Saving the Rivoli

Jerry and Alice Voigt went to the movies 15 years ago . . . and stayed, working to keep the Rivoli, Cedarburg’s classic downtown movie theater, alive
Ozaukee Press staff

It all started with filling in the blank on licensing paperwork.

Jerry Voigt of Cedarburg had been organizing volunteers to work at the Rivoli, the downtown theater that was taken over by the Cedarburg Landmark Preservation Society in 2006 after the Marcus Corp. gave up the historic business.

Voigt and his wife Alice made a donation to the new venture, and Jerry was asked to help out.

“I said I’ll get you 120 volunteers,” he said.

That role expanded into several other tasks, including securing licenses from studios to show movies.

“Every studio requires a 20 to 25-page legal document, and none of them are the same,” Voigt said.

One element was consistent, however. Names of the officers who run the business were required.

“There weren’t any,” Voigt said. “I put myself down as president and Patty Gallun-Hansen down as secretary — she was going to do concessions. “That’s what started it.”

The theater closed for eight days, during which Jerry painted and cleaned, before it reopened on Dec. 29, 2006.

Fourteen years later, the retired teacher and his wife are still operating the theater.

“Retired — put that in quotes,” Alice, who also used to teach, said.

“We got into it blind. We don’t even go to movies.”

They had one big advantage. Normally, when a theater company leaves, Alice said, it strips the building.

But the head of Marcus and the president of the Preservation Society were friends from law school, so the movie company provided its data on the theater, and it left the popcorn machine and projector.

The theater is run with four employees and has had thousands of volunteers over the years. The Voigts would love to hire people and train them, but it’s not financially possible.

Volunteers range from 6 to 90 years old.

“They need to be able to tell one candy bar from the other one. When they’re 6 or 7, they’ve accomplished that,” Jerry said.

When children get tall enough, they can work the soda or popcorn machines.

Most movies are family oriented or classics. Only four “R” rated movies have been shown in 15 years.

“The idea is to provide economic family films,” Jerry said.

The theater just wrapped up its annual holiday film festival that featured 16 movies in 20 days with classics such as “White Christmas” and newer ones like “Elf.”        

With only being allowed to fill 60 seats of its capacity of 234 due to the Covid-19 pandemic, the theater sold out a few times, Jerry said.

The theater can be rented out for birthday parties, weddings and memorial services.

Jerry was always attracted to the idea of making a business succeed, although not necessarily a theater, after teaching middle school for 34 years, the last 31 in Mequon.

He said a few elements are required to operate their venture: community support, deep pockets — the Preservation Society and donors — committed volunteers and a someone to drive the business. “That’s him,” Alice said of Jerry. “Somebody who’s going to do whatever needs to be done to make it work.”

When the Voigts started, movies were shown on film, and only a few people knew how to run the projector.

Being a second-run theater, some of the films they would get were torn and had to be fixed with Scotch Tape.

Films arrived in multiple reels that theater staff would splice onto a platter run with a set of pulleys.

Once, the third reel was put in upside down and all of a sudden Shrek was hanging from the ceiling and talking funny since dialogue was attached to the tape. The Voigts gave everyone a free ticket and sent them home.

Another time, Jerry was helping move a film from one platter to another.

“Let me just say that wasn’t a good idea,” Alice said.

“The film dropped,” Jerry said.

“It looked like a dinosaur liver,” Alice said.

Frantically wondering what to do, someone said the movie was just released on video that week. They called a video store in Grafton, which had a copy. An employee went to pick it up as Jerry explained what happened to the audience.

The movie was shown on a DVD player that could be projected onto the screen.

The spaghetti spiral of film, however, still had to be reeled back into its case and sent back to the studio. They always wanted their films back.

In 2012, films went to digital format, which improved quality and made life a little easier on the Voigts.“We were not sorry to stop using the old projector,” Alice said. “They tell me all you have to do is push a button, but I don’t believe it.”

Their greatest challenge, however, came last March when they closed due to the pandemic. “Little Women” played three days before the theater shut down, and it was later brought back.

Much of Jerry’s work such as payroll and licensing is done from his home two miles away — “Our dining room is an office,” Alice said — but the closure allowed him to do projects at the theater he normally didn’t have time to tackle. For example, he cleaned the spots where the seat supports are bolted to the floor.

One of the keys to keeping the business afloat during the closure was that the handful of employees continued to be paid, Jerry said.

The Rivoli reopened June 26 in a slow return.

The theater typically attracts an older audience, but seniors weren’t going out during the pandemic.

Three surveys of moviegoers helped them know what to show. “Casablanca,” Alfred Hitchcock’s “Rear Window” and “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial” were the top choices.

Classic films, Alice said, mean different things to different generations.

“My kids think 1980s movies are classics,” she said.

Things still aren’t back to normal. A 90-year-old used to be the ticket taker, but that job was put on hold due to the pandemic.

The Rivoli still has its regulars and a long reach.

“We draw from 100 miles away. We’re the only one showing some of these movies,” Jerry said.

Volunteers are often considered the Voigts’ extended family, including one person who comes from Waupun. Volunteers, Jerry said, make the theater a bigger draw, and friends often recruit others they see working.

Jerry is at the theater a couple of hours per night, and then returns after movies to clean. He has a handyman who works for free.

The few times the Voigts weren’t at the theater were for youth mission trips to Brazil. They still stay in touch with some of the poor families they helped.

“God has presented us some very unusual but very wonderful opportunities,” Alice said.

The Voigts can’t name their favorite movie, actor or actress, but they both like romantic comedies. They grew up on the north side of Milwaukee attending different schools and didn’t go to movies. Alice said the closest theater to her house was the Ritz, and she didn’t go often.

They have three grown children and nine grandchildren who all enjoy being at the theater but don’t plan to take over for the couple.



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Wisconsin’s largest paid circulation community weekly newspaper. Serving Port Washington, Saukville, Grafton, Fredonia, Belgium, as well as Ozaukee County government. Locally owned and printed in Port Washington, Wisconsin.

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