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.
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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.