U.S. theatre managers wowed by city, The Bend

The Bend Theater is helping put West Bend on the map. Not that our lovely city needs a lot of help, but the broad and deep support from across the community is paying off.

Two gigantic, shiny, black buses pulled up in front of the theater Sunday morning and 84 historic theatre professionals and volunteers poured out to get a close and personal look at our gem of a venue nicely situated between restored Main Street and the new Riverwalk.

The river was flowing mightily following recent frequent rainfalls. They loved the sounds of the river; they loved the intricate brickwork in a basketweave pattern of the front façade; they loved the reprised artwork in the house of the theater; they loved our art deco bar — and some were good with accepting a free adult beverage before noon.

They were part of the “Ramble” conducted by the League of Historic American Theatres (LHAT) as a kick-off to their annual convention held this year at the elegant, just remodeled Hilton Hotel in Milwaukee. After The Bend Theater visit, they traveled to Sheboygan’s Stefanie H. Weill Center for the Performing Arts. They started at the Oriental Theatre in Milwaukee and returned to the Downer Theatre and Skylight Music Theatre.

During their visit here and a workshop on Monday on The Bend’s resurrection titled “From Dark Theatre to Sellout & Black Ink,” they learned about a successful non-profit startup. The major message delivered by a panel of managers at The Bend was that a community’s sense of ownership carried the day in getting the theater up and running.

Recall that after two years of planning, strategizing, and fundraising, Historic West Bend Theatre, Inc. raised $4.6 million to restore the theater. The money came from:

  • A lead gift of $500,000 from West Bend Mutual Insurance Co. to celebrate its 125th anniversary,
  • $250,000 each from three major donors,
  • A grant of $250,000 from the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation,
  • $1.6 million historic tax credits from state and federal levels,
  • $1.5 million from small and medium donors in the West Bend community.
  • $300,000 from a U.S. FDA loan.

Like the Green Bay Packers, formerly the only non-stock corporation in existence, The Bend Theater sold 75 shares of non-profit stock at $200 each for a total of $15,000. These shareholders get no dividends and no capital gains – ever. But it can be said that the community really does “own” The Bend.

Many of the attendees at the LHAT conference were concerned with the challenge of increasing their “earned income.” That’s the income from operations, as opposed to tin cup income from donations. The average non-profit in America raises about 60% of their revenues from operations like ticketing and concession sales, and the other 40% comes from donations.

The Bend Theater broke into the black in 2023, its second full year of operations post-COVID operations in 2020 and 2021. Remember when The Bend had its Grand Opening March 14, 2020 and closed the next day because of COVID? The theater got back with limited activities and theater-goers in spaced-out seating late 2020 and 2021.

In 2022 the theater sold almost 20,000 tickets and jumped to 25,000 tickets in 2023. The goal over the next three years is 30,000 tickets per year.

The startup as a non-profit business was reminiscent of the startup of the “The West Bend” theatre back in 1929 just as the Great Depression hit. It was a for-profit corporation that looked more like a non-profit until the Depression lifted. An historical note: One of the theatre’s first executives was William F. Pabst, among other notables.

The brand of The Bend Theater has been steadily growing in stature since its restart in 2020. The Bend is seeing as many as dozen zip codes around Wisconsin in its online tickets sales. The ultimate goal established in a strategic planning session earlier this year is to have most Wisconsinites familiar with its brand. It certainly helps that the city’s brand, thanks to the redevelopment of the downtown, thanks to the cleanup of the Milwaukee River, thanks to the presence of the Museum of Wisconsin Art, thanks to the impressive sculpture collection, has been growing as well. Each individual brand contributes in a collective way to the overall brand of the community as great place to live, play, work and visit.

The managers of The Bend have also deduced during strategic planning that it can piggy-back on the brands of the entertainers it brings in. The bigger the brand name of the band, the more it strengthens the brand of The Bend.

A good example is Pam Tillis. The daughter of country music legend Mel Tillis, she has a big name in the music world herself with multiple hit singles that she wrote and sings.

Landing her as an entertainer was a big deal for the theater. She was attracted to our theatre because of its pitch perfect acoustics and the surrounding charm of our lively downtown.

“We are profoundly grateful to all our donors, sponsors and theatre goers who have helped us to get up and running in a successful way, despite the COVID setback,” said President Nic Novaczyk. “We hope to see you at The Bend.”

PHOTO CREDIT: Kine Torinus

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