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Return of Lake Geneva’s historic movie house

By Steve Targo stargo@lakegenevanews.net Sep 26, 2018

It was the place where people saw their first movie on a big screen, where they had their first bucket of popcorn or their first date.

But the future of the theater at 244 Broad St., Lake Geneva, became uncertain after it closed in 2010.

At one point, there were plans to turn the historic building — which once hosted appearances by the Marx Brothers, Bela Lugosi and Will Rogers — into a boutique shopping mall.

Fate took a different turn, and in 2017, after a renovation, the Geneva Theater reopened.

Once again, the theater brings first-run films to downtown Lake Geneva, and the stage that once existed when the theater was built in 1928 has been restored.

Back in the early days of the theater, vaudeville acts performed at least twice a week as a way for owners of the single-screen movie theater to supplement their income.

“Just like they did in the late 20s and early 30s, we are using that stage,” said Marie Frederick, Geneva Theater’s events coordinator.

Frederick and Geneva Theater owner Shad Branen discussed how the history of the theater guided the new look and plan for the building.

In 1928, the theater was a single-screen auditorium, with 750 seats, including a balcony.

At its opening gala June 6, 1928, the theater hosted a screening of “Telling the World,” a comedic drama starring William Haines and Anita Page, released that same year.

Geneva and the Burlington Plaza theaters were both built in 1928 and operated by the same company, Community Theaters Inc.

The president of Community Theaters Inc. was William F. Pabst, whom Frederick believes to be a descendant of Frederick Pabst, who was perhaps most remembered as president of Pabst Brewing Co.

Coincidentally, Branen also owns the Burlington Plaza.

He said the purchase and renovation of Geneva Theater cost in excess of $2 million.

Over the years since its opening gala, Geneva Theater changed ownership.

During subsequent renovations, the single auditorium became two screening rooms, then four — three on the ground floor, and the former balcony was turned into the fourth room.

By the time Branen was involved, Geneva Theater had been gutted.

In the upper-level screening room, the wall with the projection screen had been torn down.

Roof leaks caused water damage in Theater 1, the location of the historic stage.

“Usually they’re in pretty rough shape,” said Branen, of old theaters. “Either they’re empty, and sitting empty, or they’ve been repurposed into something else, and to bring them back requires a lot of work because they aren’t the auditoriums that they were.”

Branen discussed renovation plans with Friends of the Geneva Theater, a citizen group which sought to turn the building into a cultural center.

He said they tried to keep as much of the old theater intact as they could, but changed other parts to create special event accommodations.

Much of Theater 1, including the stage and ceiling, was restored.

The wall to the upper-level screening room was rebuilt.

During the renovation, Branen discovered several features of the building that had been walled off — old staircases, including one which led from the main lobby to the old balcony, which is where an alcove now stands that displays old theater pictures.

He also found a basement wall signed by those who participated in previous theater programs and productions.

The wall has been preserved, and another next to it left blank, waiting to be signed by those who take part in future plays and happenings at the theater.

Now, the theater is a place where state-of-the-art projection and sound systems exist alongside images and artifacts from celluloid yesteryear.

A table that projectionists used to splice film reels together juts out of the wall near Theaters 3 and 4.

Frederick wants to create historic displays about the people who first opened the theater.

But in the last year, Geneva Theater has played host to various private and public gatherings — film festivals, comedy shows, productions by local theater groups.

People tell Branen stories all the time about movies they remembered seeing at Geneva Theater.

But to him, right now, Geneva Theater is a success story.

“The community of Lake Geneva played a big part in that,” he said. “It wouldn’t have happened without the community support.”

Visit geneva4.com to find out more about movie screenings and special events at the theater.



Keefe Real Estate – Lake & Country website

The Show Must Go On

June 14, 2017 • Lake & Country

A small theater in downtown Lake Geneva has been collecting the memories of its community for almost ninety years. Since the early days, patrons of the Geneva Theater have taken their seats, popcorn in hand, eager to be entertained. The old theater bore witness to many memorable moments, from first dates, to much anticipated film screenings and live concerts. That’s why today’s patrons are so enthusiastic about the rebirth of the theater.

The Geneva Theater initially opened its doors in June of 1928. At the time there was one screen, used for films, in addition to a grand stage, which hosted live performances. The Lake Geneva Symphony made regular use of the space, and the theater became a center for cultural arts within the community. Over the years the live performances faded out, and the theatre dedicated itself entirely to films, until 2007, when the theater doors closed for good. Within a few years, the building was purchased once again with the intention of reinstating a place where live performances could take place. Unfortunately, the project was never completed, and the lights went out on the theatre once more.

Now, The Geneva Theater is coming back to life. Shad Branen, who also owns the Plaza Theater in downtown Burlington, purchased the Geneva Theater in April of 2016. He could see great possibilities for the building, despite its partial demolition and extensive water damage. These obstacles didn’t matter. “I was inspired by the potential that was here. So many people have stopped in to share stories,” he says. Daniel Colwell, who is the General Manager for both theaters, put in his two cents, alluding to the sheer history of the building. “It’s hard to put a dollar amount on history… Hearing people’s stories really gives you perspective,” he says. “We aren’t just making a movie theater, this is a place where people have memories invested. It’s really been a pleasure bringing it back to life and seeing the smiles on people’s faces, after not having been here for 40 years.”

Branen and Colwell have worked hard to utilize modern entertainment technology, while continuing to value the history of the theater and to maintain its past culture of art and community. As a result, The Geneva Theater will offer a unique experience to its beloved patrons. “It will be a marriage of the past and the forward-looking direction that the movie industry is moving toward,” says Colwell. The four fully restored theaters offer Sony Ultra HD projectors and 7.1 surround sound, as well as rocking leather seats with generous leg room. The theater will serve standard movie theater snacks, as well as beer and wine. In addition, they have partnered with Sprecher’s restaurant to offer a specialized menu, with items that can be delivered directly to your seat. Theater 1, also known as the Auditorium, has been completely renovated to its former glory, incorporating modern updates. Best of all, the fully retractable screen can rise up, thus opening up the beautiful historical stage, which will once again host live performances. Branen and Colwell hope to host the Lake Geneva Symphony on this stage, just like in the theatre’s past.

But performances and movie showings are not the only thing Branen and Colwell have in mind. “In the same way that the Plaza, in Burlington, is focused on community and does free showings and events, we want to honor that spirit here in Lake Geneva,” says Colwell. As the theater is brought back to life, for both the performing arts and lm, Branen and Colwell are coming up with exciting new ways for people to experience the theater. “These movie tie-ins can be really exciting,” says Branen. His plan is to bring unique photo opportunities to the theater. From a permanent selfie booth in the lobby, to muscle cars parked outside for the opening of Fate of the Furious, the Geneva Theater will offer opportunities to transform the movie-going experience into special memories that can be captured and shared.

The Geneva Theater is unique in its dedication to the past, and simultaneous commitment to the ever-changing future. Shad Branen and Daniel Col- well have married the two concepts remarkably. The new incarnation of this old theater is sure to please all patrons, from those who grew up experiencing this historic institution, to those who are walking through the doors for the very first time. The Geneva Theater is the perfect place to relive old memories, while making new ones at the same time.

Photographer: Grant Goldenstern
By: Kinsey Quernemoen


Lake Geneva Regional News:

New film club joins Geneva Theater lineup

By Jen Gragg jgragg@lakegenevanews.net Dec 20, 2017

The Geneva Theater, 244 Broad St., reopened in March following a major renovation, but the original stage remains for a variety of performances. (File photo/Regional News)

A new film club will be bringing great films and a great cause to the Geneva Theater on a monthly basis.

Sherm Lindsey, the founder of the Lake Geneva Film Club, said that the club’s goal is twofold — to bring acclaimed movies back to the big screen, and to raise funds for Never Say Never Inc., an organization working to build a playground for children with special needs.

The club’s first showing will be “It’s a Wonderful Life” at 7 p.m. on Dec. 21, with a $10 entry fee at the door.

Lindsey, who works at Midwest Action Cycle, 251 Host Drive, Lake Geneva, said his company rented out the theater last year, giving him a glimpse into the potential of the newly renovated space.

“We just realized this was such a neat thing,” he said of the 1920s-era theater, which reopened in 2016.

Since the reopening, the theater at 244 Broad St. has become home to many community events, including a horror film festival and performances by a local theatrical performance group.

Susan Lamberton, the events coordinator for the Geneva Theater, said that along with its normal movie schedules, the theater tries to bring in as many community events as possible.

“We definitely want to bring different, new venues to the area,” she said.

Lamberton said that the theater will continue bringing new community events to the area in the new year.

In particular, she said the theater is looking into a streaming service that will allow people who come to the theater to watch plays being performed in London.

The Lake Geneva Film Club will show a film at the Geneva Theater once a month that will be followed by a discussion session, Lindsey said. The club’s showings will be open to the public.

With the exception of “It’s a Wonderful Life,” most of the films shown will not be very mainstream, to give the club a “film connoisseur” atmosphere, Lindsey said.

The idea to donate the $10 entry fee to the Never Say Never Playland came from Lindsey’s previous experience working with the group through Midwest Action Cycle.

Lindsey said he picked Never Say Never Inc. because of its important mission and its local connection.

“Larger charities, they’re too big and too large, and you’re not really sure where your money is actually going,” he said. “This one is about as close to home as you can possibly get.”

Dusti Ocampo, president of Never Say Never, said she was thankful when she received the call from Lindsey about the donation.

“I am beyond grateful,” she said. “This is exactly what we need right now. And it’s just going to spread awareness 100 percent and help us get the word out there.”

Ocampo said that the organization has raised about 30 percent of its $520,000 goal.

This goal was lowered from the initial goal of $1 million, Ocampo explained, after a reconfiguration of the plans with the design company.

Now, she said, the playground should be up and running by August 2018.

Along with the satisfaction of donating to a good cause, those who attend the film club’s screenings will also be seeing films the way Lindsey believes they were meant to be seen.

“In today’s day and age, there’s so many distractions when you sit at home and watch a film,” he said. “It doesn’t get the respect it deserves. In a movie theater, it’s all black, it’s quiet. You get to truly immerse yourself.”


Lake Geneva Regional News

Geneva Theater a downtown gem once again

Sep 27, 2017

The Geneva Theater, 244 Broad St., reopened in March following a major renovation, but the original stage remains for a variety of performances. (File photo/Regional News)

We could be witnessing the emergence of a new cultural cornerstone in downtown Lake Geneva with the Geneva Theater.

But the newly reopened theater also needs — and deserves — continued community support to nurture and sustain it.

The historic entertainment venue at 244 Broad St. reopened its doors in March following a renovation that brought the vacant property back to life. The classic 1928 movie house had sat dormant and unused for many years. It was not a pretty picture.

With financial help from the city, businessman Shad Branen invested more than $2 million to resurrect the theater.

Fortunately, that is only the beginning of the story.

Since the reopening in March, movie goers have again made downtown their destination for watching Hollywood stars on the big screen. The new Geneva Theater, also known as the “Geneva Four,” offers four different screens and can accommodate more than 500 people combined.

Let us never take for granted what a special treat it is to have a movie theater in the heart of our central business district. It is a dynamic that many downtowns do not enjoy.

Branen’s vision and commitment loom even larger now that the Showboat theater complex has abruptly closed its doors across town.

The owners of Showboat have not yet indicated the long-term future for the six-screen theater complex on State Road 120. But with that property in mothballs at least temporarily, we can all be especially grateful that the Geneva Theater is back in business.

It is conceivable, too, that the renewed success of the downtown theater played a role in the Showboat’s demise.

Now we are learning that the Geneva Theater has gotten other creative juices going in the community, too. A new group called the Geneva Theater Actor’s Guild has announced plans for live theater productions in the downtown venue.

We applaud all the various groups that work to enrich the Lake Geneva area with theatrical, musical and other artistic productions. The Geneva Theater certainly is not the only place where special things are happening.

But we urge everyone to recognize the rebirth of this vital downtown property — and to become patrons. Go catch a movie or a show. Buy some popcorn or cotton candy. Invest in the future of what could become a marquee attraction in Lake Geneva.

We cannot allow this beautiful theater to ever become dormant and unused again.

On with the show.

The Regional News editorial board consists of General Manager Robert Ireland, Editor Scott Williams, Office Manager Sue Hinske and Resorter Editor and Special Sections Coordinator Jessica Franzene.


Lake Geneva Regional News

Theater is historic venue

Patrick Quinn Apr 5, 2017

Patrick Quinn, Local Historian

Eighty-nine years ago, in 1928, the Geneva Theater opened on the site of a former cultural icon in Lake Geneva, Centennial Hall, which was later known as the Ford Opera House. Centennial Hall had been constructed in 1876 in commemoration of the 100th anniversary of the United States’ declaration of independence from Great Britain and served as Lake Geneva’s cultural center for more than half a century.

The Geneva Theater would serve as Lake Geneva’s cultural center for eight decades before it closed in 2010. For seven years it stood empty as a glaring void in Lake Geneva’s downtown business district. But to our good fortune, it reopened on March 3 and hopefully will serve as Lake Geneva’s cultural center for many years to come.

Credit for preserving the Geneva Theater must go to the Friends of the Geneva Theater, which persisted in keeping alive the dream of reopening the theater, and to Shad Branen of Win Media, the owner of the Plaza Theater in Burlington, who purchased the vacant (and decrepit) theater, gutted the building, completely remodeled it and restored it to its former elegance. The theater’s brand new marquee serves as a bright beacon illuminating downtown Lake Geneva and bringing the downtown business district alive once more during the evenings in the spring, summer, fall and winter. In addition to showing excellent movies, the reopened Geneva Theater will also serve as a cultural center where live theatrical productions, chamber music and other musical events and lectures will be held.

Longtime residents of Lake Geneva will remember, as I do, the Geneva Theater as a cultural venue in the city that played a very important role in residents’ lives. Growing up in Lake Geneva, I recall my grandmother frequently saying how much she enjoyed seeing the now-legendary movie “Gone with the Wind” (1939), starring Clark Gable, Vivien Leigh, and Leslie Howard at the Geneva Theater.

My own memory conjures up scenes of spending every Saturday afternoon watching matinees in the theater and such great films as “High Noon” (1952), starring Gary Cooper and Grace Kelly, “The Caine Mutiny” (1954), starring Humphrey Bogart, and “Blackboard Jungle” (1955), starring Glenn Ford, Anne Francis, and Sidney Poitier, that featured the music of Bill Haley and the Comets playing “Rock Around the Clock,” which was the very first rock and roll song I ever heard.

I strongly urge the readers of the Lake Geneva Regional News to go to the movies at the completely refurbished Geneva Theater as often as possible and, by doing so, confirm the faith of all those who valued the theater and hoped that it would eventually reopen and resume its role as Lake Geneva’s cultural treasure.

(In full disclosure, I must state that I am a member of the board of the Friends of the Geneva Theater).

Quinn is a Lake Geneva native who is the University Archivist Emeritus at Northwestern University.


Lake Geneva Regional News

Theater opens with action flick, fire alarm, popcorn

Chris Schultz Mar 8, 2017

Mark Immer, Lake Geneva, has a good laugh Friday evening after ticket taker Marie Frederick tells him that he bought the first ticket to the premier opening of the new Geneva Theater. Photo submitted by Richard Madouse

For the first time in about a decade, the Geneva Theater, 244 Broad St., heard the restless shuffle of a show time crowd in its lobby and the smell of popcorn in the air.

More about that later.

On Friday at 7 p.m., the renewed Geneva Theater opened with a showing of the action movie “Logan,” based on the Marvel X-Men comic book characters Wolverine and Charles Xavier. A second showing was scheduled for 9:45 p.m.

No movie spoilers here.

Only the main 220-seat theater was open for business. But it was spacious and comfortable enough for the 27 movie fans who showed up for the opening.

The screen was wide, the picture was clear, the sound was awesome and the movie was intense.

Right up until the concessions crew fired up the popcorn machine.

With 10 minutes left in the flick and the fight between the good guys and bad guys still undecided, the fire alarm went off.

The alarm sounds like an angry bird on steroids and the alarm system turns on the lights and shuts down the projector.

Everyone filed into the lobby, where it was clear that smoke from some overheated oil had apparently triggered the smoke alarm located almost directly above the popcorn machine.


Shad Branen, who owns the theater and paid for its makeover with the help of a city grant through its now-defunct Tax Increment Finance district, could only smile ruefully.

More than one patron, however, commented that at least everyone knows the theater fire alarm works.

Theater staff led the customers on a tour through the building and gave an explanation of how the digital projectors use hard drives rather than film to show movies.

And everyone got free popcorn while waiting for the movie’s big finish.

Police and fire personnel had to do a quick inspection before the show could go on.

And yeah, the good guys win. Sorta.

Daniel Colwell, theater manager, said the theater had 46 paying customers on Saturday. He did not have the figures for Sunday.

Those who want to learn more about the theater and show times can go to Geneva4.com.

Show times during the week will be 4:30 and 7:15 p.m.

The theater is scheduling a 7 p.m. Thursday preview showing of “Skull Island,” a King Kong reboot, Colwell said. Tickets are on sale at the theater.

Tickets for evening shows are $10 for adults, $8 for kids 3 to 11 and seniors 62 and older.

Tickets for matinees before 6 p.m. at $8 for everyone.


Lake Geneva Regional News

Geneva Theater set to open on March 1

Chris Schultz Feb 22, 2017

Worker needs a little extra lift to finish the Geneva Theater marquee on Friday. Looking north along Broad Street.

On March 1, downtown Lake Geneva will again have a movie theater.

That assurance was given by Dan Colwell, who is the manager of the new Geneva Theater on Broad Street.

A grand opening will probably happen the end of March, Colwell said.

Colwell said he was hired in November. And he did get his hands dirty. Colwell said he helped with some demolition and dismantled and removed the old projectors, which were still in the building.

Colwell, his wife Roxanne, and sons Brooks, 1 1/2, and Teagan, 5, took a tour of the 20,000-square-foot, renovated 1928 theater with an interested visitor on Saturday.

The theater is still a diamond in the rough, with workers laying down carpeting and completing interior and exterior detail work.

The venerable theater is being designed for modern audiences.

For example, a “selfie room” with red carpeted walls is planned for the main floor, across from the concession stand.

But the seats are installed, the screens are up and the projectors are calibrated. The seats resemble something you might find in a luxury car or in the luxury class of an airliner. That’s certainly a change from the old fold down seats many residents remember about the old Geneva Theater.

Forget about rewinding film.

Forget about rewinding film. The theater projectors project movies that are loaded, not on film, but on hard drives. The studios then release a key code to unlock hard drives and unscramble the movie, Colwell said.

‘Ready to go’

He said the new projectors are ready to go.

But there will also be a bow to the past. Next to the selfie room will be a historical display of photos of the Geneva Theater when it was a new attraction in the downtown, Colwell said.

The main floor theaters are 1, 3 and 4. Theater 2 is in the former balcony.

The four-plex theater will have 501 seats.

Theater 1 has 220 seats. Theaters 3 and 4 have 100 and 89 seats respectively.

Theater 2 has 92 seats.

Theater 1 also has a retractable screen to allow for live performances.

Right next to Theater 2 on the second floor is a rentable party room. The interior features some of the building’s original exposed brick.

Offices are on the third floor. They are not spacious, but they have a commanding view of the east side of Broad Street. In addition to the exposed brick, Colwell said he would like to save the offices’ steel doors.

That will require some clean up and repair.

Arts career

Colwell said he received his degree in arts management from Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo.

He said he acted in youth theater and looked forward to a career in the performing arts.

But he graduated about the time of the Great Recession, and the arts were hard hit.

He said he finally found his way to the Milwaukee Repertory Theater. But the problem with repertory theaters is that they shut down during the summer.

He then took a job with Marcus Theaters. His wife earned a degree as a pharmacist and now works in Burlington, where the family lives, he said.

The theater is being renovated by Burlington businessman Shad Branen.

In March 2016, the city council approved an $895,000 grant from the city’s former TIF district to assist with the renovations along with a developers agreement that set conditions for the grant. Branen has already renovated one old, historic theater, the Plaza Theater in downtown Burlington.