Belfry Theatre

Belfry Theatre

I was in the city this weekend. It was a nice time, in that big city, and I enjoy the change of scenery when tall buildings replace wide fields. Hustle and bustle means something entirely different down there, and the trip served as a needed reminder of just how badly city dwellers need weekend homes in the country. I always know this, but I know it more on a day like today after a weekend like the one now past. That beautiful Superior hotel was home for a while, but it could never be home for long. No, home was found when I followed that last curve on Highway 50, the one where the roadway dips and turns before passing the Grand Geneva and heading under Highway 12. That was when I felt at home, and that’s when the problems began.

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I didn’t voice this problem until I was through Lake Geneva, and down highway 50, appreciating the curves and the rolling hills and the wooded boundaries to the South and the North. It wasn’t until I turned off onto Geneva Street and I pulled past Bayside Point. The stretch of road beginning at Bell’s Store and terminating when Geneva Lake first comes into view down that slight hill and to the left, that’s the stretch of road where the view burned at my eyes. Dilapidated houses, cars that look like they haven’t been driven for months, perhaps years, littering the sides of those drives. Scrubby trees angling up at odd directions, sloppy or missing landscaping everywhere. This was a stretch of land that made me sad, because the view as one inches closer to that shimmering lake should improve and improve until the lake is seen and it can improve no more. I told my wife that I would like to be put in charge of a town, maybe Williams Bay, and I’d like to wield my powers of eminent domain with a very heavy hand. By now she had spent a full day with me, so my words fell on intentionally deaf ears.

Political office is not something that I aspire to, so I won’t be cleaning up stretches of any given town any time soon, but there is something that I can do to help. For that matter, so can you. The approach into Williams Bay from the north has always been somewhat tenuous. Geneva Lake Bait and Tackle has occupied the West side of Highway 67 (Elkhorn Road once it hits the Bay) forever. I’m glad that it’s there, though it won’t win any architectural awards. Much of my old timey fishing knowledge about Geneva Lake comes from the owner of that north woods style baitshop, and I’m happy that I’ve been able to learn about what Geneva Lake was like in the 50s and 60s. On the East side of that road is Mercy Hospital, and while a giant hospital may seem out of place there, my eye has come to expect it and if we are to have a hospital so close to the lake I’m glad that it’s a shiny, fancy one. Mercy is not a problem. But back on the West side of the street, just to the North of the bait shop rests the tattered remains of the Belfry Theatre, and that site has been a stain on the visual approach to Williams Bay ever since my eyes cared.

Sure, it was fixed up a bit while Eddie Cash spun his borrowed lyrical tales there, and during that time it was nice to see cars in the gravel parking lot on weekend evenings. But that short spell didn’t solve the problem that is the Belfry Theatre, and now, finally, someone is trying to do just that. For some history, the Belfry Theatre was originally built in the late 1800s as a church. It became a theatre in the early 1930s, and sometime in the 1950s an old dormitory that originally housed immigrant orchard workers from the Crane property (Geneva National) was moved and repurposed on the land just south of the theatre. At the time, the building housed the resident actors and later became an antique shop before falling into disrepair. That building is still there today, looking awfully tired and tattered. The fact that an old church was turned into a theatre, and an old dorm was set upon the land to house some actors is really not the reason the Belfry Theatre is important. It’s important because of who acted there, and because of where it is.

Famously, actors who began their early careers there include Paul Newman and Harrison Ford, and presumably plenty of others whose names don’t really mean much to this 36 year old (Del Close, Gary Berghoff). These actors worked the stage at night, during various showings of various plays, and then during the day they worked on their lines and helped repair the property. I imagine they did both of those things, and then hitched rides to the Williams Bay lakefront to hit on the pretty ladies, but that’s just a guess. Anyway, the meaningful history of the property aside, it’s safe to say that the building and the grounds have meant very little for a very long time. The property is now rather lame, and after circling the drain for the better part of two decades it has finally fallen into the hands of new, purposed owners. This is why we should now care, and this is why we should probably help.

The new group is led my Anne Sperry Connors, a pleasant woman with whom I have exchanged a few emails on the Belfry project. She is currently seeking funds (the ownerships is a not-for-profit) to renovate the facilities and hopefully open for the summer 2016 season. The plans are ambitious, and the need for money pretty significant. The rendering above is from the website, and I for one would absolutely love to see that whenever I approach Williams Bay from the north. I expect that this project will succeed if the community- both the full time and vacation home variety- embraces the vision. If the community does not pitch in, this effort will likely fail. I don’t want it to fail, so I’m planning to lend a hand. While I’m not as philanthropic as I should be, I can find value in this plan, and hope you’ll join me.

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