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.