denis gullickson | talking titletown | jan. 2018
Part One of a Two-Part Series
Here's to the Meyer Theater.
Located on South Washington Street, the restored former Fox Theater, opened in 1930, is remembered fondly by baby boomers and others as the Bay Theater. Today, it is all that remains of a downtown core that once bustled with entertainment of all brands.
Buoyed by the 65+ show dates of Let Me Be Frank Productions and shored-up by national touring acts and local groups, the Meyer hums admirably along – the flagship of downtown performance since 2003.
But ya gotta ask, “Is that it? Is that what a city as great as Green Bay has to offer for downtown entertainment these days?"
If the answer is, “Yes" and you're satisfied with that, then we are falling way short of this city's potential.
There are other possibilities:
Napping just up the block and around the corner, is a trio of buildings that could join the Meyer to form an entertainment district that would make even larger metropolises drool – should local folks and community leaders have the verve and the nerve to proceed in the direction recommended herein.
As a lifelong Packers fan and a football historian, this next statement doesn't come easily, but here goes: Green Bay is a lot more than just the Packers. More-importantly, it needs to be.
Here's a chance to prove the former and make the latter happen.
An Unsightly Walk
Yes, just around the corner from the Meyer Theater, languish three buildings on East Walnut and Adams Streets that deserve some immediate attention from this town, its leadership and its citizens – especially from patrons of the performing arts.
They are the former Vic Theater and the former Schauer and Schumacher buildings at 221 and 227 East Walnut and 109 North Adams Streets, respectively. Once integral parts of one of the liveliest blocks in Green Bay's downtown core, they are now virtual tombstones marking one of its most-dormant. Together, they represent a vibrant possibility for Green Bay's future.
Let's take an imaginary stroll past these three buildings, describing them for what they are, recalling what they were and visioning what they might be.
First, the former Vic in all its resplendent art deco glory – save that the redone ground floor along the sidewalk looks like the dingy storefront of an abandoned, low-rent bar. It should, basically it is.
Flickering as a dance club under at least seven smarmy monikers since last operating in the early 1990s as a performance venue – the City Centre Theatre – it currently opens for weekend keg parties as “Confettis."
At least it's being used, one might say. And those keg parties are a lot of fun, too.
Every so often, a “For Sale" sign will appear in the front window – the building once again begging for a higher purpose.
This is Green Bay's “First Theater" – its “Grand Old Lady" of performance venues. Before operating as the Vic, it was the Orpheum and, before that, the Green Bay Theater. Ground was broken for this historic structure in August, 1899 and it opened its doors to great fanfare in late-February, 1900 with “Because She Loved Him So" – a classic melodrama of the day.
Operating as a premier stop on the Orpheum circuit, the stage featured plays, musical performances, novelty acts, acrobats, magicians, mind readers and the entire panoply of the vaudevillian era. Interspersed between touring companies, Green Bay folks enjoyed the best of local entertainment here as well. They Green Bay City Band and Symphony were regular offerings.
While films were shown throughout, in the 1950s the theater shifted to movies almost-exclusively and every Green Bay baby boomer saw multiple attractions that underscored their youth “at the Vic."
Today, the Vic's gorgeous interior has been nearly destroyed. Temporary walls have been hammered into place and the stage – that very stage that once featured the likes of the Marx Brothers to Artie Shaw to the BoDeans to a gigantic movie screen upon which once danced scenes larger than life – has been obscured.
A seamy apartment – Liberace meets Hugh Hefner meets Tony Montana – occupies the former balcony. Luminol and a blacklight might unveil traces of debauchery no one wants to see.
Baby boomers should be appalled. Do they care enough to save this now, privately owned structure from the inevitable? Make your guesses and place your bets.
Interested parties have walked through and considering the undertaking. To date, all have shook their heads.
Here's a vision: The Vic, restored to a small-seat performance venue – say, 300 to 500 seats – would open up opportunities for local and other talent, expand downtown Green Bay's offerings and create another precious tie to Titletown's past. The cost? A purchase price of who knows what – $500,000-$750,000? And a gut and restore price four times that.
A couple of doors further, on the northwest corner of Walnut and Adams, kitty-corner from the courthouse annex, sit the former Schauer and Schumacher buildings. Two distinct buildings, they operated separately – one of them as a funeral parlor – before being united as a furniture store.
Today, they belong to the City of Green Bay.
The larger building on the corner is an impressive structure. Its huge display windows – running at street level along Walnut and Adams Streets – represent the most-notable, prominent stretch of window display downtown.
The smaller building, just north on Adams, has an even-more distinctive style. Though once a funeral home, its interior is warm and inviting. Its several, first-floor rooms with hardwood floors – including an anteroom with a fireplace – invite possibility.
Shuttered since 2000, folks will remember the elegance of “Schauer and Schumacher Furniture" – those very windows exciting dreams of refurnished homes throughout Northeast Wisconsin. Walking through the spacious display areas inside – brightly illuminated by floor and end table lamps – furthered those dreams.
Today, both buildings are in trouble. Roofs have leaked and floors have buckled. Paint peels and debris piles up. Today, one needs to look hard and dream big to see possibility.
Thoughts to date have considered dividing this former furniture store into housing, small retail, dining and/or some combination of all three. The undertaking is daunting and at least three would-be developers have walked away after fully pondering the challenges.
Here's another idea: Do a minimal amount of rehabbing and turn the open space of this former furniture store into a 200-seat black box theater, other performance and rehearsal space, studios, offices, classrooms and other amenities – all dedicated to our area's performance individuals, groups and organizations. And give them a base of operations in Green Bay's downtown core and access to a refurbished small-seat Vic – or whatever name a reopened theater goes by – practically next door.
And while you're at it, create a young professional think tank of diverse expertise that meets at the facility monthly to tackle problems brought to it by civic organizations and private industry.
And while you're at that, finally give UWGB a footprint in downtown Green Bay – meeting one of the targeted outcomes of every strategic plan done for the city in the past 10 years and longer.
The cost? The asking price from the city might be as low as $1.00 “to a qualified developer with the right vision, experience and financial resources to undertake a $2-3 million restoration." The proposal presented here shouldn't cost half of that for restoration.
And the Vic rehab can be done once the Schauer and Schumacher project is up and running.
And all of this only enhances the current efforts of the Meyer, other area performance venues and performance groups while putting a second pin in the map right next to that Packers “G."
Do those things: Renovate and reopen the former Vic as a small-seat theater and convert the Schauer and Schumacher buildings into facilitates supportive of that theater and the Meyer and you turn the deadest city block into its most-vibrant.
And you create an entertainment district within the downtown core that accommodates the dozens of performance individuals, groups and organizations in Green Bay and invites the public to visit and celebrate downtown Green Bay again.
And you draw residents and tourists to the city.
And you bolster the businesses already there.
And you stop the talent-drain that this city has experienced for a very long time – especially in the area of arts and performance.
And you create a model of how to further reinvigorate a downtown and the surrounding area.
Next Issue: More detail. Area performance individuals, groups and organizations weigh in. How this plan supports performance venues not located downtown. And, a strategic plan going forward.
Contact this writer at email@example.com with comments.
Educator, author, farmer and horseman Denis Gullickson writes about all things Titletown from a horse farm west of Green Bay and a cobblestone cottage near Lakewood.