It is with indebtedness that we remember the man whose name patrons see when they enter the main doors, in restored mosaic tiling, in our foyer. The name of a family that purchased Wealthy Theatre – then called “Pastime Theatre” – in 1920, the year Gordy was born. He grew up here. His mother played piano in accompaniment to the silent films of the day.
Gordy greeted patrons and worked here throughout his early childhood, with his best friend, Mr. Peter Wege. Our main house is named after Mr. Wege: he and Gordy remained lifelong friends.
In the early 1990s, Gordy and Peter toured the renovations – in progress – that eventually brought a neighborhood back from ruin. Wealthy Theatre is often referred to as the “anchor” of the neighborhood, the spark that breathed new life into the Wealthy Theatre District. Gordy and Peter are the reason this building is standing: we are here for their love of its storied history, and their sense of its brilliant future.
We have a plaque outside the house doors, with a picture of Gordy and Peter sitting next to each other. A recent picture. The plaque reads in the present tense, they are “still friends.” Walking past this almost daily, knowing Gordy was alive… provided an almost indescribable quality to the connection between past and present.
But, in coming to terms with the news of Gordy’s death, something came clear: what connects us to this history is not lost, and it is not broken. I think about the recent screening of “Nosferatu,” when Ritsu accompanied the silent film on electric violin; and I think about Gordy’s mother accompanying silent films on piano, in the 1920s. Lillian Varneau certainly must played piano to that movie, released in 1922. I think about my own children, who are “growing up here” – they’re the same age Gordy was when he, too, greeted patrons and served concessions. And I think about the era that preceded the Varneau’s purchase of the theatre, and how one of our most popular series today is – at its core – Vaudeville.
The more things change…
What this theatre was to Gordy and Peter, it now becomes to us. Because of their foresight in rescuing Wealthy Theatre, the connection is renewed. It is their gift to us. Performers and patrons share experiences, here, that transcend decades, eras. What is similar between now and then is not coincidence – it is human.
There are many ways to remember Gordon Varneau. For saving this place, for allowing us the privilege of it… today we remember him with gratitude. And there is no finer way to embrace the future of Wealthy Theatre, than by remembering those who made it possible. As the theatre nears its second century, Community Media Center renews its commitment to honoring its past, preserving all that is good about this place, and ensuring its ongoing vitality.
So, as we say goodbye, we say thank-you. We convey heartfelt sympathies to Gordy’s friends and family, for their dear loss. And we fondly remember a man whose name and memory will always be connected to the magnificent theatre he loved so much. A man who helped save a part of our living history, and safeguarded the cultural heart of Grand Rapids.
[Originally published in The Rapidian]