Wealthy Theatre: A brief history

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Updated: 2/17/18, 1:41 p.m. Correction: Tom Schwallie is the recently-former front of house manager. Former theater director Erin Wilson and film maker Sean Kinney were instrumental in the creation and establishing of the Meanwhile Film Series.


Wealthy​ ​Theatre’s​ ​rich​ ​history​ ​and​ ​community-focused​ ​programming​ ​make​ ​it​ ​a​ ​valuable​ ​meeting​ ​place for​ ​Grand​ ​Rapids​ ​residents.

The​ ​theater ​first​ ​opened​ ​its​ ​doors​ ​in​ ​1911​ ​as​ ​the​ ​Pastime​ ​Vaudette.​ ​It​ ​was​ ​initially​ ​used​ ​for​ ​vaudeville​ ​and live​ ​theater​, ​and​ ​later​ ​became​ ​a​ ​neighborhood​ ​movie​ ​house.​ ​During​ ​World​ ​War​ ​I,​ ​the​ ​theater ​was​ ​used​ ​as​ ​a warehouse​ ​for​ ​the​ ​Michigan​ ​Aircraft​ ​Company.

It​ ​reopened​ ​after​ ​World​ ​War​ ​I​ ​with​ ​a​ ​new​ ​name:​ ​Wealthy​ ​Theatre.​ ​In​ ​the​ ​1960s,​ ​the​ ​theater​ ​was​ ​known for​ ​showing​ ​foreign​ ​films.​ ​However,​ ​Wealthy​ ​Theatre​ ​closed​ ​in​ ​the​ ​late-1970s​, ​and​ ​stood​ ​empty​ ​and rotting​ ​for​ ​more​ ​than​ ​25​ ​years.

In​ ​the​ ​1990s,​ ​Wealthy​ ​Theatre​ ​was​ ​named​ ​a​ ​historic​ ​building​, ​and​ ​the​ ​South​ ​East​ ​Economic​ ​Development neighborhood​ ​association​ ​started​ ​a​ ​campaign​ ​to​ ​fund​ ​its​ ​restoration.​ ​It​ ​reopened​ ​in​ ​1998​ ​as​ ​a​ ​community arts​ ​center.

Wealthy​ ​Theatre​ ​ran​ ​into​ ​financial​ ​difficulties​ ​in​ ​2004​, ​and​ ​the​ ​Board​ ​of​ ​Directors​ ​began​ ​looking​ ​for​ ​a nonprofit​ ​willing​ ​to​ ​take​ ​over​ ​the​ ​theater.​ ​The​ ​Community​ ​Media​ ​Center,​ ​or​ ​CMC,​ ​was​ ​chosen,​ ​and​ ​runs the​ ​theater​ ​to​ ​this​ ​day.

The​ ​CMC’s​ ​mission​ ​statement​ ​is,​ ​“Building​ ​community​ ​through​ ​media.”​ ​According​ ​to​ ​Tom​ ​Schwallie, Wealthy​ ​Theatre’s​ ​former and long-time front​-​of-house​ ​manager​ ​and​ ​curator​ ​of​ ​the​ ​Meanwhile​ ​Film​ ​Series,​ ​the​ ​CMC​ ​carries out​ ​this​ ​goal​ ​by​ ​making​ the theater​ ​available​ ​as​ ​a​ ​resource.​ ​If​ ​someone​ ​has​ ​a​ ​CMC​ ​membership, that​ ​person​ ​can​ ​run​ ​programming​ ​at​ ​the​ ​theater​ ​for​ ​a​ ​reasonable​ ​fee.​ ​As​ ​such,​ ​much​ ​of​ ​Wealthy​ ​Theatre’s programming​ ​is​ ​drawn​ ​from​ ​the​ ​community.

Wealthy​ ​Theatre’s​ ​most​ ​well-known​ ​programming​ ​might​ ​be​ ​the​ ​Meanwhile​ ​Film​ ​Series.​ ​It is​ ​sponsored​ ​by the​ ​Meanwhile​ ​Bar,​ ​which is owned​ ​by​ ​siblings​ ​Jeff​ ​and​ ​Tami​ ​Vandenberg.​ ​With the help of former theater director Erin Wilson and  ​Vandenberg’s​ ​interest​ ​in​ ​film,​ ​the idea for the Meanwhile Film Series was spawned​.

Each​ ​Tuesday,​ ​a​ ​different​ ​cult​ ​classic​ ​from​ ​the​ ​70s,​ ​80s,​ ​or​ ​90s​ ​is​ ​shown at Wealthy Theater.​ ​In​ ​the​ ​beginning,​ ​Jeff Vandenberg​ ​and​ ​Schwallie​ ​worked​ ​collaboratively​ ​to​ ​pick​ ​films​ ​they​ ​wanted​ ​to​ ​spotlight.

The​ ​Meanwhile​ ​Film​ ​Series​ ​was​ ​born​ ​out​ ​of​ ​a​ ​deep​ ​love​ ​for​ ​movies,​ ​so​ ​the​ ​showings​ ​have​ ​a​ ​unique atmosphere.​ ​Audience​ ​members​ ​at​ ​these​ ​showings​ ​are​ ​not​ ​expected​ ​to​ ​sit​ ​quietly​ ​as​ ​they​ ​watch​ ​the​ ​film.

People​ ​cheer​ ​and​ ​laugh​ ​at​ ​appropriate​ ​times,​ ​creating​ ​a​ ​sense​ ​of​ ​camaraderie.

This​ ​past​ ​season’s​ ​highlights​ ​included​ ​a​ ​laugh-filled​ ​screening​ ​of​ “Army of Darkness,” complete​ ​with prideful​ ​cheers​ ​at​ ​the​ ​film’s​ ​mention​ ​of​ ​Grand​ ​Rapids.

​Tommy​ ​Wiseau’s​ “The Room” attracted​ ​a​ ​rambunctious​ ​audience,​ ​quoting​ ​lines​ ​and​ ​throwing plastic​ ​spoons​ ​at​ ​the​ ​screen.​ “The Room” became​ ​a​ ​cult​ ​classic​ ​for​ ​being​ ​a​ ​notoriously​ ​bad​ ​film,​ ​so​ ​live screenings​ ​come​ ​with​ ​unofficial​ ​interactive​ ​rules,​ ​such​ ​as​ ​the​ ​aforementioned​ ​throwing​ ​of​ ​spoons​ ​at​ ​the screen​ ​whenever​ ​a​ ​framed​ ​photo​ ​of​ ​a​ ​spoon​ ​is​ ​shown.​ ​The​ ​Grand​ ​Rapids​ ​audience​ ​enthusiastically participated ​in​ ​these​ ​traditions,​ ​creating​ ​a​ ​friendly,​ ​if​ ​not​ ​a​ ​bit​ ​silly,​ ​atmosphere.

The​ ​Wealthy​ ​Theatre​ ​has​ ​a​ ​rich​ ​history​ ​and​ ​continues​ ​to​ ​support​ ​the​ ​community​ ​as​ ​a​ ​place​ ​for​ ​people​ ​to come together and bond over their passion for film.