Film exhibition in West Bend, Wisconsin dates at least back to 1918 when the Mermac Theatre company was taken over by C. Davis.
The Historic West Bend Theatre opened to audiences during the era of “movie palaces” where going to the movies was a regular cultural experience. In 1930, 80 million people went to the movies every week. Our theater was a part of this historic cultural and artistic boom in popularity.
Architectural firm Graven & Mayger built the Historic West Bend Theatre in 1929. It was the fourth theater constructed in the city and the only one of the four that remains. 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, RKO Orpheum Theater in Davenport, Iowa. The blade in front of the 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 national history.
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. While sound film technology in the late 1920s was a competition between sound-on-film technology and sound-on-disk, the Historic West Bend Theatre utilized sound-on-disk technology initially. 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.” The theatre eventually moved to sound-on-film, which became the industry standard.
The late 1920s saw the theatre also utilized a small stage, which remains intact, for vaudeville acts. Because of its prominent style, the original blueprints of the Historic West Bend Theatre were featured in full page increments in the Exhibitors Herald-World on December 21st, 1929.
By 1934, as movies continued to grow in popularity during the Great Depression, the vaudeville acts were discontinued. The building also had originally a small commercial barber shop/commercial space and outdoor ticket booth that has since been removed.
The theatre was the brainchild of August Berkholtz and Louis Kuehlthau, who incorporated the West Bend Theater Company in 1929. The arrival of the new theatre was announced in the prominent Hollywood trade publication Motion Picture Herald on January 29th, 1929. The first film to play the theater was Warner Bros.' Is Everybody Happy? As reported in a 1930 issue of Motion Picture News, the first house manager of the Historic West Bend Theatre was popular West Bend resident Mac Regner. From 1929 to 1932 the building was owned by W.W. Oeflein, Inc. and leased to Community Theaters, Inc. In 1932, Berkholtz took over the lease and ran the business until 1962.
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. Berkholtz was also quoted in film advertisements prior to the construction of the Historic West Bend Theatre, such as for the epic Revolutionary War film titled America (1924), directed by the controversial D.W. Griffith.
As we continue to discover hand bills, we are able to fill out the history of what films were played in house. We currently have a long list of films from the 1950s and some from later decades including White Christmas (1954), Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954), The Searchers (1956), Forbidden Planet (1956), Giant (1956), Jailhouse Rock (1957), The Graduate (1967), and The Godfather (1972). Each of these films were first run and represent cultural significance of their era.
During the 1970s the theater was split into two screens utilizing the original floor space and upper separating the balcony seating from below.
The lower level was divided into two screens in 1992. After the theatre closed in 2006, the additional screens were removed, and the building was brought back to its original space with one large room. The floor seats have been removed while the original balcony seats are still in place.
The original marquee and iconic West Bend sign are still intact. Although the space is currently vacant, the West Bend community still embraces their downtown theatre and continues to share fond memories of films they saw there throughout their lifetime.
The First West Bend Theatre Program from December 1929.
This program handed out during this film allowed the theatre to introduce itself:
Future president, John F. Kennedy, walks through main street (theatre sign in the background) during the presidential primary campaign of 1960.