Community Rallies to Save Century-old Theater

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The Playhouse at White Lake renovation exterior rendering

When a small city’s 103-year-old theater was the on the verge of collapsing, community members rallied to raise nearly $4 million for a full renovation that is nearly finished.

Whitehall’s community stage building, The Playhouse at White Lake, was falling apart and far behind code. Wild critters had made homes in holes in the roof. Events weren’t booked for January or February because the heating system could not keep the building warm enough.

“Within five years of us starting this project, we would have been closing,” said Beth Beaman, managing director of the theater. “There were just too many things wrong that needed to be fixed.”

Shortly after Beaman took her role five years ago, she has led a plan to save the community space, at 304 N. Mears Ave. in Whitehall.

She said there initially were doubts from the community about the ability to raise the full amount needed.

“Well, I didn’t believe it,” Beaman said, and she worked with the nonprofit Friends of the Playhouse to ask donors for help. They raised the money in about a year and a half.

She said Whitehall has a large population of summer residents, many who have enjoyed the theater and its events for generations, along with the year-round residents.

“A lot of people around here have been going there since they were kids,” Beaman said. “A lot of people — their first and only experience in theater was on that stage.”

The building has been under construction for the past 20 months and will be finished in the next few weeks.

“It was built to be a community theater. It was never fancy. It was a nice-looking but basic building,” she said, adding there has not been much maintenance over the last 100 years.

The 10,000-square-foot theater lacked accessibility and adequate backstage space, so a 7,000-square-foot expansion was added onto the south wall.

There is a new inner lobby, accessible seating, accessible bathrooms, better stage access, two 20-station dressing rooms, a green room, manager’s office, loading dock, paved parking lot and outside snowmelt system. The original façade will be visible through the expanded glassed-in lobby.

The renovated theater will have 367 seats, including about 60 seats in a completely rebuilt balcony.

The theater is getting a new audiovisual and hearing loop system, rigging and curtains. The building also is getting new HVAC, plumbing and electrical.

When the ceiling was taken down, it was discovered the girder trusses, which are made of wood and support the ceiling, were bowed and beginning to snake. Construction slowed while an architect and structural engineers made plans to add steel and concrete support throughout the building. The renovated space won’t have a ceiling; instead, showing the old exposed wood.

The building’s original outside doors and transom windows are being restored and will be reinstalled when interior work is finished.

During renovations, Beaman said she and her husband discovered the theater’s heavy doors were actually the building’s original 18-panel glass doors, enclosed in plywood. And the building’s original transom windows were discovered behind drywall.

Montague-based Winberg Construction is the contractor on the project. Detroit-based Resendes is the architect and designer.

Owned by the city of Whitehall, a 10-year $2.6-million bond paid much of the project’s upfront cost, and residents and foundations have made pledges that will cover repayments, Beaman said. The other $1.3 million was cash on hand.

The Michigan Council for Arts and Cultural Affairs awarded a $70,000 grant for the HVAC system, and another $90,000 grant covered the audiovisual equipment.

The theater had been called the Howmet Playhouse after the company that funded renovations in 1973. It historically was called The Playhouse, and since Arconic — now Howmet’s parent company — wasn’t interested in a naming opportunity with the latest renovation project, the intention was to readopt the first name, Beaman said.

The current name was chosen because the internet domain for the intended name was taken, but she said the “White Lake” portion helps solidify the theater’s identity. The name is paired with a new dragonfly logo, as a nod to the theater’s changes and maturity, she said, which is what a dragonfly often represents.

Now a year-round venue, the theater has an annual summer festival that this year extends seven weekends, beginning July 11. The space hosts community theater performances, education programs, concerts, dance shows, meetings and more.

Beaman said bands from other parts of the world perform in the space, so it gives residents cultural exposure they may not experience otherwise. “Bringing the world to this little community here in White Lake.”

And the people who see shows at the theater often go to local restaurants and bars and stay in local hotels.

“So, what that does for our local economy is huge,” Beaman said.

There will be an open house for the renovated space 5-8 p.m. June 26. Next season’s opening is June 29.

Event details can be found at theplayhouseatwhitelake.org.

Photo: Courtesy The Playhouse at White Lake.

This article first appeared in the Grand Rapids Business Journal, a sister publication of GRMag.com.

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