Photo by Holly Leitner
More than a year after the city of Lake Geneva approved zoning changes to allow the historic movie theater at 244 Broad St. to shift uses to a live music venue, tap room and beer garden, renovations of the 1928 building are complete. This summer marks the first season of programming for Geneva Stage, a live music venue that makes use of the building’s historic stage, originally built to host Vaudeville acts between movie screenings in the 1920s and 1930s. This opening completes the transformation of the building, with the adjacent Geneva Tap House and Beer Garden opening last summer.
Owner and President Shad Branen says that the idea to reconceive the space as a live music venue happened in response to changes in the movie theater business related to people’s viewing habits, with the pandemic driving many of those changes. “There were challenges in the movie industry, so we decided to focus on the history and assets of what that venue has, and that’s the stage,” he explains. “We had fortunately kept that intact.” When the movie theater first opened, the building contained a single large theater with both floor seating and balcony seating. The space could accommodate live entertainment and movie screenings accompanied by live organ music, an arrangement that was predominant in silent movie houses of the era.
Subsequent renovations over the decades had enclosed the balcony to create a second small screening room, and added two additional screens in the space next door, creating less expansive movie-going spaces and effectively eliminating the use of the stage. Branen says the first phase of the recent renovations converted the space that had housed these two newest screens into the Geneva Tap House and Beer Garden.
The next phase of the project recombined the balcony and the main theater into a single room once again. Branen explains that returning the space to its original size and configuration required a great deal of renovation, which was completed by Geneva Bay Design.
“We had to level the floors and then undertake an elaborate remodeling project to turn what had been Theater 2 back into the balcony,” he says.
With the renovations complete, the newly renamed Geneva Stage will bring talent to the historic stage once again, with veteran booker Roger Jansen in charge of bookings. The inaugural act, a Led Zeppelin tribute band, took the stage in early May. Branen says the plan is to bring a wide variety of entertainment throughout the year. “It really will be a cross-section of different styles, from tribute acts to original music to comedy to plays to classic and silent movies,” he explains. “It will compare to a performing arts center, in the sense that they typically offer a wide variety of entertainment.”
Branen is especially excited about an upcoming addition to the space that would have looked familiar to a theater-goer in the building’s earliest days: a vintage Wurlitzer organ he says they could use to accompany screenings of old silent films. “It’s being totally rehabbed now,” he says. “We’re hoping it will be installed by the end of the year. When that’s in place, it will really bring [the theater] full circle from what it was in the 1920s, when it was originally constructed.”