How a movie palace, a relic of a different era of movie viewing, became a beacon of our city.
Before the arrival of the television and multiplex movie cinemas, there were movie palaces. In contrast to the simple yet popular nickelodeons of the early 1900s, movie palaces were upscale film theaters. And that’s where The Bend’s story starts, as a movie palace. They were luxurious experiences featuring eye-catching architecture that were intended to feel like an event. And in a time where air conditioning wasn’t the norm, being a climate controlled environment was a huge part of their appeal. In 1930, an estimated 80 million people went to the movies every week—and movie palaces were a part of why people were flocking to theaters.
A WONDER OF ITS TIME
Chicago architectural firm Graven & Mayger built The Bend, originally called “The West Bend,” in 1929. Becoming an important part of West Bend, its vertical sign spelling out the city’s name in lights became a beacon for the city. Back then, the theater had a capacity of 825 seats (600 on the main floor and 225 on the balcony). Graven & Mayger built many other significant properties and movie palaces in the early twentieth century, but most of them have been demolished—making the preservation of The Bend even more vital.
Again, many people did not experience air conditioning on a daily basis back in the early 1900s, which is why the theater would advertise itself as one of the coolest places to go in town. With a fan that pulled cool air in from over the river, it circulated this air through the building in order to cool the building to around 70 degrees. To this day, movie theaters are still known as a haven to relax in during hot summer days.
However, one of the most defining features of the theater were its acoustics. Built at the same time as when Hollywood films were transitioning to synchronized sound, the building designers adopted the best technologies of the time and implemented special acoustical plaster to the sides and ceiling of the theater. The theater achieved a near perfect sound.
A Celebration of Movies
During the theater’s early years, vaudeville acts were a regular feature, but as movies continued to gain popularity during the Great Depression and after, vaudeville acts diminished. Soon, newsreels such as the March of Time (an American series sponsored by Time Inc.) began being shown. The theater would become the premier film house in West Bend and the surrounding area, playing popular films of the time. After World War II and beyond, the theater would adapt with the times and continue showing off the latest Hollywood movies—everything from The Philadelphia Story, The Great Dictator, and White Christmas to Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho.
However, the theater went dark in 2006. After a few attempts to revitalize it, the Historic West Bend Theaters Inc., a non-profit community group, bought the theater in 2017. With an 18-person board of directors, the Historic West Bend Theaters Inc. was determined to bring the theater back to life as a multi-purpose venue, spending years on planning and fundraising to make it happen.
In 2019, they raised enough money to begin restoring the theater. Ensuring it feels like a true movie palace again while still embracing modern advancements in movie technology, the restoration is focused on delivering incredible sound with a state-of-the-art sound system and acoustics—just as the original theater did. Giving modern audiences a taste of the past, The Bend is a movie palace for today; bringing a community together in our collective passion for the art that is film, served by the best visual and audio technologies in a luxurious (and comfortable) atmosphere.
Sit back, relax (with air conditioning, of course), and enjoy the show.