A Brief History of a 94-Year-Old Wisconsin Movie Theater
Lake Geneva is one of the popular getaway destinations for people looking to escape the bustle of Chicagoland. Like clockwork, around springtime, my mother and I would pick a week in August (as kids were going back to school) and solidify our jaunt.
We didn't have many plans other than eat, drink, swim, and explore. It was the best kind of vacation in that regard.
Being the die-hard movie buff I am, I still remember my excitement when I laid eyes on the Geneva 4 Theater. It was a sore for sight eyes at the time (no, I meant to phrase it that way). It was a decaying building on Lake Geneva's otherwise beautiful and stout Broad Street.
I remember spending much of that vacation (I want to say it was summer 2014) fiercely Googling and devouring all the information on it I could find. Funny how the mind wanders whenever you see an old, abandoned building.
I would've loved to have Pamela S. Meyers' exceptional account of its now 94-year history, which was published in 2021, back in the day.
So, because I have north of 200 pictures of the theater on multiple flash-drives, and I still wax nostalgic for this place regularly, here is a brief history of the Geneva 4 Theater. Stay tuned for a big gallery of some of my favorite images I've taken over the years as well!
The Geneva 4 Theater's Beginnings:
In 1928, a group of developers brought a brand new movie theater to Lake Geneva, WI. It was something of a unique concept the way it was conceived: in front of the screen would be a stage for live performances, such as vaudeville acts. The structure replaced a venue known as "Centennial Hall," erected in 1876. Later on, it was known as the "Ford Opera House," an epicenter of culture for the developing lake-town.
The massive, two-story structure (equipped with a balcony), was an attraction that seemed to outmatch the town's then-population of approximately 3,000. To accommodate live performances, a pipe organ was included in the building's development.
The theater thrived for many decades, and also welcome a litany of acts. The Marx Brothers, Will Rogers, and Bela Lugosi all made appearances at the theater at one time. Lon Chaney, star of The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923) and The Phantom of the Opera (1925), movies proved to be a popular attraction too.
The 1980s and Further Developments:
Sometime in the 1980s, the owners of the Geneva 4 Theater purchased the building next door. Next door was, Frediani's, an ice-cream and soda-shop. It was a perfect complement to the adjacent movie theater. The property acquisition allowed the theater to expand to add another screen, so two movies could be shown concurrently.
Eventually, as commercial moviegoing became more accessible (and profitable), two additional screens were installed, replacing the balcony.
The Theater's Closure:
In 2010, the Geneva 4 Theater closed its doors. I wouldn't feast my own eyes on it until four years later. According to Meyers, local gossip suggested the theater would be razed in favor of a shopping mall. That plan obviously never materialized (blessed so). The theater just sat and decayed. Each year my mother and I would visit, it would seem to get worse. The infrastructure remained strong, but the pain chipped, some mold spots were evident, and the the decaying brick and façade worsened during brutal Wisconsin winters.
I remember thinking that there was no reason a commercial movie theater (even one relatively small, like this one) couldn't survive in this community. Forget the tourist-heavy spring and summertime; Lake Geneva is home to nearly 8,000 people. The nearest competition is a theater that merely shows two or three more movies than the Geneva 4.
The Theater's Reopening:
In 2016, the building was purchased by a new operator (Shad Branen) in Burlington, WI. Branen owns the Burlington Plaza Theatre, so it was a comforting thought to know that something of an expert was taking it over. Over $2 million was funneled into this historic staple, and it reopened on March 4th, 2017. Housing nearly 500 seats and four screens, the theater is modernized to the point where one of the screens retracts, giving way to a stage for live productions.
What's Next for Geneva 4?
Currently, the Geneva 4 Theater is being renovated once again. Big changes are coming. The rumor-mill suggests a taproom, although plans are in place for it to remain a theater. Whatever works, in my opinion. I'm just glad it still exists, thriving in a community that remains one of my favorite vacation spots.
Take a look Geneva 4's journey from rot to rehab to remodel below!