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.

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.
Wealthy Street Theatre – 1936
“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.