginal advantage over an uncovered bridge, the covered bridge is also more difficult to access for the elderly and infirm – exactly the people most likely to be deterred by having to use the new bridge. Also, given the nice new park and access to the theater, I’d suspect that many theater patrons would walk that way anyway to enjoy the rest of downtown West Bend before or after a show. It seems that the renovation of the bridge is just an added expense with little marginal benefit to the overall project.
I applaud the folks trying to put this together. Many of us would love to enjoy a rejuvenated downtown theater and I hope they are successful. I know they are just starting, but they need a better business plan than nostalgia if they are going to raise the money for it.