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Sustaining Wealthy Theatre

When a few dedicated members of the South East Economic Development (SEED) neighborhood association decided to renovate Wealthy Theatre in the 1990s, it was in bad shape. The roof leaked, walls were damaged, and it had stood empty for almost 25 years.

"There was so much water flowing through the theatre, there was a tree growing on stage,” says Executive Director Erin Wilson.

What began as a place for vaudeville and live theatre in 1911 later became a neighborhood movie house. Wealthy Theatre also served as a warehouse for the Michigan Aircraft Company during World War I and a foreign film house in the 1960s.

After closing its doors in the 1970s, it was slated to be demolished until SEED members Carol Moore, Rebecca Smith-Hoffman, and Dotti Clune launched a campaign in the early 1990s to fund its restoration. It took several years and Smith-Hoffman says the experience of saving the theatre was “a total nightmare.”

When Wealthy Theatre finally re-opened in 1998 as a community arts center, it spurred growth all along the Wealthy Street corridor, proving to those who backed the restoration that it was indeed the right decision.

The Grand Rapids Community Media Center purchased the theatre and an additional building next door in 2005 and still owns it today.

Wealthy Theatre is now wrapping up a nearly two-year sustainability fundraising campaign that ends this December. The original goal was to raise $500,000 and Wilson says the organization is a little more than $100,000 short of this amount.

The theatre’s 100th anniversary sustainability campaign kicked off Jan. 1, 2011 with a generous lead donation from the Wege Foundation. As a young boy, Peter Wege worked at the theatre and now the main auditorium is named after him for his foundation’s financial gifts.

Wilson says the rest of the donations in this campaign have averaged $70, but fortunately for the theatre, there have been many donors.  

In an effort to encourage more donations, Wealthy Theatre is mailing out letters and will be calling people during a special one-day fund drive on Dec. 21, the final day of the campaign. “Hail Merry” is the event name for this fund drive day, which will culminate with free holiday movies at the theatre that night. WYCE and The Rapidian, which are also owned by the Community Media Center, will help promote the day by announcing gifts for donors on air and online.

Since Wilson started with Wealthy Theatre, he says he has seen a 125 percent increase annually in its usage. Between the main Peter Wege Auditorium, the Koning Micro-Cinema, the Community Meeting Room, and the lobby, reception, and studio spaces, there are often several events on the same day. Wilson estimates there are 40-50,000 people who walk through the doors each year.

Shortly after starting with the theatre in 2006, Wilson realized that not only does it require a lot of energy to operate Wealthy Theatre, energy costs are also going up. To continue to operate, the organization could either raise ticket prices or innovate.

Innovation won and soon Wilson and others were meeting with “dozens of big brains in greening technology.” They learned what improvements have cost benefits and which ones do not. Containment -- closing off areas where heat escapes -- proved to be one of the best ways to save on energy costs and soon, additional doors were installed to keep the heat in.

The current sustainability campaign plans to fund four areas:
-    The beautification and repair of the façade and parking lot
-    Energy reduction and containment
-    Technology updates to replace outdated equipment
-    An assistive fund to benefit the core users in the Baxter neighborhood where the theater is located

Wilson says that Wealthy Theatre has been responsible with its investments and energy usage and adds, “We’ve done our best to be good stewards.”

Wealthy Theatre is more than just a 100-year-old historic theatre, it has become known as the “anchor of the neighborhood” and a vital community gathering place.

Here are some ways you can show your support to Wealthy Theatre:

-    Visit Wealthy Theatre online to find out more.
-    Watch this before and after video to get a better idea of the changes that have been made.
-    Contribute to the Sustainability Campaign.
-    Read more about the Sustainability Campaign.
-    Participate in the Hail Merry fund drive and movie event on Dec. 21.
-    Volunteer at Wealthy Theatre.
-    Like Wealthy Theatre on Facebook.
-    Follow @wealthytheatre on Twitter.

Sources: Erin Wilson, Executive Director of Wealthy Theatre, and Rebecca Smith-Hoffman, one of the people responsible for its restoration
Writer: Heidi Stukkie, Do Good Editor

Images provided by Wealthy Theatre; photo credits to Steven de Polo and also the Wealthy Theatre archives.    
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