Update on The Bend: More Sell-out Crowds

It is so much fun to watch a new venture go well, and that has certainly been the case as the community has supported The Bend, a pure startup out of the ashes of the 1929 “movie palace.”

My wife Kine and I attended a tribute concert called “Forever Seger” Friday night and everybody, and I mean everybody in an almost full house, was having a great time. People were dancing in the aisles. They chatted each other up before the show in the expanded lobby, during intermission and after the show. (Disclosure: Kine and I are part of the leadership team.)

Perhaps the best time of all, though, was had by the outstanding musicians, most of whom came from Toronto. They loved the art deco venue; they loved the superb acoustics; they interacted with the crowd during and after the show in the lobby. Of course, they were selling their “merch,” but they also obviously enjoyed interacting with the “Benders.”

That has been a consistent refrain. The bands and comedians who perform at the theater almost always extoll the venue, the management team and the overall setting between renovated Main Street and the renovated Riverwalk.

In the case of “Forever Seger,” they would be playing another concert on Saturday. They asked the Friday crowd to come back for their second concert, and I’ll bet some of the enthusiastic concert-goers did just that. The second night was close to a sell-out, too.

Sell-outs of big-name bands and comedians has become the norm for The Bend. And almost all of the bands want to come back next year.

The new venture still has a good way to go to becoming rock solid financially, but has come a long way in a short time. The end game of The Bend is to be around as least as long as the original 1929 vaudeville theatre was around. It went dark in 2006 after 70 years in business. The multiplexes and movies on TV screens did it in.

The restored theatre celebrated its Grand Opening on March 14, 2020, but had to shut down the next day due to the explosion of highly infectious COVID. It gradually reopened with small crowds for spacing purposes in 2020, and expanded to full operation in 2021.

A recent strategic planning session by the 17-person board of directors set some goals for the community-based venue. On top of 25,000 tickets sold in 2023 and 157 different events, it set a goal of selling 30,000 tickets per year by 2026.

The theater broke into the black in 2023, thanks to about $200,000 in grants and donations. It aims to be in the black every year going forward.

Another lofty goal is to have everyone in the community and in the state recognize the brands of West Bend and The Bend as charming destinations, famous across the whole state. The number of zip codes among the online ticket buyers has already expanded to about a dozen. Some people are coming from out-of-state.

Based on its growing success, The Bend has decided to launch a major brand-expanding campaign this year. It will host two outdoor “block parties” on Main Street on May 30 to open the community’s summer activities and then a summer closing block party on Sept. 5. Well-followed bands have already been signed.

Based on attendance at “Music on Main” over the years, crowds of more than 4,000 are expected at each of the block parties. Main Street will be closed off and a big stage will be erected in front of The Bend. Powerful sound and lighting systems will be brought in.

The brands of the City of West Bend, Washington County and The Bend will be amplified.

The originators of the restoration of the Historic West Bend Theatre, Inc. only dreamed of this level of success surrounding the theater. Downtown bars and restaurants are big beneficiaries of the momentum.

In one dimension, the theater has been a catalyst for economic development downtown. More than 500 apartment units have been launched as an investment of more than $100 million. Many other ingredients figure into that success, but The Bend is part of it. It adds an element of joie de vivre that is unmatchable.

A pending greenery project for planters and flower baskets along Main Street and the Riverwalk will be the frosting on the downtown cake. Thanks again to the private donors who are making the floral magic about to happen.

Part of The Bend’s charm while attending concerts, comedy gigs, popular family movies, business meetings, local government forums and private events like birthday parties and class reunions is that everything is so convenient. Parking is ample within a short walk. Local residents have a short drive to downtown. And local hospitality people are exceedingly friendly.

In addition, a lot of cheerful work by The Bend volunteer team has gone into building the momentum for the theater. They have a good time, too. Importantly, many donors continue to support the expanding programming.

It all adds up to a lot of fun. The community is winning the day downtown. Let’s keep it going.

Epilogue: A sad note hung over the really funny musical “Escape to Margaritaville,” staged by the West Bend Theater Company last weekend at the Theater on the Hill, a complementary venue to The Bend. The 50-year-old theater will be closed by the University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee at the end of the month. Its fate, along with the rest of the two-year campus, is unresolved.

Tickets are available for three performances next weekend. The voices are wonderful.

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