Bruce Monroe knew what treasures were hidden inside Three Rivers’ historic Riviera Theatre when he saw the words “For Sale” on the building’s marquee more than a decade ago. But it was going to take a lot of time, sweat and money to buff them back to their original shine.
Thankfully for Three Rivers, Monroe decided to take a chance and buy the building, which has become a kind of beacon in the quaint downtown of this St. Joseph County city, according to its mayor.
Monroe’s reasons for purchasing the theater were many. He didn’t want to see the nearly 100-year-old venue — where vaudeville performers once graced the stage — to wither away. He is also a native of St. Joseph County, and his family roots run deep through the Riviera — his grandmother played the pipe organ during silent films there, his mother danced on the stage, and his great uncle once managed the place.
But making the Riviera his own wasn’t just a way to keep the memory of his loved ones alive. It was also a way for Monroe, now 70, to give back to a community he has a soft spot for.
“Small-town America is struggling,” he says, “but I thought this community deserved a first-class theater. It adds so much to the life and culture of a town.”
When Monroe, who was retired from a successful career at the Johnson Corp., purchased the historic Riviera Theatre in 2005, the building’s beauty lay beneath years of neglect and needed to be painstakingly revealed. After three years of careful work — at a cost “in the seven figures,” Monroe says — the theater was brought back to life in 2008.
Designed by acclaimed Midwest architect J.C. Brompton, the theater was built in 1925, with construction starting that spring and completed by Christmas. At the time, it was full of opulent detail, including hand-carved cherubs smiling above gold-painted trim and hand-stenciled patterns adorning high walls.
A dome in the ceiling allowed for the voices of vaudeville performers to reach the back rows, and hand-laid tile greeted customers in the foyer, where the ticket booth was located. Before they were famous, Amos and Andy played the room, as did Johnny Weissmuller, the original Tarzan.
Renovations of the theater took place in the 1940s and 1970s. The facility became a full-time movie theater, and things began to change. Much of the opulent detail was covered with burlap or painted over, and the stage was obscured behind a large canvas movie screen.
“That’s one of the first things we removed,” says Danielle Moreland, executive director of the Riviera, and wife to Brendan, one of Monroe’s three sons (the other two are Colin and Evan). “My husband took an ax to it.”
The Monroes didn’t have much of an idea about what the original colors of the theater’s walls and trim had been — the old pictures they had were black and white. So they carefully chipped away small sections of paint to reveal the original colors.
The theater’s utilities got an overhaul as well, and a new roof was installed. LED lighting was placed throughout, and a Lake Michigan sunset scene was painted within the unique dome. Damaged original plaster molding was repaired or replaced. Near the entrance, a small bar was constructed that features drinks and a small menu, including pizza and small plates.
“We tried to keep the renovations as authentic as possible,” Bruce Monroe says.
Originally, the theater had 750 seats. Today it has a little more than half that number. “People are a little bigger these days,” Moreland says.
The work was a team effort, with all of the Monroes pitching in. After all, Three Rivers is their home, a place they want to grow and prosper. And therein lies much of the motivation for the programming the theater provides.
The theater is open Thursday through Sunday, and paying customers can catch a wide variety of music acts from all sorts of genres, from bluegrass to rock to jazz.
“Nothing is off the table,” Moreland says.
But that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
It might be hard to find another venue of its size in the region that can claim to host a more diverse offering of events. Recent performers and performances that have graced the stage include magicians, local plays, symphony orchestras and a band called 1964, considered by critics to be the best of the Beatles tribute bands. The theater has hosted weddings, graduation ceremonies and business events. It has beamed the Super Bowl on the big screen, served mint juleps while the Kentucky Derby was shown, and offered documentary and foreign films to the public.
Three Rivers Mayor Thomas Lowry Jr. says the Riviera is one of the town’s biggest draws now, as well as an economic generator for the downtown.
“It brings entertainment of all kinds to town that we wouldn’t have gotten otherwise,” he says. “From the movies to live bands and other live acts, the theater is a big draw. Plus, they have the best pizza in town.”
The rejuvenated Riviera Theatre also provides a boost to other downtown businesses, Lowry says, introducing folks throughout the region to this town of 7,700 residents.
“The Riviera has become one of the anchors of downtown,” he says. “It introduces out-of-towners to our city, and after the show is done many of them choose to spend money at another business downtown.”
But for the Monroes it’s not all about turning a profit — it is also about giving back. Each year the theater offers free admission for a Christmas movie during the holiday season. If an organization needs space to raise money for a benevolent cause, they open the theater doors.
“We want this to be a community space,” Bruce Monroe says. “We couldn’t be here without them. It’s our way of saying thank you.”
“That a local family decided to buy it and save it means they are truly invested in our town. That means a lot,” says Mayor Lowry.
Sometimes Monroe sees people peering through the windows, wondering what lies within the old theater.
“Then I go outside and grab them and bring them inside,” he says. “Some of them have never seen anything like it. When they look around, many of them say, ‘I knew there was something amazing inside here.’”