When Chuck Dwyer was a boy at the West Bend Theatre watching movies with his sisters, he could have never imagined that decades later he would be high up on three-story scaffolding bringing the 90-year-old architectural gem back to its former grandeur.
It was his talent for art that produced the serendipitous homecoming.
When he was a student at Holy Angels grade school and West Bend East High School, his artistic gifts were apparent. The local Suder Pick Foundation provided him with a scholarship at what is now known as the Milwaukee of Art and Design. He graduated valedictorian. He was on his way to a lifetime of art.
In 1986 he was living at home trying to find a job in his field. He had interned at Amity Leather Products. His mother said, “Hey Charlie, there’s a help wanted ad for a decorative artist in the paper.” It was with the prominent restoration company, Conrad Schmitt Studios of New Berlin. He and 50 others applied, and he got the job.
“It was the closest thing to fine art I could find,” he said during a break last week from art rehabilitation at the West Bend venue.
He stayed at Conrad Schmitt as an employee for about 15 years and later as a contractor for specific projects. He travelled all over the country for renovations at places like the Golden Dome Basilica at Note Dame University and locally at the Shrine of Holy Hill.
As his career moved along, he became widely known for his fine art, often avant-garde figurative female forms. His main gallery is in Chicago.
When the board of Historic West Bend Theatre Inc. discovered many pieces of hidden art from the original 1929 building, much of it covered by maroon paint, it asked Conrad Schmitt for help, and it asked if Dwyer could be brought in to be part of the restoration team.
It all worked out. The major restoration kicked off in April 2019 and is nearing completion. One of the last undertakings was to bring back the lost art. It started in early December and is also nearing completion.
The theatrical mask in the center of proscenium above the stage is smiling down on the audience again. The two repainted loges (boxes) on the sides of the stage command the house, as if waiting for royalty. Ceiling panels dance with metallic finishes.
More than 30 craftsmen and women were buzzing around the theatre in recent weeks to get all the elements in place.
Dwyer found one last hidden piece of stenciled art last week and now has that in place. The accurate re-creation of historic elements of the theatre were critical to winning historic registration and the resulting 20% tax credits at both the state and national levels.
Once the 335 new seats (120 on main floor, 76 in lower balcony and 133 in upper balcony) are installed the first week in February, MSI General, the design-build firm in charge of the overall project, will turn the keys over to HWBT.
Dwyer loved working on this hometown project. He thinks it will be transformative for the community. “It’s going to blow you away.”
Performers are going “to love the intimacy of the place.”
When working, Dwyer wears a paint-splattered shirt with his artful image of a morel mushroom on the front. He loves being outside in Wisconsin, especially near Lake Michigan, for inspiration.
When he leaves his home in Bay View for the woods, he says, “I don‘t find the morels; they find me,” as he assumes a yoga pose with hands over his head, humming.