This is the history of my home town theatre, the place I fell in love with film. In 2016, myself along with a number of other community members set off to save the building. After convincing the owners of our vision for bringing the venue back to life, we are now on the state and national historic registries with a $4 Million restoration. Here is the history of our wonderful 1929 theatre:
The Historic West Bend Theatre, now branded as “The Bend,” opened to audiences during the era of “movie palaces” when going to the movies was a regular cultural experience. In 1930, an estimated 80 million people went to the movies every week. That’s two of every three Americans. So, our theater was part of a cultural and artistic boom.
Chicago architectural firm Graven & Mayger built the “The West Bend,” as it was known then, in 1929. The new theatre was advertised in the West Bend News as an “amusement palace.”
Going further down the publicity road, the opening-night brochure billed the theatre as a “temple of happiness” and a “glorious tribute to a wonderful city.” It lived up to that billing for many generations of movie-goers. There were many first dates and first kisses at the theatre and some resulting marriages.
In many ways, “The West Bend” was the heart of the city. Certainly, its large “blade,” the vertical sign above the marquee that spelled out the city’s name in lights became its best-known icon.
The Chicago architectural firm Graven & Mayger built a grand theatre for a such a small community. It had a capacity of 825 seats, 600 on the main floor and 225 on the balcony. The fourth theatre to be built in the city, it is the only survivor. Its predecessor the Mermac across the street was built in 1915.
The second floor housed bathrooms, a smoking room, a cosmetic room and the manager’s office. The plaster as made for acoustics, which meant there was no echo. The lighting in the main house was meant to give off a “sunset glow.” Its small stage accommodated vaudeville acts in tandem with movies.
The original building housed a barbershop on Main Street on its southwest corner and an outdoor ticket booth. A jewelry shop run by Walter Koehn was later added on the northwest corner. All were removed by the 1970s.
Graven & Mayger built many significant properties in the early twentieth century including the Fisher Theater in Detroit, Alabama Theater in Birmingham, a 24-story office tower referred to as the “Lawyers’ Building” in Chicago, Leland Tower in Aurora, Illinois, and the RKO Orpheum Theater in Davenport, Iowa. The West Bend blade in front of our building is similar to Graven & Mayger’s theaters in Alabama and Minnesota. Many of the firm’s buildings have been demolished, making the preservation of the Historic West Bend Theater essential for our local and national history.
The most defining element of “The West Bend” was its “perfect sound. Here’s how the original owners described their investment in the building’s acoustics:
“At enormous expense, Community Theatres Inc. treated the side walls and the ceiling of the theatre with special acoustical plaster, which prevents reverberation of sound. The floor of the theatre is carpeted to aid its acoustical properties, and even the chairs, curtains and drapes were selected with the view of aiding the sound reproduction.”
The first sound system installed into the theater was a De Forest system. The company, named after “father of radio” Lee de Forest, would soon switch over to the Phonofilm sound-on-film technology
The theatre was built just as Hollywood films were transitioning to synchronized sound, which allowed the exhibition process to be cutting edge for its day. The sound film technology in the late 1920s was a competition between sound-on-film technology and sound-on-disk. At first, the West Bend Theatre utilized sound-on-disk technology with Vitaphone short films. In 1929, Historic West Bend Theatre owner August Berkholtz was quoted in The Pathe Sun saying, “I find these recordings on disk [to be] one hundred percent.” Nonetheless, the theatre eventually moved to sound-on-film, which became the industry standard.
Additional sound was provided by a $10,000 Barton Organ played by a long list of prominent organists over the years. A regular organist was Barney Inkham, who was billed as “the most popular organist in the state of Wisconsin.”
The emphasis on “good sound” is a being carried over in the 2019 restoration. The acoustics are excellent in the empty building but will be greatly enhanced by a state-of-art sound system. As in 1929, that element is expensive at up to $400,000.
The roster of West Bend Theatre employees in 1929 was an impressive. The first manager was trusted local businessman Matt Regner. The first organist, performing his own music, was Ron Everton.
The theatre company was organized as Community Theaters, Inc., whose executive personnel of included William F. Pabst, C.W. Sears, Fred Wright, Sufus Olsen, William Silock, Robert N. Lee, and C.W. Nebel, who was the closest tie to Hollywood. Nebel spent some years acting in bit roles, moved into the production side of the business, and then accepted a job as a representative to Motion Picture News (one of the most prominent trade journals of the day). Moving on to start his own company, it was Nebel who secured funding for the West Bend Theatre in hopes of bringing top entertainment experiences to small towns. Within a year, and with funding from major financiers including Gustave Pabst, Community Theaters opened a dozen venues in Wisconsin.
The local theatre was the brainchild of August Berkholtz and Louis Kuehlthau, who incorporated the West Bend Theater Company in 1929. The West Bend News described the theater as showing “rugged and powerful expressiveness.” The style was modeled after several influences, ranging from modern German and gothic Moorish to Indian and prehistoric American. The West Bend News continued to describe the theater as “antique and ultra-modern fused together into one compelling symphony of russet brick and light-colored cut stone.”
The arrival of the new theatre was announced in the prominent Hollywood trade publication Motion Picture Herald on January 29th, 1929. The West Bend opened on November 26th, 1929 to a “Gala Opening” that featured vaudeville acts as well as a series of films. The first film to play the theater was Warner Bros.' Is Everybody Happy?, starring Ted Lewis. The opening film was advertised as a Vitaphone picture, which was sound-on-disk technology owned by Warner Bros. Another feature on opening night was Laurel and Hardy’s A Perfect Day.
In the following days, featured films were Fast Company, Side Street, The Love Doctor, and Madame X.
While the vaudeville acts didn’t last long, they were a staple of the theater’s early years. Shows would sometimes occur prior to feature films but were most common on Sundays. Vaudeville, often written as “vodvil,” opened programs during the 2pm-6pm and 6pm-11pm showings. Performances included Van and Schenk, advertised as “Orpheum circuit headliners,” hound dog guitarist Bradley Kincaid, as well as other road shows that were not detailed but promised to provide “singers, dancers, and entertainers.”
One major celebrity who came to the West Bend was Gene Autry. The famous singing cowboy played two days at the West Bend in August 1933.
From 1929 to 1932 the building was owned by W.W. Oeflein, Inc. and leased to Community Theaters. In 1932, Berkholtz took over the lease and ran the business until 1962. The West Bend was the premiere film house in the area and played the more prominent films, while the nearby Mermac Theater was relegated the B and C productions.
Another building breakthrough was its early version of air-conditioning. The West Bend regularly advertised itself as “the coolest place in town.” The house was cooled to 70 degrees (a major feat in hot summer days prior to central air conditioning). A major original fan pulled in cool air from over the river and ingeniously circulated it through channels under the first floor seats. (We still have the fan.)
Prominent films shown in the early 1930s included The Four Feathers (1930), Marx brothers in Animal Crackers (1930), Show Girl in Hollywood (1930), Tod Browning’s Dracula (1931), Charlie Chaplin’s City Lights (1931), the Oscar-winning Cimarron (1931), The Front page (1931), the influential gangster films The Public Enemy (1931) and Scarface (1932). Several of Mae West’s controversial films played here including I’m No Angel (1933) and She Done Him Wrong (1933).
Additional films included the Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers RKO musicals Top Hat (1935) and Shall We Dance (1937), the Depression-era Warner Bros. musicals Gold Diggers of 1933, Dames (1934), and Flirtation Walk (1934).
Other films included the aviation epics Hell and High Water (1933) West Point of the Air (1935), the romantic-comedy Shipmates Forever (1935), and The Prisoner of Shark Island (1936).
An interesting film featured at The West Bend was S.O.S Iceberg (1933), which was hailed for being filmed in the arctic at a time when doing so was incredibly difficult. The film was a joint-production between the U.S. based Universal Studios and their German partner. S.O.S. Iceberg starred Leni Riefenstahl, who would be known for directing the most notorious Nazi propaganda film of all time, Triumph of the Will (1935).
The list of famous films goes on: the Jack Okie comedy Collegiate (1936), the Sherly Temple centered Bright Eyes (1934), Our Little Girl (1935) and Dimples (1936), the James Cagney Naval comedy Here Comes the Navy (1935), and the G-Man yarn Let Em’ Have It (1935) where the marquee read “see the Department of Justice in Action.”
The West Bend saw the early Katherine Hepburn film The Little Minister (1934), the jungle adventure Beyond Bengal (1934), and the crime-drama Red Hot Tires (1935).
By 1934, as movies continued to grow in popularity during the Great Depression, the vaudeville acts were discontinued and newsreels such as March of Time began to take their place.
As the decade moved on, the West Bend saw famous swashbucklers in Captain Blood (1936), greedy gangsters in The Petrified Forest (1936), and an early Alfred Hitchcock thriller The 39 Steps (1936).
Berkholtz management decisions were often reported in Box Office magazine, such as his installation of new amplifiers and speakers in 1937 and his pioneering use of the marquee to advertise show times in addition to feature details in 1938.
In 1941, a wide array of Hollywood fare entertained our local community ranging from pre-war armed forces films like Flight Command and In the Navy, high profile comedies such as The Philadelphia Story and The Great Dictator, there was a re-release of Gone with the Wind.
After World War II, Hollywood was known for cranking out gloomy fare. West Bend saw many of these noir crime pictures in 1946, such as Mildred Pierce, House on 92nd Street, Gilda, and Postman Always Rings Twice. It wasn’t all doom and gloom, as the theatre saw the Marx Bros. in A Night in Casablanca, as well as Danny Kaye in Wonder Man.
In the 1950s, The West Bend continued to showcase top Hollywood films, such as the Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis comedies, White Christmas (1954), Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954), The Searchers (1956), Forbidden Planet (1956), Giant (1956), and Jailhouse Rock (1957).
By 1960, the world was changing, and movies were mirroring those changes. In February of that year, then-Senator John F. Kennedy came to West Bend on the campaign trail. One of the most famous images of our downtown features the future president with the West Bend blade in the background.
That same year, the West Bend Theatre would feature one of the most notorious films ever made – Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho. The film was the top of a double-bill also featuring The Time Machine based on the H.G. Wells novel. Hitchcock famously asked every theatre owner to not allow anyone into the show after it started, a tactic that created curiosity and buzz around the film. The West Bend Theatre made a note on the Daily News advertisement (next to Hitchcock’s instructions) that no one under 16 years of age would be allowed into the film, which marked a transitional period in Hollywood moving from formal self-censorship to a rating system that would allow a wider range of entertainment for all ages.
Since 2006, the grand old theatre has been mostly dark. The theatre reopened as the West Bend Cinema BrewHaus for a brief run in addition to some live music ventures. Matt Prescott bought the building in 2012 to keep it viable. He invested in its preservation with roof and other repairs. In 2017, he sold it Historic West Bend Theatres Inc. a non-profit community group determined to bring the theatre back to life as a multi-purpose venue.
The group, led by an 18-person board of directors spent two years on engineering and architectural planning and on raising funds. By June of 2019, it had raised enough money to begin the restoration.
Over the two years, the directors from the Historic West Bend Theatre listened to local citizens about their memories of the theater. We heard stories of watching iconic films such as The Graduate (1967), and The Godfather (1972), Jaws (1975), and Star Wars (1977), Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), Ghostbusters (1984), Batman (1989), Home Alone (1990), and many, many more.
Others recalled the theatre was split into two screens, creating and upper and lower floor space in the 1970s. Some remember when it was then split into three screens, making the lower level two separate rooms in 1992.
Former employees have ghost stories about the venue, some former ushers remember being asked to walk the isles to make sure the kids weren’t ‘necking.’
The long history of the West Bend Theatre is a compilation of everyone’s experience at our beautiful theatre. Individual stories merged with national trends in entertainment and came together at The Bend. This theatre brought the community together for decades, and, with just a brief hiatus, the community is again supporting this theatre as “a glorious tribute to a wonderful city.”
See also, our coverage in On MIlwaukee