Saving downtown theaters: Wheaton Grand headlines a long list

Walk into the Wheaton Grand Theater today and you're greeted by exposed pipes, peeling plaster, open ceilings, a cold, empty room.

See it through the eyes of Jim Atten and Rick Erickson, though, and you can imagine what it was once and what it could be again — from the gold and red paint dotting the architecture to the light bulbs waiting to be lit on the marquee above the entrance.

See it through their eyes, and it's no longer a building that's been vacant since 2006; it's a vibrant centerpiece of a revitalized downtown.

Sure, it will cost an estimated $5 million to get the 89-year-old theater up and running again. But Atten, who owns the building, and Erickson, president of the Wheaton Chamber of Commerce, are undaunted.

“The vision is to bring it back, as close as possible, to the way it was,” said Erickson, who has been helping Atten since he bought the theater in 2012 from a bank that was threatening to tear it down.

It's a vision that's shared by theater enthusiasts, history buffs and Americans who grew up in towns like Wheaton, where a theater was always part of downtown.

“Theaters are one of the few things you can talk about that everybody seems to have a story, whether the story is it's where you went on your first date or it's where your grandparents met. There's something also exciting and magical about a theater as well,” says Richard Fosbrink, executive director of the Theatre Historical Society of America.

Theater stories abound in the suburbs. The lavishly restored Paramount Theater in Aurora offers Broadway plays and big-name musical acts. The Arcada Theatre in St. Charles is another success story. Others — including the Wheaton Grand, Des Plaines Theater and Clearwater Theater in West Dundee — face uncertain futures after opening and closing multiple times in recent years.

And then there are venues like the DuPage Theatre in Lombard, which was demolished despite efforts from preservationists.

Atten and Erickson are trying to ensure Wheaton's theater story doesn't have the same ending.

They're calling it the Miracle on Hale Street.

Important as city hall

Main Street theaters became popular in the late 1920s, when film was just emerging, Fosbrink said. Their construction boomed through the late 1930s and 1940s, particularly as suburbs took hold.

“Planning to have a theater in your town, or an opera house or something (for entertainment) was just as important as planning a city hall or fire station,” he said.

Most early theaters hosted live drama, vaudeville acts or silent film features when they first opened. Over time, their purpose shifted to musical performances and movies.

Recent years have seen the rampant growth of multiplexes. Still, people still see value in buying old downtown theaters and restoring them.

“People at this point in time are paying a lot more attention to how a theater can be a catalyst for economic development in a downtown business district,” Fosbrink said. “Theaters really can drive economic development, and we see a lot of that happening all over the country.”

One of the most prominent community efforts occurred in Barrington, where residents quickly raised more than $100,000 in 2012 to buy a new digital film projector for the Catlow Theater so it could continue showing movies.

Still, it isn't an easy task to save old theaters, especially ones that are used for live acts, strictly through grass-roots efforts.

“With so many entertainment options it's a hard sell sometimes,” Fosbrink said, adding that live theater has become increasingly expensive — and people who aren't exposed to the arts at a young age often aren't interested in theater when they're older.

Razed by politics?

In 2007, after years of discussion and consideration about how it could be saved, the 79-year-old DuPage Theatre in Lombard was demolished, leaving behind a grassy field and a parking lot now used by Metra commuters.

The theater, which had been closed since the late 1980s, was donated to the village around 2000, after a production company that acquired it realized the property wouldn't serve its purpose.

For years, the Friends of the DuPage Theatre, a still active charity, hosted fundraisers and tried in earnest to get the building reopened. The group's president, Deb Dynako, said besides the childhood memories many Lombard residents still have of going to the theater on a Friday night, the building's intricate details were irreplaceable.

“It felt like a soul, to be honest,” she said.

The village board considered a proposal for retail and condo units attached to the DuPage, which might have provided revenue to save it.

But ultimately, the board decided — between the economics and the need for long-range sustainable theater programs — that it would be best to tear the building down.

“I really think, in the end, it has to do with politics,” Dynako said, adding that the theater was demolished just days before three newly elected officials who were in support of the theater could take their seats.

Glory days

On the opposite end of the spectrum is the 1926 Arcada Theatre in St. Charles.

Since taking over operations in 2005, owner Ron Onesti has invested thousands of dollars into the theater. He fills the seats principally with well-known, often nostalgic musical acts that have sold out in a matter of minutes.

Onesti said the key to restoring an old theater is making sure the people involved have “the right amount of passion.” If revitalizing a theater is ever a “financial thing or government thing,” it won't work.

“People are knocking them down or gutting them and turning them into bars or restaurants, and they don't need to,” he said. “They need somebody who truly understands the industry and truly understands the business model of today, not 10 years ago.”

Onesti said restoring old theaters is on the minds of many municipal leaders because their towns have stores and restaurants but no entertainment. Luckily, he said, the Wheaton Grand hasn't been closed and forgotten.

“Most of the community remembers what the glory days of the theater was,” he said. “The excitement is still there because the people grew up with it and they know what it could be.”

Same goes for the Clearwater Theater in West Dundee, which played movies until 1999. It closed briefly before being reopened as a music venue in 2002, but the village closed it again in 2011 for operating without a state liquor license.

“It was such a central part of the downtown area,” said Mayor Chris Nelson, adding that its location makes it part of the gateway to downtown.

Building code violations also shut down the 1925 Des Plaines Theater, once a destination for Bollywood films, earlier this year. After closing for renovations in 2010 it reopened as a hot spot for silent and horror film club screenings.

“At the end of the day these are historic places that need to stay open,” Onesti said, comparing the demolition of an old theater to the loss of a good friend.

Finding success

Wheaton Mayor Mike Gresk said he has never met a resident who doesn't like the idea of an operating theater in downtown Wheaton. But residents don't always back that up with their money.

In 2011, 56 percent of residents voted against a proposal for the city to earmark $150,000 toward the theater annually.

Gresk said he doesn't anticipate the city taking on any responsibility of the theater in the future, either.

He is glad, however, to see the new ownership for the theater is local.

“He has a vested interest,” he said of Atten. “There is support out there, but it is an uphill battle.”

Atten is hoping to raise enough money to start restoring the front of the house first, which is expected to cost about $1 million. Some work, including repairs to prevent flooding and the removal of partition walls, has already been completed.

From there, he hopes to create space for “limited functions, so that we can at least generate some cash flow to maintain the cost of the property.”

Atten and Erickson said they hope to present a site plan to the city council this year.

“I tell anyone who will listen I've been in Wheaton a long time and I'm tired of going outside of Wheaton to see a movie or see a show,” Erickson said. “I think plenty of people in the community are kind of on board with that concept.”

“It seems like this shouldn't be that hard,” he said. “Not everything has to be done perfectly. The biggest mistake we can make is not do anything.”

  This portion of the Wheaton Grand Theater is envisioned as a bar. The theater's owner and Wheaton Chamber of Commerce believe they can restore the theater and make it a vital part of the suburb's downtown. Photos by Daniel White/
  Flanked by a photo taken in 1950 of the Wheaton Grand Theater, Rick Erickson discusses plans to renovate it. Daniel White/
  James Atten, left, and Rick Erickson hope to present a plan to renovate the Wheaton Grand Theater to the city council this year. Daniel White/
  Detailed architecture surrounds the stage at the Wheaton Grand Theater. Daniel White/
  A "Wheaton's Got Talent" show was held to raise money to restore the Wheaton Grand Theater. Daniel White/
  Flanked by a photo taken in 1950 of the Wheaton Grand Theater, James Atten discusses plans to renovate it. Daniel White/

How to help

Two fundraisers held last November raised about $20,000 for the Wheaton Grand Theater.

They included a “Wheaton's Got Talent” show at Wheaton Warrenville South High School and a concert at the theater that gave attendees a glimpse at what needs to be done.

For updates or to make a donation visit <a href=""></a>.

Volunteers and businesses interested in helping the theater can email <a href=""></a>.

The theater is also on social media at <a href=""></a>.

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