denis gullickson | talking titletown | sept. 2018
Part Two of a Two-Part Series
Last month, we hailed a burgeoning theater scene in Green Bay. Local theater is alive and holding its own in various locales; it deserves a central place to “collaborate and cross-pollinate.â€ (This writer appropriating the words of Parker Drew.)
To that end, the Green Bay Theatre Company – working with Paul Belschner's Base Company – is moving forward with the creation of a vibrant downtown arts and performance center. There, local theater will have a collective foothold in the downtown core and a spot to shore up and promote everyone's efforts in this area.
So, too, will the visual arts – a vital piece in the resurgence of many downtowns across the nation.
With that in mind, last issue we launched a look at Green Bay's historic downtown theaters. Few people know that – at one point or another – Green Bay had theaters at at least 11 different locations [a correction from last issue] on its near east and west sides. Seven theaters operated at the same time, 1913-1915; six simultaneously, 1941-1950.
Today, most people's thoughts of downtown theaters turn to the Meyer, aka Fox and Bay, 117 S. Washington; the Vic, aka Green Bay, Orpheum, and City Centre, 221 E. Walnut; and the West, aka West Pitcher Show, 405 W. Walnut. That's understandable: These are the most-recently operating theaters (the Meyer still going) and they are all still standing (the Vic and West no longer theaters).
Some might recall the Strand Theater, 103 S. Washington, which stood for more than 60 years before being razed in 1982 to widen E. Walnut Street.
The rest are mostly the stuff of ancient newspaper clippings.
Surprising to think, then, that the Grand/Packer/Pix theater, 310 N. Washington, operated for 40 years. Or, that the Colonial Theater, 106-108 N. Washington, and the Bijou Theater, 315-317 N. Washington, each ran for 20 years.
As reported last issue, Public “Hallsâ€ or “Housesâ€ once represented Green Bay's sole entertainment venues. Theatrical, musical and other forms of entertainment shared those spaces with everything from political rallies to lectures to dances and wedding receptions. Of particular note were the east side's Klaus and Turner Halls and Crikelair's Opera House and the west side's Music Hall on the southeast corner of W. Walnut and S. Chestnut Street.
As the 18th Century succumbed to 19th, theaters dedicated strictly to on-stage entertainment began popping up along the business corridor of Washington Street and its nearby tributaries.
Each theater posted its own unique story and history – however long or short it might be.
Their names alone speak volumes about an era in American entertainment history when theaters were opened and closed, bought and sold, merged and cut loose. They also banded together in “circuitsâ€ – not so different from fast food franchises or chain stores – to cut costs, consolidate resources, smooth-out operations and hitch their wagon to a known national network.
While circuits like the Orpheum, Bijou, Grand, Royal, Princess and others accumulated show houses like wildfire, some local theater operators fought doggedly to maintain their house's autonomy.
Concurrently, vaudeville was flooding the country's stages – evolving from traveling minstrel and circus sideshows and the more-staid entertainment offered in the nation's metropolises.
An evening of vaudeville could present a variety ranging from a vocal quartet followed in succession by a short melodrama, an acrobatic performance, a magician, a small animal act, a mind-reader, a novelty act, a comedy sketch and more.
Shortly, a new form of entertainment began to emerge and – literally, in some cases – push vaudeville from the state. That, of course, was “moving picturesâ€ or “moviesâ€ and their introduction changed everything.
While movie projectors of the day were unwieldy contraptions and an organ was usually required for sound, they weren't human. Theater operators – and, yes, even theater circuits – quickly realized that movies and organs didn't complain about fees or dressing rooms, were never late, and didn't require room or board.
Green Bay's theaters were no different and opened with great interest in whether the new house was a “live performanceâ€ or “photoplayâ€ theater or a hybrid offering both.
It made sense that the nine of the 11 theaters that opened in Green Bay between 1900 and 1941 could be found on or just off of Washington Street; there, they were intertwined with stores, hotels, saloons and other business places. Likewise, the two west-side theaters were just off a bustling Broadway.
The Green Bay Theater – the city's first – was located a half-block off Washington and opened strictly as a live performance venue. It continued as such after becoming the Orpheum in 1912 and featured the early Marx Brothers that autumn.
Movies were incorporated at the Orpheum in the late-20s and the two forms of entertainment coexisted after extensive remodeling in 1930 until the house went almost entirely to motion pictures. As the Vic after 1957, it was almost exclusively a movie house with only occasional live acts. In later years, it would return to live performance as the Green Bay Performing Arts/City Centre Theater.
The second theater to open, the Bijou, began life in 1905 at 103 S. Washington (later the site of the Strand Theater), moved to 315-317 N. Washington in 1907 and operated there until being razed in 1927. It also offered vaudeville.
Between 1907 and 1913, no less than five more theaters opened. A short-lived Grand Theater on Washington quickly became a restaurant. In 1908, Henry Goldman opened the “Postâ€ Theater in a building at 200 N. Adams that had indeed been an early post-office. This was “Green Bay's first photoplay theater presenting entire programs of pictures only,â€ reported the Green Bay Press-Gazette some years later. The Post would become the Princess and then become the YWCA in 1916.
In 1909, the Royal Theater opened at 105 S. Washington and continued there until burning to the ground in May 1920. The fire broke out at 9:35 p.m. when film got stuck in the projector and burst into flames that quickly spread through the house. Three hundred people were inside the theater at the time, though all escaped without injury.
In 1910, Goldman opened a second picture house, the Comet – named for Halley's Comet – at 310 N. Washington. In 1912, Goldman also opened the Colonial Theater, 106-108 N. Washington, which, according to the Press-Gazette, was “the first motion picture theater in northern Wisconsinâ€ – suggesting a new-found sophistication for “moving pictures.â€ In 1911, Goldman then opened the Gem Theater at 318-320 W. Walnut at the northeast corner with Broadway.
In 1915, the Palace-Grand, opened at 310 N. Washington and maintained a full symphony orchestra and played featured films of the era, such as “Birth of a Nation.â€ It was then converted into a vaudeville and variety house, before returning to movies in 1923.
In 1921, the Strand opened its doors on the site of the former Royal Theater and continued operations as the Time Theater, 1952-1961, before resuming as the Strand. Movies were almost exclusively its purview.
In 1934, the Press-Gazette celebrated Green Bay's “Four Modern Theatersâ€ in its Civic and Social Section. “Green Bay, hub of northeastern Wisconsin, is likewise the center of this section of the state as far as entertainment is concerned,â€ stated the article.
In particular, the newspaper was celebrating the city's newest and largest house, the Bay Theater, 117 S. Washington, which had opened as the Fox Theater in 1930. Operated by Warner Brothers, the theater had a seating capacity of 2,037. The newspaper also saluted the remodeled Orpheum – run by Wisconsin Amusement Enterprises – with seating for 1,100. These two houses, “incorporate in their construction the last word in theater design and decoration,â€ the Press-Gazette reported.
Also noted was the Grand, with its 700 seats, still running strong at 310 N. Washington, and its projectionist, George Hannon, “one of the first projectionists here in the early days of the cinema.â€
The Strand, also managed by WAE, had temporarily halted operations, though it would reopen shortly. It seated 850. The article lamented the closing of the Colonial a year earlier as “one of the early motion picture houses.â€
Under a photo of the Bay, the cutline read, “Moving pictures and stage productions are offered the public at three theaters operating in Green Bay. The Orpheum theater is combined legitimate and moving picture house, while the Bay is more strictly devoted to motion pictures. Vaudeville is occasionally promoted. The Grand specializes in second-run showings of well known productions.â€
Today, Green Bay's theater history resides almost exclusively in the remodeled Fox/Bay Theater, now the Meyer. Hopefully, Titletown's first theater, the Green Bay/Orpheum/Vic will soon rejoin it as an operating performance venue.
Further Info on the West Theater
Thanks to Mark Mariucci, for additional information on the West Theater. Mark purchased the West Pitcher Show in 2000 and – after extensive remodeling including stage, restrooms, kitchen and plumbing – opened it a year later as the Historic West Theatre a year later, "playing arthouse films first run in 35mm and also as a video dance bar on Friday/Saturday nights after the movies." Also offered occasionally was live entertainment on the large stage Mark had built. In 2005, Packers linebacker Nick Barnett purchased the theater from Mark and opened the "Fifty-Six" dance club. Projectors were removed, as were the seats. According to Mark, recent activity indicates that the West will reopen "as a live performance venue soon."
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.