Thu, Apr 7th, 2011 12:00 am

Curtain rises again on Edwardsville's Wildey Theatre

By Aren Dow, special to the Beacon

After more than two decades, the Wildey Theatre in downtown Edwardsville is springing back to life.

For Edwardsville Alderman Rich Walker, his dream to return the Wildey Theatre to its former glory is about as old. He went with his wife to see the musical "Doonesbury" about 25 years ago at the theater.

"It was in pretty bad shape then," Walker said. "After we saw the show, she said, 'Somebody ought to renovate this theater.'"

Walker said ever since, he has wanted to restore the building. In 1999, Walker worked with the state to secure funds to buy the building, put on a new roof and rebuild the marquee. About 18 months ago, the city came up with $2.9 million to restore the inside of the theater.

The Wildey is ready for its closeup.

And at 6 p.m., Tuesday, April 12, the theater will have its grand (re)opening.

The Wildey, which originally opened in 1909, has long been a symbol of downtown, and Walker hopes it once again becomes downtown's cultural hub.

"It's not just about saving a historic building; it's about preserving a creative culture in Edwardsville that appeals to everyone," Walker said.

Project consultant Craig Leitner says the Wildey has always been a center for the community, evolving with advances in entertainment through the century.

"It was originally an opera house, a meeting place and a service to the community," Leitner said. Later it shifted to vaudeville and then "spent many years as a movie theater," he added.

The city wants to see a wide variety of entertainment there. From movies, ranging from "The Dark Knight" to "Singing in the Rain" to musical performances from Edwardsville High School students to guitarist Tim Reynolds, Walker said the Wildey will provide entertainment for the entire community.

"I will consider the building a failure if we don't, in the first year, program events for every piece of the community, no matter how you choose to slice it," Walker said.

Merging Past with Present

For the century-old building, Walker said, they looked to combine the original architectural designs with a significant upgrade in technology.

"It's a 100-year-old building that didn't have internet. When people walk into the Wildey, they will still see the art deco look. It's the old look but a modern twist," Walker said.

Building for the 21st century, the theater has bigger seats and wider aisles. But, Walker said, many improvements are behind the scenes, notably the extensive upgrade in electrical work.

"If they were in it before, they will remember the old lighting fixtures and they'll recognize the old building, but behind the walls have been a lot of lighting upgrades," Walker said.

The Wildey Theatre. 250-254 Main Street in Edwardsville.

Leitner said many art deco elements, some from the theater's earliest days, have been restored to preserve the theater's original atmosphere look.

"The restroom signage is from the original building. What they wanted to do is to bring that art deco into the building itself," Leitner said.

And while there is no capability for 3D now - Walker said that was a "nice but not necessary" element – the projector is digital.

One Edwardsville business, Crushed Grapes, has already embraced the theater and will open a wine bar called "Encore."

Downtown influence

The theater has sparked Edwardsville's downtown resurgence even before its grand opening. Alderman Janet Haroian said a law firm, HeplerBroom, which bought space on Edwardsville's Main Street and opened at the beginning of the year, gave an architectural nod to the Wildey.

"When they made the plans to build the building, they decided they would mirror the facade of the theater. They took a lot of the finishing features" from the Wildey, Haroian said.

The north side of Main Street beyond the Wildey is getting a facelift as well. Around $4 million is being spent on the blocks just north of the theater.

The lobby is ready for customers.

"I think the Wildey helps spur that. If you look at downtown, up to that point, things are in pretty good shape," Walker said. "Now, that we got that one checked off the list, it was, 'What's next?' You never stop planning."

Besides the $4 million in renovations to the north side, Haroian said several businesses, including a bank, auto repair center and the county courthouse, have renovated their own downtown businesses.

"Over the years, we've seen significant financial investment in the downtown area, definitely," Haroian said. "It's really exciting to be part of it."

Leitner said the theater is something that can tie the area together and be a central point for Edwardsville.

"It's going to be the anchor to expand north on Main Street," Leitner said. "Main Street's not very long, but it does give us something to anchor that block of town."

Walker said some businesses were apprehensive when the city announced the nearly $3 million plan to restore the theater but have since warmed up to the idea.

"Now that we are getting close to opening, some of those naysayers have bought [fundraising] bricks in the sidewalk," Walker said. "I think we've turned a corner on that and they see it really is a good thing for the community."

Haroian said businesses in the area have also donated items, such as furniture for the Wildey's green room. The community's interest in the theater has picked up where Walker began and is continuing to push it ahead.

"For so long I was pushing the train, trying to get it rolling," Walker said. "Now it's rolling on its own, and I'm standing behind it trying to catch up.

"And that's good. I still feel like it's my train, but I have to let go, turn the keys over."