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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.

1 Comment

One Response to “Wealthy Theatre: A brief history”

  1. Tom Schwallie on February 17th, 2018 11:01 am

    I just wanted to point out that several other people were instrumental in the creation of the Tuesday film series. Former Theatre Director Erin Wilson played a larger role that myself in the creation of the series. Also important was local film maker and theatre volunteer Sean Kinny who did much of the leg work of contacting and setting up relationships with the various film distributors.

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