denis gullickson | talking titletown | aug. 2018
Part One of a Two-Part Series
With several area productions dazzling of late, Green Bay's theatrical scene is shining brightly.
Let Me Be Frank Productions grows in popularity, performing as many as six different shows a year along with its spinoffs — including the LMBF Tribute Shows and the recent Hysterical (Historical) Players Series at Heritage Hill.
Play-by-Play Theater recently completed a world-class run of the adventurous “Return to the Forbidden Planet" as part of this summer's St. Norbert College Musical Theatre offerings. That was followed in the SNC series by a much-acclaimed iteration of “Mary Poppins."
Meanwhile, the Green Bay Community Theater prepares for its 83rd season with the upcoming “Artifice," opening September 13, and Evergreen Productions launches its 2018-19 season with “Lombardi" on September 14.
Regular readers of this column know that exciting things are ahead as an entertainment district takes shape in downtown Green Bay. Part of that plan includes a 200-seat theater in the proposed arts and performance facility in the former Schauer and Schumacher buildings and a refurbished 500-seat former Vic Theater down the road a piece.
In the process, the Green Bay Theatre Company hopes to provide these performing troupes, actors and production artists a place to “collaborate and cross-pollinate" — the words of local acting icon Parker Drew.
And, make no mistake, the visual arts represent a huge part of this plan — but that's another story warranting its very own discussion in these pages anon.
With all of that in mind, this writer thought it might be time to take a quick walk down memory lane and retrace the history of Titletown's various performance venues.
Green Bay didn't have an actual theater until 1900. In the earliest days, live performance was relegated to a tent or an open-air locale.
When moved indoors, entertainment typically shared space with other activities at “public halls." These included Klaus Hall and Turner Hall. Downtown hotels like the Astor House, Washington House or United States House also offered performance periodically in their ballrooms or dining rooms.
Klaus Hall was first located on the second floor of a dry goods store opened in 1856 by brothers Charles and Philip Klaus, “on the south side of Pine Street, between Washington and Adams." According to Green Bay historian, Jack Rudolph, the “hall wasn't very big, measuring 24 by 60 feet, but it was the first room in the city ever specifically designed for public use." It became especially famous for the entertainment it offered, Rudolph acclaimed.
With brother Philip directing the dry goods store, Charles oversaw the upstairs hall. “The latter was an enthusiastic promoter," Rudolph reported, “and in short time he had made Klaus Hall the most popular place for public meetings, dances and the infrequent appearances of such theatrical companies as found their way to Green Bay."
In 1858, Henry Baird built a “slightly larger and more attractive hall" — directly across the street — and the brothers moved. A fire dimmed the lights at the new Klaus Hall temporarily, but — by 1866 — Charles Klaus had constructed “a brick building with several ground floor stores and an auditorium above. A wide stairway between store fronts led up to a hall 80 by 40 feet, well lighted and ventilated, with a 17-foot ceiling." It also had a large stage, an adjoining dining room and dressing rooms for performers.
For the next 30 years, wrote Rudolph, “Klaus Hall was the entertainment center of the city. Four out of every five touring theatrical troupes played there, many returning year after year. Minstrel shows, opera companies and individual artists of all classes were familiar with its peculiarities from long and repeated association."
By early 1895, Klaus Hall had closed its doors once and for all.
Competition for Klaus Hall wasn't limited to Baird's operation. In 1871, Gus Crikelair built what Rudolph described as “an elaborate opera house" on Cherry Street — between Adams and Jefferson. Never the success of Klaus Hall, Crikelair eventually closed the blinds and, after a bit, the building become home to a fledgling “Green Bay Press-Gazette" made forever famous as the meeting place where the Green Bay Packers were organized in August 1919.
Other venues included the Armory Opera House on Adams Street and a Music Hall constructed on the southeast corner of West Walnut and Chestnut streets — giving the west side its own performance house.
By the turn of the century, various other Public Houses or Halls offered the gamut of live presentation from the Royal Arcanum Hall on Washington and Zille's Hall out along Main Street to additional venues on the west side — including Platten Hall on Dousman, Ansgar Hall on South Broadway and the YMCA Hall on West Walnut and Chestnut. (Yes, the “Y" was on the west side then.)
When Turner Hall opened on the northeast corner of East Walnut and Monroe Streets in 1870, “its biggest feature," Rudolph wrote, “was an excellent auditorium with one of the best equipped stages in the middle west, and after the society made it available for public performances most of the theatrical companies preferred to play there."
Early Green Bay Theaters
It will surprise most people today to learn that — at one point or another — Green Bay had eight theaters operating at different locations on the near-east side and two on the near-west side.
Ground was broken for that very first theater, the Green Bay Theater, at 217 East Walnut Street, in August 1899. It still stands at that location today — fondly remembered by Baby Boomers as the Vic Theater, 1957-85, and by their parents as the Orpheum, 1912-57.
During its long reign as Green Bay's premiere theater, it had plenty of competition.
By 1905, the Bijou Theater had opened around the corner at 103 South Washington where it ran until 1907 before moving two doors down and reopening as the Star Theater. From 1909 on, it operated as the Royal Theater until it was destroyed by fire in May 1920.
Meanwhile a different theater joined the Bijou syndicate, opening in 1907 at 315-317 N Washington. It operated there for twenty years — until 1927 — when it was torn down for the Leath Furniture store building.
That same year, 1907, the Grand Theater opened at 202 N Washington, running for just a year before being remodeled into a restaurant.
In 1909, the Post Theater opened its doors at 200 N Adams where it operated until 1914 when it reopened later that year as the Princess Theater. As such, it would run for two more years before being remodeled into the downtown YWCA.
In 1910, the Comet Theater opened at 310 N Washington — operating until 1915 — when it was extensively refurbished into the Grand Theater. As the Grand, it operated until 1939 when it became the Packer Theater — doing business until 1950 when it switched to the Pix Theater. In 1955, it was remodeled into Osco Drug.
In 1911, the west side of town got into the act when the Gem Theater opened at 318-320 West Walnut. Just four years later — in 1915 — it was remodeled into McCartney Bank.
Back on the east side, the Colonial Theater made its appearance in 1913 at 106-108 N Washington. It ran until 1933 when it was converted into Bertrand's Sporting Goods Store.
In 1921, these theaters were joined by the Strand Theater — located at 103 S Washington. In 1952, the Strand became the Time Theater, before reopening as the Strand again in 1961. It was razed in 1982 to widen E Walnut Street.
In 1930, the Fox Theater opened for business at 117 S Washington to great fanfare. So much so, that its anticipated Grand Opening prompted extensive remodeling at the Orpheum Theater. In 1933, the Fox became the Bay Theater and operated as such until 1997. In 2002, it reopened after a multi-million-dollar refurbishing as the Meyer Theatre. Today, it is the only one of these many downtown theaters still operating as a performance venue.
Back on the west side, the West Theater opened in what had been a car dealership — at 405 W Walnut in 1941 — before closing for a year and reopening as the West Pitcher Show, which operated until 2000. In that year, it was converted to a nightclub under the ownership of then-Green Bay Packer linebacker, Nick Barnett. Today, it stands vacant, though practically a turnkey operation for a nightclub or dinner-theater spot.
In grand total, just three of these former theater buildings remain standing today.
Next Month: A deeper dive into the story and the history of Green Bay's historic theaters as well as the evolving entertainment they offered the community — including the virtual sea change represented as theaters shifted from live entertainment to moving pictures.
--Banner image: 'Seated by Numbers' by Helge Thomas
Summer, 2018 winds down with writer, educator, farmer and horseman Denis Gullickson helping lead the effort of the Green Bay Theatre Company to convert the former Schauer and Schumacher buildings into a vibrant downtown arts and performance center. Contact him at email@example.com.