The Genesee Theatre in Waukegan hosts Broadway shows, big name comedians and corporate events. It has undergone a $23 million renovation to include every modern convenience while still maintaining the look and feel of a grand movie palace from nearly a century ago.
The stage, in fact, once was home to vaudeville performers. The street outside the lobby was once filled with people, eager to see and hear the first "talkie" movies. Ushers impecably dressed in black suits once showed audience members to their seats.
It was the place to go. When the theatre originally opened on December 25, 1927 with four sold-out shows of The Valley of the Giants, there were reportedly 8,000 people eager to attend. Tickets cost 60 cents for adults and 25 cents for children, according to a Genesee Theatre spokesperson.
The building fell into decline in the 1950s, however, when the big movie complexes opened. It sat vacant and in disrepair for 20 years.
Thanks to a painstaking renovation effort that lasted from 1999 to 2004, the Genesee Theatre has been given a second life. The theatre reopened in 2004, with Bill Cosby headlining the event. The Genesee Theatre now attracts 50 to 60 live stage events per year, plus corporate events, class reunions and 250-person sit down weddings.
"The theatre has been restored to nearly its original magnificence," said Gary Zabinski, general manager. "We actually feel that it is much more magnificent than it was in 1927."
The restoration impacted every area of the theatre.
"The most striking thing about the restoration was how it modernized the building," Zabinski said. "We now have a larger stage, more expansive seating, wider aisles and more bars and lounges. So now, it really can compete with a 21st century performing arts space."
On the second floor, a corner filled with historical memorabilia pays tribute to the storied past of the theatre and its city.
The Genesee Theatre has become a modern regional attraction, offering entertainment options that are both reasonably priced and close to home.
There is great diversity in the shows, from Jerry Seinfeld or Bob Newhart, from country music to opera. The Genesee Theatre attracts guests from throughout Lake, Cook and McHenry Counties and beyond.
Guests entering the main lobby must look straight up. The $100,000 chandelier hanging overhead is a sight to behold.
"If you come here once," said Zabinski, "we have found that—more often than not - you will return."