In a New Light Genesee Theatre Revival Raises Hopes of a Comeback for Waukegan's Downtown
Zawislak, Mick, Daily Herald (Arlington Heights, IL)
Byline: Mick Zawislak Daily Herald Staff Writer
During better times in Waukegan, crowds came downtown for entertainment and the Genesee Theatre was the big ticket.
The Rialto, Times and Academy all had their fans. But the Genesee was something else when it opened on Christmas of 1927.
Waukegan, like other satellite cities, was booming with bustling factories and a growing population. Downtown also was hopping. But the addition of a $1 million, five-story building complete with stores, 41 apartments and a 1,799-seat theater was big news.
"A lot of hoopla," says Ed Link, who has studied the history of the Genesee, the main draw of the dominating terra cotta-faced building. "It was always the pre-eminent theater in town - not just in town but in the area."
Silent film star Milton Sills topped the bill that day in "Valley of the Giants," a melodrama about dirty business dealings.
"It was shown four times that day because there was such a demand for seats," Link explained.
Three quarters of a century later, the city is fighting to rekindle interest in downtown and is betting $20 million that a revived and expanded Genesee will be the talk of the town - and the region.
Despite its proximity to Lake Michigan, the Genesee - and to an extent the downtown - declined through the years from a regional attraction to a blighted eyesore. The Genesee stopped showing first run films in 1982 and closed for good in 1989.
Setting the stage
After fits and starts, Waukegan is pinning its dreams for downtown on a massive rebirth of the Genesee.
Armed with the moral and financial support of the city and top politicians and led by a passionate and renowned expert in the field of movie palace resurrection, the effort is on a fast track.
"My first project was credited with turning Cleveland around," says Ray Shepardson, an Ohio native who has practically made a career of attracting attention to his projects.
"If a theater project can turn a huge market around," he muses, "imagine the impact," on a much smaller city.
Shepardson may be a hired gun, but his frenetic enthusiasm has been well documented through the years, including a profile in the Wall Street Journal.
And he wasn't the first choice. After reading about the city's hopes for the Genesee in a business publication, Shepardson called city officials and asked if they wanted a second opinion.
"Lots of people came through town with ideas. A few people came through with money. But until recently, nobody came through with both," Link said.
Returning to glory
Nearly a year ago in the lobby of the eerily vacant space at 221 N. Genesee St., U.S. Rep. Mark Kirk presented Mayor Dick Hyde with a check for nearly $1.5 million in federal housing and urban development funds for planning and construction costs.
A revived Genesee, Kirk said, "re-energizes the arts and unlocks the economic potential of our downtown area."
When it emerges, perhaps late this year, the game plan is for a greatly expanded Genesee, lavish in detail and packed with perks for subscribers. …