The Golden Age of Cinema Meets an Art Deco Palace; Celebrating West Bend’s Historic Theater
Gone With the Wind, The Wizard of Oz, King Kong, It Happened One Night…
What do these movies share in common? They’re top releases from the 1930s, the same time that West Bend’s iconic theater came to height.
From a time shrouded by calamity and hardship arose the grandiose fantastical entertainment of theater. Heralded as the ‘golden age’ of cinema, the 1930s claim a revered position of cinematic glory.
It’s no wonder, really. With actors and performers like Cary Grant, Ginger Rogers, Rosalind Russel, and Fred Astaire (just to name a few) the entertainment industry was buzzing from a combination of talent, energy, and dreams.
In the 1930s, every community had more than its fair share of theaters – Washington County included! Visiting one was more than a destination, it was an experience. Movie palaces offered respite from the daily grind, provided a dose of fantasy, and were relatively affordable.
This ‘movie-going experience’ was comprised of cutting-edge technology, luxurious accommodations (like air conditioning), a local social scene, and extravagant architecture. It quickly became an American commodity.
In Washington County, one of these such theaters stands today. A renovated Art Deco palace, that stands as a historical landmark, ornament to the downtown district, and community venue. Over the years, the theater has been known as The West Bend, West Bend Theater, The West Bend Cinema, and The Bend. For simplicity’s sake, we’ll continue to refer to it by its current name, The Bend.
THE ARCHITECTURE OF THE BEND
When you hear, ‘The Bend,’ likely what will come to mind is its architecture. And it’s true! The Bend has become nearly synonymous with the time-honored ‘West Bend’ marquee, a fixture of the city’s historic downtown.
The Bend was built in classic Art Deco design. What does that mean? Well, Art Deco style can be defined as having these four features:
04. Simple, yet attractive
Take a look at the exterior of The Bend. Each of these features is evident. Whether in the geometrical brick pattern, symmetrical proportions, and simple arrangement; all of which accentuate the building’s sleek lines.
The architecture was designed by Graven & Mayger, a prominent firm from Chicago. From 1926 – 1929, Graven & Mayger were known as ‘the people’ for designing large theaters. Their work was highly acclaimed, and to have one of their theaters in Washington County was a boast-worthy achievement.
The theater was built with an original capacity of 600 on the main level and 225 on the balcony. This was smaller in comparison to Graven & Mayger’s other theaters. It indicates how significant The Bend is. First, the community found it important enough to rationalize the expenditure. And secondly, that Graven & Mayger had uniquely designed this small-scale theater to suit the local community.
GETTING THE SHOW ON THE ROAD
The West Bend Theater was built by August Berkholtz and Louis Kuehlthau, who incorporated The West Bend Theater Company in 1929. The completed theater belonged to W.W. Oeflin, Inc.
The West Bend Theater officially opened on November 29th, 1929. It functioned as a movie theater and live theater venue with a full stage. This was West Bend’s fourth movie theater. The other three are no longer standing.
Between 1929 to 1932, it was leased to Community Theaters, Inc. Berkholtz took over the lease in 1932, and the family operated the theater until 1962.
BRINGING THE HOUSE DOWN
In the early years, The Bend is best known for its live vaudeville acts that continued until 1934. In addition, countless motion pictures were enjoyed with the best modern technology for screening and projecting movies. Interestingly enough, the building was also fashioned with a small barber shop and commercial space. This was later removed. Hundreds of people visited The Bend night after night. The theater was a hub of culture and arts in the heart of West Bend.
Come the 1970s, the theater was split into two screens—one in the balcony area, and another on the main level. In 1992, the main level was divided into 2 screens. After years of business, the curtains closed at The Bend in 2006.
WAITING IN THE WINGS
The theater remained dark until 2017 when the Historic West Bend Theaters Group, Inc. purchased the property. This community-centered nonprofit’s mission was to revive The Bend to its former glory and preserve its history. With a dedicated team of 18, the Historic West Bend Theaters Group, inc. worked tirelessly to plan the future of The Bend.
HARD ACT TO FOLLOW
In 2019, the group finally raised enough money to begin renovation. The work was aimed at restoring the original acoustics and design while embracing modern technology. Along the way, design features from The Bend’s original build were rediscovered.
Evergreen Architectural Arts, a historic preservation and restoration group based out of Chicago, studied The Bend in 2018. They found vibrant stencil designs painted with a combination of red, blue, green, bronze, and orange paint with the occasional toned aluminum leaf. Evergreen Architectural Arts also noted a faux stained glass design ceiling on the orchestra ceiling and plaster surfaces which were glazed to create a variety of texture effects.
On December 4th, 2019, West Bend’s theater was added to the Wisconsin State Register of historic places. Since its grand reopening in 2020, The Bend has been a much-admired theater that hosts events, live comedy and music performances, art opportunities, and movies.
The Bend is an irreplaceable historic landmark of Washington County. As acts and events bring life back to The Bend, we are reminded of the golden era of cinema and its place in Washington County. From the efforts of preservation and restoration groups, the Historic West Bend Theater Group, Inc., and local patrons, we will continue to enjoy this Art Deco palace for years to come.
“About.” Washington County Fair Park and Conference Center. Accessed 13 April 2023.
“Dec. 4, 2019 – West Bend Theater listed in the State Register of Historic Places.” Wisconsin Historical Society. Accessed March 19, 2023.
Glennon, Jen. “Art Deco Movement Overview and Analysis.” The Art Story, The Art Story Contributors, November 3, 2016.
“History of the Bend.” The Bend Theater. Accessed March 19, 2023.
Pells, Richard H. and Romer, Christina D.. “Great Depression”. Encyclopedia Britannica, March 3, 2023.
“The Historic West Bend Theater.” Evergreen Architectural Arts. Accessed March 19, 2023.
Wisconsin Historical Society, Wisconsin Architecture and History Inventory, 125 N Main Street, West Bend, Washington County, Wisconsin, 68965.
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