Vista preserves community theatre

By: Bobby Glenn Brown

For some, driving by the Vista Theater on Iron Street in Historic Downtown Negaunee is commonplace. Just down the street from Breitung Park and snuggled in between Tino’s Pizza and the newly established Vista Thrift Shop, and kitty-corner from Midtown Bakery, the Vista Theater continues its efforts to promote, produce and encourage the arts in all forms for the benefit of the residents of Marquette County and the surrounding area, while at the same time being a vital part of Iron Street in Downtown Negaunee. However, having a community theatre in Negaunee was not always the case.0911ah1
Dating back to 1907, Negaunee had seven movie houses besides the Vista. There was the Electric, Bijou and Grand, all located in the Sundberg Block where Barr’s Bar now is located, and the Wonderland in McDonald’s Opera House where the current Elks Lodge is located. In 1911, the Star came into use at the corner of Iron and Pioneer streets where the Negaunee Center presently is located. The Royal opened in 1913 also in the Sundberg Block. By 1918, the Liberty was located where Liberty Children’s Art Project was recently near Chapper’s Pub and the Dark Side, and last but not least, the Vista was built in 1925.
Jafet Rytkonen took a trip to Hollywood to find out firsthand what all the movie excitement was about. The trip was the impetus for him to dream of a larger movie theater—what the Star used to be, of which he was a partner. The theater would have to be the grandest north of Milwaukee and East of Minneapolis and have the latest advancements. Ground was broken on April 9, 1925 and the Vista opened on September 20, 1926 with the film Sparrows.
The name “Vista” was chosen from a contest won by Miss Mae Duchane of Negaunee; she was presented with $25 in gold.
According to the Vista Theater Web site, Rytkonen had this to say on opening night:
“A good theater is more than a well built playhouse. It is a place where good people go to have a good time together, enjoying good entertainment. Good motion pictures, combined with good music in good surroundings, make the best entertainment in the world. Good business enables them to build better theaters to house the entertainment, which in turn, is the sure regard of appreciative patrons. Theater is an indispensable factor in the social and business life of the modern community, providing inspiration, incentive and stimulus to the people.
“A good theater is a good neighbor for any kind of a business institution. It brings people out in the crowds from far and near, and sends them away from its doors pleased. The shops and business houses in the neighborhood of a good theater are invariably well patronized and become the best shops of their respective kinds. Thus, the best theater in a community always is found to be the hub of the shopping district.”
The first Finnish film, Kuin Uni Ja Varjo, (“As Dream and Shadow”) to be shown in the United States was shown at the Vista on April 17,1938. Movie houses prospered until the popularity of television took over in the 1950s. Rytkonen retired in 1950 and his son, William, and son-in-law, Peter Ghiardi, took over the operation. Upon William’s death in 1972, the Vista closed.
But this was not to be the end of the Vista. A group of like-minded citizens had a vision to present amateur theater productions, plays and musical programs, annual concert series, family and classical films, weekend cartoons, matinees, puppet shows, art exhibits and visual arts workshops to the residents of Marquette County, the Upper Peninsula and surrounding region. Thus, in 1972, the Peninsula Arts Appreciation Council (PAAC) was formed.
PAAC owns and operates the historic Vista Theater and the building next door where the Vista Thrift Shop is located and where annual board meetings are held. Some of that space is used to store props and costumes, with additional storage for various productions.
PAAC is a nonprofit organization under 501(c)3 tax-exempt statuses. Jerry Lewis, Keith Lawson and now Al Keefer, all have been executive directors over the years. For the past couple of years, PAAC has had a vision to restore the Vista to its original splendor. Professional architects and other contractors are studying and submitting proposals for renovations.
Plans are to have the theater open year-round with many of the aforementioned arts as well as bringing back old movies. PAAC is proud to be the only local theater to survive with a building structurally intact and used since 1926. PAAC’s goals are parallel with Mr. Rytkonen—to have the Vista remain an integral part of Negaunee and the community by bringing quality entertainment and enjoyable experiences to many more generations.
Thankfully, that has come to pass. Over the years, PAAC has been a place for young people— junior high and high school students, college students—and community members and business people to direct and perform. Opportunities like this do not exist at all community theatres. In a small area like Marquette County, it is wonderful that area artists will share their talents with the many theatrical venues.
PAAC has withstood the test of time. As it looks to the future and tries new ways to excite the public and make some financial gains, this year an original play, Kalevala, was produced, and later it became PAAC’s first touring show. During the last two years, a variety of bands have performed at the Vista, and these evenings of music have become a popular way for local musicians to showcase talent and help PAAC with much needed fundraising. With area support, PAAC plans to continue these venues in the future.
Many business owners, musicians, students, teachers, lawyers, families and more have participated in PAAC, whether they directed a production, were on stage, helped out on a technical crew or were in the orchestra.
Several people made a start at PAAC. Robert Pesola directed three shows early in his career and went on to direct on the east and west coast; he eventually co-produced at the famous Circle In the Square Theatre in NYC, wrote for TV and created librettos for several operas. Musician Lynn (Anderson) Bellmore of the musical group The Yoopers worked with her sister Carol (Anderson) Goldsmith at the Vista directing several shows over many summers.
Many fond memories and lifelong friendships developed because PAAC exists and is able to give area youth and adults a place to work together in theatre. Many young people who volunteered their time at PAAC have gone on to continue in a career in theatre. Some are working on Broadway in technical theatre or acting on the “Great White Way.” Others have gone on tour with famous country music legends, sing with professional music groups or have come full circle and volunteer in their own towns on the east and west coast at their local community theatre. Others have gone from high school performers on the Vista stage to PAAC board members. But every one of them share a common thread—it all started at PAAC.
The Vista has transformed from a silent movie house to a Vaudeville stage, a movie theater and the past thirty-seven years, a community theatre. It is a vital part of the arts community, the town of Negaunee and the surrounding region.
PAAC is producing a variety of shows, from the old classics, original works, drama, comedy, Tony Award-winning musicals and much more.
Over the years, PAAC has established a tradition producing The Rocky Horror Show. It is an annual event and local favorite. This year marks the ninth annual production. PAAC was the firstcommunity theatre in the region to gain rights to the show. Not many shows withstand the test of time, but the Rocky Horror phenomenon is alive and well in the Upper Peninsula. There is a cult classic movie—The Rocky Horror Picture Show—based on the play. With the changing cast, word of mouth about the event from people across the U.P. and the audience participation, it has become a main stay that has brought PAAC some fame. 0911ah2
Audience participation is a major key to the success of Rocky Horror, and area residents continue to overwhelm PAAC with their enthusiasm. Because of the attention and positive feedback over the years Rocky now is an annual event. People come from all over the U.P., downstate, Wisconsin and Minnesota, to see Rocky Horror. They are avid fans with a mission to see all performances possible. Just like the volunteers, PAAC needs to help the Vista in its renovation—so does the cast of Rocky Horror need the audience to complete the piece by shouting lines and using props to help tell the story. Some actors in the show explain that the audience is the missing character, and it is exciting to perform because the audience responses are different every night. It is a unique theatre experience and one that is quite at home on the Vista stage.
Moreover, it is the variety of people from all walks of life who attend the show who continue to amaze. It is because of support from area businesses and the community that PAAC has been able to continue to produce a cult musical that is one-of-a-kind.
Speaking of one-of-a-kind, the Vista is a jewel of the north and a building that needs to be shined, polished, taken care of and protected. The Vista Theater acquired Historic Registry status on July 22, 2005. Several board members and others in the community continue to volunteer time; business owners have donated items for the renovation, and local groups have donated their time.
Phase I of the restoration progressed nicely. A new insulated roof has been installed with a rubberized covering. The back doors to the theater have been replaced with thick, weather-safe, secure doors and new hardware.
The windows and doors on the front of the building are completed. They have been taken out, and repaired to original condition. If a window was meant to open, it does. There are storm windows on the inside to preserve the historical look of the theater. Any glass that was replaced recently will be replaced with restoration glass. This work was done by Northern Awning and Window of Marquette, with Richard Uren of Northern Design Works as the architect. The PAAC board of directors will determine the next steps that need to be taken to help preserve this landmark.
Whether you attend a show, make a donation, perform on stage, work on a crew or offer your skills to keep the Vista on track for its renovation, you will know that your time is well worth the effort. If you are interested in getting involved in the renovation project or want to volunteer, information, visit www.vistatheater.org or call 475-7188.
—Bobby Glenn Brown

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