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I was in this theatre through the mid-70s until it closed.
Genesee unveils grandeur of past
Cosby will open Waukegan theater
By Trine Tsouderos
Tribune staff reporter
October 13, 2004
Comedian Bill Cosby will open the newly restored Genesee Theatre on Dec. 3, kicking off what officials hope will be a new era for Waukegan.
With its massive crystal chandeliers, lushly painted decorative plaster and state-of-the-art sound system, the Genesee was restored--at a cost of $23 million--to attract visitors to downtown.
"This will make people believe Waukegan is on its way back," Mayor Richard Hyde said Tuesday.
And Cosby as an opening act "is like coming out of the starting blocks," Hyde said.
City officials are banking on the 2,500-seat Genesee drawing people--and their entertainment dollars--to Waukegan and its lakefront, which the city wants to transform with shops, restaurants and homes. So far, a parking deck and some housing are under construction downtown.
"Things are happening all over the place, and it is an exciting time for Waukegan," said city spokesman David Motley. "We're looking at it as a catalyst for change in downtown."
City officials gave tours Tuesday to reporters and other guests as workers installed red velvet seats and technicians tested the sound system.
"It is a first-class facility," said David Rovine, general manager of the Genesee for SMG, the Philadelphia arena, theater and convention center manager recently hired to run the Genesee. "There are no limitations because it is so grand."
Rovine declined to name other acts to follow Cosby or to say how many he expects to book a year.
He said the Genesee will bring something for everyone, from Broadway-style shows to concerts to comedians.
"We will really match the makeup and temperament of the people here," he said.
In many ways the Genesee, opened in 1927 and closed in 1982, harks back to downtown Waukegan's heyday when it was a bustling host to several grand theaters and their many patrons.
"There were lines down to Sheridan Road," said Hyde, remembering the Genesee of the 1930s. "And it cost 15 cents to get in."
Waukegan native Jack Benny premiered movies at the Genesee, which also put on circuses and musical acts.
But the restoration of the theater has not been without controversy. The project's cost originally was pegged at $15 million, and it's also opening a year later than planned.
And some residents still bring up the messy departure of Ray Shepardson, a national theater restoration expert who oversaw the project. Shepardson left earlier this year after quarreling with Friends of the Historic Genesee Theatre, a non-profit group formed to help raise funds for its operation.
Among other things, Shepardson and the non-profit disagreed on his programming strategy, which called for 200 to 300 shows a year. Some city officials and members of the Friends board called that plan unrealistic.
Illinois Sen. Terry Link (D-Vernon Hills), a member of the board, acknowledged the acrimony.
"We've had a lot of bumps in the road, and we have had a lot of peaks and valleys," Link said. "But the only thing that matters is the peak of Dec. 3."
Calling the Genesee one of the finest theaters in the country, Shepardson said he was heartbroken over what happened.
"I just think it's very unfortunate that my approach to programming and operation of the theater has been abandoned," he said. "Mark my words. Start counting the shows and you won't need all of your fingers and all of your toes."
But those thoughts were far from the minds of many who waited outside the Genesee on Tuesday afternoon for the announcement of the opening act. Tickets for Cosby will go on sale at 10 a.m. Oct. 22 through Ticketmaster. Prices haven't been announced yet.
"Contrary to what Chicago thinks," said Mike Pasiewicz, a local native with memories of the Genesee before it closed, "there is a Waukegan, and we are moving on up."
Copyright (c) 2004, Chicago Tribune