If the walls of the Wildey Theatre in Edwardsville could talk, oh the stories they could tell.
Tales of vaudeville star Al Jolson playing craps for money in the basement of the theatre – minus his trousers – which hung neatly nearby. Douglas Fairbanks Jr. taking the stage in front of more than 1,000 fans. The first-ever ‘talking’ movie projected onto the big screen in 1927. The commotion the 1939 movie “Gone With the Wind” caused.
And Edwardsville resident Joan Evers has seen it all at. Ever since she was a tiny child toddling along beside her father, her life has closely been entwined with the historic building.
“My father was a printer by day and the Wildey projectionist by night,” Joan Evers remembers. “My father’s true love was this theatre and as soon as I was big enough, I was allowed to run everywhere I wanted to at the Wildey.” That meant Joan Evers mingled with stars and workers alike throughout the building. She also developed an intimate knowledge of the theatre and what it took to keep it running.
Built in 1909 as an opera house, the theatre boasted the largest stage south of Chicago, which put it on the highly-prized vaudeville circuit. The building was also used as a meeting hall for the International Order of Oddfellows. Almost immediately after the theatre opened, it was upgraded to provide a movable screen and projection booth for silent films. It was enhanced again to allow for “talking movies” and then remodeled in 1937 replacing the Victorian décor with an art deco styling.
In its early years, an upper floor of the three story brick building doubled as a boxing ring for young men, Joan Evers says. Young girls often took dance lessons when the boxing ring was removed.
“What people don’t realize about the Wildey is at one time it had two balconies and could hold almost 1,000 people,” Scott Evers, Joan’s youngest son, notes. “It even had side boxes for ticket holders. As a kid, I came here all the time for movies. It was such a vital spot for such a long time.”
Joan Evers, her father, and later her two sons worked at the theatre until it was shuttered in 1984, the victim of a crumbling structure and a tornado that blew down part of the building during a showing of ‘Footloose’. The building sat empty and an idea floated around the city that it should be torn down to make way for a city parking lot.
That’s when Rich Walker, an Edwardsville City Alderman at the time, entered the picture and decided to save the legendary building.
“My first experience with the Wildey was walking down Main Street with my wife and talking about needing more parking and here is this old abandoned theatre. I looked in the windows and said ‘This isn’t right. It needs to be saved for the future’,” Walker remembers. “My journey with the theatre started that night.”
Walker spearheaded a fundraising effort alongside Joan Evers to purchase the building and fund much needed renovations.
“It was a fascinating, exciting, grueling and painful process,” Walker says of the 12 years it took to raise the needed $3 million. “While there were a lot of hills and valleys, there were also a lot of things to celebrate.”
The City of Edwardsville purchased the building and it reopened in 2011 as a movie house, live performance venue and home for community events. The theatre portion of the building was reduced to 300 seats, including a balcony area creating a more intimate performance setting. The first few years of the reawakened building were rough, Walker says. It operated in the red for several years.
In 2014, the city hired Al Canal as the manager/director of the theatre. Canal brought his experience as a comedy club manager and talent booker to Edwardsville, snagging top-notch live performers including bands, comedians and singers. He also turned the two upper level rooms into private event space which is highly prized for receptions and community events.
“I had connections with agents and bands and knew that if we had a good thing here they would come,” Canal says. “Now we have an amazing venue and the acts call us.”
Canal changed up the focus of the theatre from a movie house to more live performances. He keeps the place packed every weekend and now the community enjoys $2 Tuesday movie night. The theatre is also operating in the black and has a reputation for providing quality entertainment at affordable prices.
“It is rare to have this kind of a facility in any community,” Walker adds. “The renovation of the Wildey is really part of a bigger rebirth of the Edwardsville community at large and the region as a whole.”
Canal agrees. “The Wildey is still being defined. That is true of every venue,” he points out. “We have only ticked off 20 to 30 percent of what we can be doing. The vision for this place is for it to continue to grow.”