Thursday, February 4, 2021

The Geneva Theater - Built in 1928 and Still Serving the Community Today


By Pamela S. Meyers 

Who doesn’t love going to the movies? Back in 1928, the love of movies prompted developers to build a brand-new movie theater in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, that could also double as a vaudeville venue by incorporating a stage in front of the movie screen. 

 If you regularly read my posts here each month, you already know that Lake Geneva is my hometown. The 1928 movie theater was there years later when I was growing up without much being changed to the interior in the years since it was built. That helped me immensely when I wrote Surprised by Love in Lake Geneva and my characters in the 1933 novel attended a movie. But, I’m getting ahead of myself.
Line drawing for the Lake Geneva News Tribune
5/31/28 edition.

The new theater replaced a structure, which according to an article in an early edition of the Lake Geneva News Tribune, had originally been called Centennial Hall. That had been constructed in 1876 in commemoration of the 100th anniversary of the United States’ declaration of independence from Great Britain. The building served as Lake Geneva’s cultural center for more than half a century. 
At some point between 1876 and 1928, the name of the building had been changed to the Ford Opera House. 

Two of the many congratulatory ads
in the local paper

The 5/31/28 edition of the Lake Geneva News Tribune had several pages devoted to the new theater, containing articles about the building as well as dozens of ads placed by local merchants congratulating the facility. One of the articles stated that the new theater was a show house that could not be equaled in a town the size of Lake Geneva, in that part of the U.S., which at that time had a population of approximately 3000 people. 

View of the front, including the screen and
a stage for vaudeville acts. Photo from
author's collection.

Managed by a company called Community Theaters, Inc., the facility was designed to present a combination of movies and vaudeville shows weekly. And, of course, to accompany the vaudeville acts, a pipe organ was included in the building’s plans. One article stated that Lon Chaney, a very popular movie actor of the time, would be the star of many of the movies scheduled to be shown in the new theater 

View from the front looking toward the balcony.
Note the small balconies and windows on the walls.
Photo from author's collection.

Today, the building is still there, but the first floor looks a great deal different than it did back in 1928. However, if you gaze up at the top of the building, the design of that part of the building is the same. During the early 1980s, the theater acquired the building next door that for years housed a favorite confectionary/soda fountain. Frediani’s was a popular hangout by teens after the “show.” They also made wonderful hand-dipped chocolate candy. With the acquisition, they were able to add another screen and begin showing two movies at the same time. Later, they were able to carve out two more screening rooms, one being where the balcony used to be. 

In 2010, the theater closed and the building sat empty for several years. There were rumblings the site would be turned into a kind of shopping mall. That never materialized and in 2017, the building was purchased and theater #1, the original auditorium, was restored and first-rate projection equipment was installed. Much to the delight of the community, movies were once again shown. 

The Geneva Theater Marquee today. 
Note how the design of the original building is incorporated.
Photo from Lake Geneva Regional News, 9/26/18.

During the restoration, a stairway to the balcony, which had been walled off was opened. At the top of the stairs, a small alcove is now a gallery of old photos of the theater when it first was built. 

 As of this writing, the building is used, not only for first-run movies but also for private parties and other gatherings. And with the original stage still intact, a local community theater group holds plays and readings there.

I never appreciated the history of the movie theater when I was growing up. It was just the place I went to for Saturday afternoon cartoons, and later when I was older, the latest movies. Did you have a theater in your hometown where you saw movies?

Pam has written a number of books set in Lake Geneva, the most recent being a four-book historical romance series. Book four of the series, Rose Harbor, will release May 2021.

She lives with her two rescue cats in northeastern Illinois, a short drive from Lake Geneva where she can often be found nosing around for new story ideas.


  1. I lived in the country so we had to travel about 15 miles to get to the nearest movie venue which was an outdoor drive-in. About 25 miles away was a movie theater in another town. We didn't go to the movies often. This building sounds like a wonderful treasure! Thanks for the post!

  2. What thrills me (and I wondered about as I read the article) is the community theatre uses the facility, too. That's a joy!

    1. Ane, yes ... they've put on quite a few productions on that stage after it was reopened. :-)

  3. This is really cool. Especially that you grew up there and saw its transformation over the years. No there was no movie theater in my home town or surrounding towns. I lived in the Mojave Dessert in CA. We did have a tv though and that was our movie entertainment. Besides, living on a ranch and going to bed early and getting up early we didnt have time for something like this. Our church would have once a month a family movie we could go to. quilting dash lady at comcast dot net