Telling Stories and Building Community Through Wealthy Street Theatre

Wealthy Street Theatre has been a staple in the Grand Rapids community for as long as I can remember. When I went about my research for writing this article, I discovered it had been that way long before I (or even my parents) arrived in town to attend Calvin College.

It was built in 1911 to host vaudeville (a theatrical genre of variety entertainment popular from the 1880s through 1930s) and other forms of live entertainment. After its inception, its original purpose shifted throughout the years, including during World War I, when it served as a warehouse for the Michigan Aircraft Company. In the ‘60s, it was repurposed once more, returning to its roots as a public theatre and becoming the only local venue to show foreign films.

In the ‘70s, the landmark closed down and did not reopen until 1998 as part of community efforts to revamp businesses and storefronts along Wealthy Street.

As the theatre had sat empty for over two decades, considerable repairs were needed to stabilize the building and update its equipment to meet an increasingly technological world. The theatre’s board of directors identified the Grand Rapids Community Media Center (CMC) as a potential partner in their pursuit to modernize the iconic theatre. In 2005, CMC launched a capital campaign and acquired the building.

Since 2001, Linda Gellasch has been the executive director of CMC. She recently shared with me why the acquisition of Wealthy Theatre aligned so well with the organization’s mission statement.

“From day one, our goal has been to build community through media. We provide the training and tools to get the news out there, while simultaneously providing a platform for people to craft their own message.”

Another helpful tool of CMC is their underwriting and sponsorship program. It connects local nonprofits to CMC’s wide network of viewers, supporters, and listeners, to mobilize additional awareness of the topic each organization wishes to profile.

Indeed, this has been the case, and my personal experience, with the theatre.

A few years ago, Wealthy Theatre hosted what’s known as Failure Lab, cofounded by Jordan O’Neil and Jonathan Williams. It is an ongoing series that invites professionals, often pillars in the community, to share a prominent failure from their past. O’Neil and Williams state that their aim is to “eliminate the fear of failure and encourage intelligent risk-taking.” This concept and series became an important message to audience members, young and old alike, and, true to its roots, Wealthy Theatre has remained a pioneering venue for story-telling, community connection, and empowerment.

Once a month, the theatre also hosts Pop Scholars, a quartet of brilliant comedians who have performed at Wealthy Theatre for several years. Their shows are culturally relevant, wildly entertaining, and overall impressive because of their intelligent base.

The next challenge CMC, and, by proxy, the Wealthy Theatre face is to attract the next generation of supporters who will maintain CMC’s modernity and message and the important vehicle it uses to get there.

Whether you’re looking to laugh, cry, feel inspired or uniquely encouraged about your life, head to Wealthy Theatre.

The Wealthy Theatre 1130 Wealthy Street SE, Grand Rapids MI 49506 / (616) 459-4788 l GRCMC.org