The Intelligencer

By Ann Niccum
04/13/2011

City Celebrates Wildey's Grand Reopening

EDWARDSVILLE More than 25 years after shutting its doors, the Wildey Theatre reopened on Tuesday night to a packed crowd  eager to see the renovated theater and remember old times. For some, the memories were just beginning.  The city of Edwardsville spent $3 million renovating the historic theater and hosted the event exactly 102 years after the date it first opened. Just as on that night, each woman in attendance was given a yellow rose.

Speakers included Mayor Gary Niebur and Alderman Rich Walker, who is also chairman of the Wildey Renovation Committee and president of Friends of the Wildey.  Niebur said the theater will become a hub of the community.  "Today begins a new time and a new chapter," he said Niebur. "Doors open for all to come, and all to enjoy."

Walker said the theater is up to date with new technology including Internet connections, state-of-the-art sound and LED lights.  Niebur and Walker thanked everyone who worked on the project -- city staff, committee members, volunteers and project workers.

A video showed scenes from the renovation and interviews of local residents recalling their memories of the Wildey. Among those interviewed were Joan Evers, Nina Baird, Barb and Pat Pizzini and Joe Hutton. Tom Atwood made the video.

Evers' father was a projectionist, and his brothers were managers of the theater at one time or another.  "It means so much, because it meant so much for my family," she said in the video.  Added Walker: "So many people have memories, and they are so happy we are bringing it back."

Checks from fundraisers were presented to the city for the project including $10,000 from the Edwardsville High School fine arts department, $25,000 from the 1970s EHS Drama Club and Junior Theatre Reunion group and $92,000 from the Friends of the Wildey.

High school students provided entertainment. The EHS Community Service Chamber Orchestra played music, and the EHS Drama club performed two songs from the spring musical "Hairspray" "You're Timeless to Me" and "You Can't Stop The Beat!"

After the opening ceremonies concluded, guests were treated to tours of the facility and free popcorn and soft drinks.  And yes, Encore Wine and Bar, inside the theater, was open for business.  The theater, which can hold 325 people, is now set to become a community center with events such as movies, concerts, live theater and more. A concert by country-band Pure Prairie League on Saturday is already sold out.

A volunteer usher on Tuesday, Charles "Skip" Schmidt, said he will be at the concert. The recently retired Schmidt said he hopes to volunteer as an usher at other upcoming events at the theatre.  "It is so intimate. Not a bad seat in the house," he said.

Tamra Coldren, part of the 1970s EHS Drama Club and Junior Theatre Reunion, said her group was the first to use the Wildey as a private rental last Saturday.  "We had fun. I would suggest this as a venue. We used the theater stage and screen," she said.

EHS Orchestra Director Angelina McLaughlin-Heil said the theater is a nice addition for the performing arts community and her young performers.  EHS students will present an Acoustic Concert to benefit the Wildey at 7 p.m. on Thursday. It will feature five music groups from EHS: the Bel Canto Girl's Choir, the AcaFellaz Boys Choir, the Bluegrass Club, the Cello Club and Bravo, the jazz choir. The price is $10, or $5 for students.  "The students are just so excited," McLaughin-Heil said. "They were so excited to be here tonight."

On Friday, the classic musical film, "Singing in the Rain," will be shown at 7 and 9:30 p.m.  One of the young guests Tuesday was EHS freshman Jessica Barnes, who played the lead role of Tracy Turnblad in "Hairspray." She said it was a great experience to be a part of the evening. "It is awesome," she said.  As a performer, Barnes said she was glad to have such a theater open in the community.

Jerry and Sylvia McDougal brought Sylvia's mother, Catherine Giardina, who moved to Edwardsville when she was five years old, just up the street from the Wildey.  "She remembers piano playing done here, silent movies.  Mostly she remembers it as a music hall," Sylvia McDougal said.  McDougal has memories too. She believes her EHS class of 1955 was the first to have a dinner and show at the Wildey.  "We are so happy to see this," she said. "It is a dream come true."  Sylvia said her family plans to return and watch the movie "Casablanca."

Bryon Daggett, EHS class of 1980, was sporting his original Wildey usher jacket. He said he worked at the theater from about 1978 to 1980.Daggett was thrilled to come back and see the Wildey reopen again. "I have so many memories here," he said.Wilma Jean Bond said many tried to revive the theater in the 1980s but could not. She said it looked "fabulous."

The theater opened in 1909 as an opera house and changed into a movie house over time only to deteriorate and eventually close in 1984.  Though several groups including the Madison County Arts Council tried to revive the theater, none were successful. But in 1999, state Sen. Evelyn Bowles helped the city secure state funding to purchase the building and maintain it.  The goal was to have a private investor renovate it. When no one seemed interested, the city decided to renovate the theater in 2009. The renovation was under way in 2010.

As the long line to get into the Wildey snaked almost to Laurie's Place, Helen Wiemers and Dolly Stolte were among those eager to get in.  Wiemers had her own Wildey memories. "I used to like the Friday night serials, and I danced on the stage, too," she said. "It was probably 1934 or '35. My son is about 40 now. He was about six then. He said, 'Didn't we go to see "Gone With the Wind"?" and I said 'Yeah,' I had to hold you through the whole thing."  "We would go every Friday night. You brought a dime and you'd get your ticket, and it was a nickel for Milk Duds. And Juicy Fruits."

"One thing they used to do when I was little was they used to give away dolls. Dolls from foreign countries. They were about four feet tall. And you wanted so bad to have your name drawn. Another thing, they had Amateur Night. And my cousin, Ted, who was about my age, played the accordian."  Stolte added her own poignant memory. "My cousin and I were in there when they bombed Pearl Harbor," she said.  "My cousin was 7 and I was 9. We were watching a movie and they announced, 'The Japanese have bombed Pearl Harbor.' And my friend Carolyn Schwartz and I didn't know what Pearl Harbor was."

To learn more about what is planned now that the theater is open, go to www.wildeytheatre.com.

Note Intelligencer reporter Steve Horrell also contributed information to this article.