The Reporter (Fond du Lac, Wisconsin)
October 26, 2010 Tuesday
FON; Pg. A01
Theater marks 75 years
By Heather Stanek, The Reporter hstanek
"It’s old-fashioned and trendy."
That’s how Paula Price describes the latest look of the Campus Cinema, Marcus Corp.’s first cinema. The movie theater, hotel and arts center monolith celebrated its 75th anniversary with a special marquee lighting and rededication ceremony last week at the theater on Watson Street in Ripon.
The theater has been "a very important feature for our historic downtown," said Price, executive director of the Ripon Chamber of Commerce.
After almost eight decades – and surprisingly few changes – it’s still an asset for attracting tourists, shoppers and diners.
Last week’s celebration drew attention to the recently installed marquee, but the sign is hardly new. It’s a replica of the original marquee that Ben Marcus used when he opened the single-screen theater in 1935.
Ben Marcus, a Polish immigrant, was always an entrepreneur, said Bruce J. Olson, president of Marcus Theatres Corp. In 1925, his family boarded the Berengaria and sailed to America. While on board, teenage Ben Marcus made tips from bringing milk, water and oranges to seasick passengers. Ben had "a pocketful of cash" by the time the ship docked in New York, according to "The Marcus Corporation: Celebrating Our Past, Building Our Future" booklet by John Gurda, a Milwaukee native, writer and historian.
While attending high school in Minneapolis, he took a newspaper route. He later went on to work in newspaper advertising. He "fell in love" with the theater industry after selling ads to several cinema owners, Olson said.
He researched the Midwest for prime locations and stumbled across Ripon on one of his travels. A vacant store caught his eye, and he turned his vision into reality, Olson said.
Hungering for growth, Marcus built a slow, steady chain of theaters throughout Wisconsin. Today, his family business operates almost 700 screens at more than 50 locations in seven states, Olson said.
Marcus would never have guessed his small-town theater would lead to a major corporation that’s listed on the New York Stock Exchange, said Stephen M. Marcus, Ben Marcus’ son and chairman of The Marcus Corp.
Most Marcus theaters have multiple screens with the latest technology, including modern sound systems and 3-D capabilities. But the Campus Cinema is the only theater in the circuit that hasn’t changed.
Olson said the company has updated the walls, floors and concession counters over the years, and the seats and sound system have been replaced, but it’s still a single-screen theater with "virtually the same layout as when Ben first opened the doors on Nov. 1, 1935."
Even Poblocki Sign Co. out of Milwaukee, which built the original sign, provided the newest marquee, he said.
Marcus Corp. doesn’t have any plans to add screens, he said. Digital projection or new sound systems are a future possibility if they make business and economic sense.
Campus Cinema serves 20,000 patrons a year, and summers and holidays are the busiest times. The theater still doesn’t make a profit, Olson said.
"The Marcus family and Marcus Theatre executives consider it a ‘shrine,’ a symbol of Ben’s entrepreneurialism and the original cornerstone for what the corporation has become. I am absolutely certain that every single manager that started in Ripon will say it was a very special honor to be running the business where The Marcus Corporation had its roots."
Marcus Corp.’s dedication to the small theater heartens Price. She said downtown Ripon’s businesses, especially restaurants, benefit from having an entertainment venue. Shoppers don’t have to travel out of town if they want dinner and a movie.
"It’s the complete package," she said.
And in a time when businesses nationwide have folded due to the economy, it’s reassuring to see a long-standing company showing its desire to stay. Price said the new marquee and dedication ceremony symbolize Marcus Corp.’s commitment to Ripon.
"That’s really good news for us, because (the theater) would be sorely missed," she said.