EDWARDSVILLE • Before it closed in 1984, memories were made at the Wildey Theatre for three-quarters of a century. Beginning on Tuesday, new memories will be made there.
Workers are putting the final touches on a top-to-bottom renovation of the iconic theater in downtown Edwardsville, an entertainment venue for generations of area residents that has been mostly dark for 27 years.
The Wildey will reopen on Tuesday, the 102nd anniversary of its grand opening on April 12, 1909.
City officials say the Wildey will again become a cultural center for the community and add even more energy to a business district that has been on a decidedly positive track for several years.
Mayor Gary Niebur said Edwardsville has long tried to preserve the charm and historic character of its downtown, and the renovation of the Wildey continues that tradition. He said it will again become a gathering place and be a cultural asset into the future.
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The Wildey was built at a cost of $50,000 by an investment group led by the local lodge of a fraternal, philanthropic organization called the International Organization of Odd Fellows; it was named in honor of Thomas Wildey, who started the first Odd Fellows lodge in North America.
The big crowd at that first opening night saw a live production of a musical called "A Girl at the Helm." The Wildey would go on to host live theater, vaudeville shows, dance recitals, concerts and motion pictures for 75 years before it closed in 1984 after a final showing of "The Big Chill."
Since then, there have been repeated efforts, public and private, to put the theater back on its feet. The Madison County Arts Center wanted to use it but soon gave up on the idea. Private owners did some renovation and staged a few live music shows but the property increasingly languished and deteriorated.
In 1999, with the help of a $300,000 state grant secured by then-state Sen. Evelyn Bowles, D-Edwardsville, the city government purchased the building and made needed roof repairs.
Seven years ago, the theater's art deco marquee was restored. The city undertook other minor renovations through the years, while trying to find a private investor to do a complete overhaul and operate the theater.
Alderman Rich Walker, who has shepherded the renovation effort, said it eventually became clear that the project would not be profitable for a private investor, given the cost of the needed work.
'A RARE ASSET'
"We had to decide whether to do an extensive renovation or tear it down," he said. Ultimately, the City Council decided that the city would renovate and operate the theater itself.
"We're trying to preserve a historic building and the culture of our downtown," Walker said. "The alternatives were not good — tear it down or let it deteriorate. It's a rare asset that few communities have. It's a great size for community events."
The $2.9 million renovation was financed without using general tax revenue. Walker said a third of the funding came from an amusement tax the city collects on movies and video rentals, a third from a downtown tax-increment financing district and a third from community fund-raising.
The task was daunting.
"When the first thing you have to do is scoop up dead pigeons, you know you have a challenge," Walker said. He said plaster was falling from the walls, insulation was hanging from some of the ceilings and water was standing in the basement.
But now the work is almost complete the theater is looking a lot like it did before, only better.
RETAINS OLD LOOK
The renovation retains the art deco theme the theater has had since a 1937 renovation. Many of the theater's ornamental lamps have been salvaged and restored. The new seats were modeled after the seats from the 1937 renovation, but those who remember the old Wildey will be pleased to know they are wider and have cup holders. There are a total of 327 seats on the main floor and a balcony.
The building's plumbing and electrical and heating and cooling systems have been replaced. Rest rooms and a concessions area have been redone. Dressing areas have been modernized. The stage floor has been rebuilt. There are new curtains, a new 13-by-30-foot movie screen and new sound and lighting systems.
Walker said the project committee held to a tight budget but purposely did not pinch pennies when it came to sound or lighting. He thinks theatergoers will appreciate the results.
Rangwala Architects of St. Louis was architect for the renovation. Miller & Maack of Collinsville served as general contractor.
Niebur said the Wildey will again be a 'shining star" for the city, an attraction that brings people downtown and brings them together. He said it is the hope and intent of city officials that the theater will be self-supporting but said recreational assets — parks, for example — are valuable to a community even when they don't support themselves.
The theater will be managed by the city's parks and recreation department. It will be open Thursday through Sunday each week with a mixture of live performances, classic films, art films, children's films and some popular second-run films. City officials say the Wildey will not compete with first-run theaters. Theater facilities will be available for rent to schools, churches, other organizations and businesses.
Street-level spaces on each side of the lobby have been leased to a wine shop and an antiques store.
For more information on the Wildey or to purchase tickets online for coming attractions, visit www.wildeytheatre.com.
(Editor's note: This story was updated to correct the name of the architectural firm for the renovation.)