If walls could talk… The Vic Theatre
By Steve Schneider
As time passes, the lines between reality and urban legend often become blurred.
When buildings and their owners become separated through death — or when deaths occur in buildings — human curiosity about the afterlife can deepen the mystique.
The subconscious can trick the mind into seeing and believing events that may or may not have occurred.
Somehow, the majority of old buildings I have owned seem to have been haunted.
Perhaps, the fact that most are more than a century old provides 100 years of opportunity for folks to inhabit the realms of these brick and mortar remnants of their lives.
There’s the Bellin Building in downtown Green Bay, which has long been believed to be haunted by Dr. Julius Bellin.
While I have experienced lots of noisy steam valves, windows that howl and drafts that move things about, I personally have never experienced the doctor himself.
Then there’s the murder at 1001 Main Street… but I stray.
Because she loved him
For today, I would like to jettison back to the year 1900 and the theater at 217 E. Walnut St. in downtown Green Bay — known to many as the Vic Theater — but which was most recently home to Confetti’s nightclub before I bought the building.
This one building has so many stories within its walls as it approaches its 125th year of existence.
One day, while rummaging above the ceilings of the building, I was intrigued by a 60-foot wide hand-painted scene that dates back at least to the pre-World War II era of the building – and perhaps more than 100 years.
Later that evening I saw a flash of light coming from the balcony at the top of the spiral staircase that takes you above the theater.
A few days later, as I was scurrying in to check on a sump pump, Tim Freiss, local author and host of Green Bay Ghost Tours, was stopped in front of the theater with a group of tourists.
Dressed in an undertaker’s outfit complete with a lantern in hand and meters to detect paranormal activity, Freiss was sharing the urban legends of the haunted buildings of Green Bay.
I paused and invited the group in for an informal tour.
As we got to the balcony, Freiss explained that the theater is haunted by not Victor McCormick or Dr. Minahan or any of the usual suspects, but rather by a young actor and actress and the actress’ husband.
His research shows that the opening performance in the theater on Feb. 24, 1900 was a new Broadway play by William Gillette called “Because She Loved Him So.”
Supposedly, the lead actress was a married young local lady who fell in love with the lead actor.
After the show, the lady’s husband found the leads kissing on the balcony.
The husband pulled a gun and shot the actor dead as he jumped off the balcony.
The husband then chased his wife down the front stairs and shot her before committing suicide.
The claim is that the murdered actor continues to be seen jumping out of the balcony, and that the unfaithful wife and her husband haunt the front staircase, tripping people and causing other paranormal activity.
I think back to the flash of light I saw that evening…and the inexplicable lights going on and off in the front stairwell… and I wonder.
I am unable to locate any articles about a murder in February 1900, which one would think would be on the front page of the newspaper.
My research shows that perhaps the legend is more likely born from the plot of the play versus an actual event, and over the years the lines between fact and fiction have blurred.
A storied history
Originally constructed as the Green Bay Theatre, the building was designed and built by Chicago theater developer George Johnston and Kewaunee businessman John Fischer.
It was considered the first “real” theater in Green Bay with a capacity of 1,200 and more than 80 curtain pulls that remain intact today.
From 1900 to 1912 it hosted broadway plays and vaudeville acts.
In 1912, Dr. JR Minahan acquired the theater and renamed it the Jay-Are Theatre, playing off his initials.
In 1913, Harry K. Timm took over as manager and eventually executed a land contract with Minahan to acquire the theater.
The depression caused Timm to default on the land contract in 1931, and the theater went into receivership.
Minahan eventually regained control, and in 1943 Minahan’s nephew, Victor McCormick, acquired the theater.
Eventually, the trends of the day led to the demise of vaudeville, and in 1956 McCormick executed a lease with Marcus Theatres for a single-screen motion picture theater that would run for 30 years.
The Marcus projector remains in my possession (I even got it to make a noise).
After fire destroyed his Carlton West Dinner Theatre in 1986, Carl Berndt and his partners bought the Vic theater.
Jeff Miller managed live shows through 1994 when Dan Hakes bought it and began a series of nightclubs, most recently Confetti’s.
There do appear to be some eerie spirits in the building — not that I am a believer in that sort of stuff — but then again … if only walls could talk.
When we meet again, we will be hearing what the walls have to say about Red Skelton’s relationship with Green Bay and how Wayne’s World actually originated in Green Bay.