Friendship, Varneau, and LED Lighting

In July 2015, Wealthy Theatre again made history by converting all its lighting to LED making it the first restored theatre in the world to achieve this 90 percent energy-saving status. This LED gift from The Wege Foundation includes a new roof with additional solar panels above the Peter Wege Auditorium and a new solar/LED lamp in the Sigsbee Street parking lot behind the Theatre. That lamp is especially important to the neighborhood as it’s the main source of light for that section of Sigsbee Street.

The shining new additional solar panels on the Theatre’s roof can be seen by the Theatre’s Baxter neighbors as the sun hits them providing enough free power to run all the stage lights. Theatre Director Erin Wilson called the LED/solar lighting of the Peter Wege Auditorium “a fitting tribute to the great man after whom it is named.”

It was Peter Wege who helped make the first “history” happen at Wealthy in 1998 when he helped save it from the wrecking ball after 25 years of vacancy and vandalism. Wealthy Theatre had once been that business district’s main attraction with its own streetcar stop; but by the 1990s, it was the center of a crime district.

Built in 1911, the ornate theater was originally named the Pastime Vaudette with live entertainment and silent movies. But it opened just as vaudeville died out. During World War I, the elegant Theatre’s large spaces were filled with equipment for the Michigan Aircraft Company.

In 1920, it reopened as Wealthy Theatre owned by Oscar and Lillian Varneau, parents of Peter Wege’s best friend Gordy, Peter’s second family.

Peter Wege has great memories growing up watching Westerns with Gordy at Wealthy Theatre where the boys ushered moviegoers to their seats earning 25 cents an hour. Gordy’s parents Oscar and Lillian spent many Saturday nights playing cards with Peter’s parents.

After World War II, the flight to the suburbs and the onset of television forced the Theatre to close its doors in 1973. Over the next 15 years, the boarded-up eyesore became a public hazard where, as one city commissioner told the Press, “druglords and gangs ruled the area.” In 1989, the city of Grand Rapids voted to demolish Wealthy Theatre.

That’s when the area’s concerned residents and business owners stepped in forming the non-profit South East Economic Development to protect their neighborhood. Knowing that razing the theatre would further damage their once vibrant business district, the SEED folks convinced the city to declare Wealthy Theatre a designated historic landmark and sell it to them for $1.

SEED realized it would take millions to repair the damage from decades of neglect. They turned to their best hope knowing Peter Wege to be an ardent environmentalist who believed in restoring, not destroying. What SEED didn’t yet know was Wege’s strong personal history with the Theatre. For Wege, Wealthy Theatre meant Gordy Varneau and his family.

Peter Wege led the charge to raise the $2.2 million needed for restoration. And in 1997, the Wealthy Theatre reopened as a performing arts center. For Wege, the highlight of the occasion was having his friend Gordon Varneau fly in from Las Vegas to join the dedication.

The accompanying video of the transformation from decay to renewal includes a picture of the entrance floor mosaic that Peter insisted must be saved. The white stone letters spell VARNEAU.

Ellen Satterlee, CEO of The Wege Foundation, Katy Furtado, Administrative Assistant, and CFO Jody Price honoring the name above them and celebrating The Foundation’s gift of LED lighting to Wealthy Theatre.
Ellen Satterlee, CEO of The Wege Foundation, Katy Furtado, Administrative Assistant, and CFO Jody Price honoring the name above them and celebrating The Foundation’s gift of LED lighting to Wealthy Theatre.
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This bright mural decorates the Community Media Center building, another gift from Peter Wege and The Wege Foundation, next door to Wealthy Theatre.

The Wege Mission Carries On

Let there be no doubt that Peter M. Wege’s has legacy bearers who continue to do “all the good” they can.  Two of them said it best themselves.

The September issue of Grand Rapids Magazine featured an article about Erin Wilson (pictured left), director of Wealthy Theatre, an historic landmark saved by Peter M. Wege and the family foundation.  Boarded up for 14 years in 1989, the former vaudeville showhouse was about to be demolished when neighbors came to Wege for help. As usual, Peter had a bigger idea. Let’s restore the theatre, clean up surrounding buildings, and rejuvenate the once thriving Wealthy Business District.

Now it’s a bustling street of businesses and homes anchored by the theatre Peter rescued. Erin told the Magazine Peter is an “iconic figure,” for the “direction our neighborhood has taken.”

Eric continued: Mr. Wege did some chess-like things on the block that transcend the theater support when he paid an inflated price to buy and then shut down a store that served as a drug ring in the 1990s. He made this neighborhood livable by doing proactive things in a surgical manner with his resources.

The second mission carriers are Christian and Kathryn Birky who attended Healing Our Waters conferences as teenagers.  Kathryn graduated from Brown with a Masters of Environmental Science and now runs a non-profit in Gambia, the Gambia Horse and Donkey Trust.

Here is Christian’s recent note to Dear Mr. Wege,

I am a West Michigan native and avid environmentalist. I attended the first few HOW conferences while in high school, and remember meeting you at breakfast at the Amway with my sister Kathryn before the very first one. Since then, I have gone on to study politics and environmental studies at Princeton, where I just graduated. I am moving back to Michigan, and recently I have come across your influence in several places, from innovative business practices at Steelcase to great work by the Wege Foundation. I wanted to express my gratitude for your leadership on environmental issues. There is still much work to be done, but please know that you have inspired another generation of environmental leaders. We will benefit from the example you set, and we appreciate it!

Peter’s mission thus carries on in these two bright and passionate young people. How thoughtful of them to tell him so.

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Erin Wilson, theatre Director, born in Muskegon Heights, he now lives within five blocks of Wealthy Theatre, where he’s raising a family with his partner, Amy, who is a ballet dancer and instructor.
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At the May 2004 meeting that created the Healing Our Waters movement to save the Great Lakes, Peter M.Wege, organizer of the conference, is pictured welcoming the 70 assembled environmental scientists. Wege told his audience that HOW “is the most important single project of my life as an environmental activist since starting the Wege Foundation in 1967.”

Habitat Owners Earn Their New Homes

In 2006 Peter M. Wege’s environmental vision led to the nation’s first Habitat Home awarded LEED  (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certification.  That was just the beginning.

As Habitat Kent’s Director Barbara Benda, says, “It has been an incredible journey of ecology, economy and social justice ever since Mr. Wege’s support empowered Habitat to commit in 2007 to building all LEED certified Habitat homes in Kent County.”

By April 2013, Habitat Kent was working on its 111th LEED home. That means 110 LEED homes have been restored since Peter and The Wege Foundation built that first one at 925 Cass Ave.

In the Wealthy Heights neighborhood alone, The Wege Foundation has been instrumental in Habitat Kent’s rehab and building of ten homes with repair work and clean-up on six more.  The restoration of this area has special significance to Peter and The Wege Foundation as it is anchored by Wealthy Theatre.

Peter Wege led the charge that in 1997 saved and restored the abandoned movie house.  The resurrection of the Theatre triggered the comeback of the entire Wealthy Street Business District as well as the surrounding neighborhood.

To become a Habitat homeowner, applicants must put in 300 to 500 hours on construction. Additionally, they are required to take classes in home maintenance and money management.  The link here offers a perspective on what Habitat applicants must do to earn their front-door keys.

**Top photo – Barbara Benda, Director of Habitat Kent, Caitlin Wege and Jessica McClear Wege, two of Peter M. Wege’s granddaughters, and Terri McCarthy, V.P. of Programming for The Wege Foundation, stand on the porch of the newly remodeled Habitat home on Freyling Place in Wealthy Heights.

Click here to view Application Form

This sign with photos indicates the typical condition of houses before Habitat Kent goes to work on them.
This sign with photos indicates the typical condition of houses before Habitat Kent goes to work on them.
This sign tells the story of the good organizations behind the Habitat LEED restoration of this house in the Wealthy Street neighborhood near Wealthy Theatre.
This sign tells the story of the good organizations behind the Habitat LEED restoration of this house in the Wealthy Street neighborhood near Wealthy Theatre.

Looking Back on a Theatre and a Friendship

Wealthy Theatre is honoring its 100th anniversary that began with years of magical entertainment, followed by a time of decay, and now celebrating its renewed stardom. From the day it opened in 1911, Wealthy Theatre was its neighborhood’s main attraction – even claiming its own streetcar stop.

Originally named the Pastime Vaudette, the ornate theater hosted live entertainment. But before long, vaudeville was gone and the Pastime’s 400 seats were used by silent-movie goers. During World War I, Pastime closed down entirely, its large spaces storing equipment for the Michigan Aircraft Company.

In 1920, the Pastime reopened as the freshly painted baroque Wealthy Theatre. The new owners happened to be Oscar and Lillian Varneau, parents of Peter Wege’s best friend Gordy.

But by the 1950s, Wealthy Theatre began losing customers both to TV and to the new big screens built in the suburbs. In 1973, Wealthy Theatre closed and stood empty for 14 years.

The boarded-up eyesore soon became a public hazard as the area was taken over by gangs and drugs. In 1989, Grand Rapids’ City Commission voted to demolish Wealthy Theatre.

That’s when the area’s concerned residents and business owners formed the non-profit South East Economic Development to save Wealthy Theatre. They knew razing it would further damage their once vibrant neighborhood and business district.

The cost to repair the destruction done over years of vacancy and vandalism was daunting.  But SEED had one shining hope.  They knew Peter Wege as an environmentalist committed to restoring, not destroying. One can only imagine the SEED leaders’ joy when they discovered Peter also had strong personal affection for Wealthy Theatre because it was about Gordy Varneau and his parents.

Peter Wege led the campaign that raised $2.2 million allowing Wealthy Theatre to reopen in 1997 as a performing arts center.

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Peter Wege with lifelong friend Gordy Varneau. Peter has great memories growing up watching Westerns with Gordy at Wealthy where they earned 25 cents an hour as ushers.
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Wealthy Street Theatre – 1936
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“The Rick Beerhorst Band” at (or rather, on) the Wealthy Street Theatre in Grand Rapids on April 14, 2010. The show got shut down by the calling of the police. Apparently, it was causing a bit of a hazard as the cars drove by and slowed down/stopped to gawk at the folks playing a show on top of the marquis.