Arts & Entertainment

A 1929 Beauty Celebrates 10 Years Since Rebirth

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A decade after its massive renovation, Crystal Lake’s crown jewel is still shining, even through this recession. Discover what it is about this former movie and vaudeville house that keeps audiences returning.

Since 2001, more than 750,000 people have attended performances at Raue Center for the Arts in Crystal Lake, says Richard Kuranda, executive director. (Dustin Waller photo)

Judy and Jack Minsley have been a part of the energy at Raue Center for The Arts, a cozy 750-seat theater in downtown Crystal Lake, since it opened its refurbished doors in 2001.

That’s when the Lakewood residents signed up for subscription tickets, renewing them for the last 10 years as an anniversary gift to one another. They attend at least eight shows each season, from dramas to musicals.

But the Minsleys are more than just customers. They also volunteer at Raue: Jack serves on the board, and Judy leads tours of the building. “We’ve always enjoyed the theater,” says Judy. “We enjoy all the variety it has to offer. We’re pleasantly surprised, by both the big names and lesser-known ones. We’ve taken flyers on some acts we knew nothing about and those acts became some of our favorites.”

During tours, Judy receives plenty of comments from guests. Because she’s researched the theater, she knows that the feedback she gets is similar to what people said in the late 1920s when the building first opened as a movie palace and vaudeville house.

“People were raving about the beauty and elegance and couldn’t believe there was that caliber of theater in Crystal Lake,” she says. “I hear the same thing today. People enjoy the restoration of the theater, that it’s intimate, and that it’s a place the performers seem to enjoy. There’s a friendliness and a warmth to it. There’s a give and take with the audience that you don’t see in bigger venues. It has the whole package.”

The building first opened in 1929 as El Tovar, a movie palace and vaudeville theater.

Raue offers programs in music, dance, comedy, film and lecture through season passes, subscriptions and single tickets. Since opening 10 years ago, more than 750,000 people have attended performances. Each year, 20,000 school children take part in the performing arts through outreach programs that include theater performances, workshops and school visits, and more than 7,000 local and regional artists have performed in more than 750 performances.

It wasn’t that long ago, however, that the future of Raue was in jeopardy. In 2008, as the economy struggled, so did Raue. Ticket sales were down, as were corporate sponsorships and donations. Executive Director Richard Kuranda and the board of directors acted quickly, tightening Raue’s budget and reducing staff by almost 50 percent. “The stock market sank, and we were really worried,” says Kuranda, who was hired in 2007. “We were three months away, not from closing, but from going into a deep hibernation and stopping all programming. No one knew if it was going to bounce back. Those were scary times.”

But bounce back it did. Raue and its management weathered the storm. Today, the outlook is much rosier for this Crystal Lake crown jewel as it celebrates 10 years since its renovation and reopening. As the economy slowly recovers, the community remains committed to Raue. Attendance for many performances is up, staff positions have been filled, and – most importantly to guests – the entertainment lineup remains solid.

“Raue is a fabulous facility with great programming,” says Gary Reece, president of the Crystal Lake Chamber of Commerce. “When it first opened 10 years ago, Raue brought in high-caliber acts and creative programming. It’s really been a great community member and has helped revitalize the downtown area. People come from out of town to shop, eat dinner and go to Raue. It’s been a fantastic addition to Crystal Lake.”

The El Tovar

The building opened in 1929 as El Tovar, a movie palace and vaudeville theater. For generations, it was the backdrop for important memories, whether a first kiss, marriage proposal, farewell date before shipping out, or class trip. The El Tovar showed Hollywood musicals, romances and comedies, along with cartoon festivals on Saturday afternoons. Area theater and music groups performed between film showings during the 1960s. It eventually became The Lake, and then the downtown Showplace. But it fell into disrepair, with the stage becoming hazardous, the basement dressing rooms crumbling, the theater walls flaking and the ceiling leaking.

Amy Malpica, Raue’s marketing director. (Dustin Waller photo)

The facility was rescued by a generous citizen named Lucile Raue, who had lived and worked most of her life in a four-square-block area in downtown Crystal Lake. When she passed away in 1996, an advisory group of local citizens and the executor directed a gift from the Raue Family Estate to the Crystal Lake Civic Center Authority – an outright gift to buy the building and $1 million for renovation. Another $500,000 was given in matching incentives. Ground was broken on the restoration project in November 1999; in August 2001, the revamped theater opened.

“Lucile had an amazing sense of community,” Kuranda says. “She worked hard and was always committed. We feel blessed that someone in the community thought about the future for the arts.”

The interior is stunning. Original terra cotta Spanish Mission work remains in place, as does the striking mosaic tiled floor. Arched doorways and chandeliers are refurbished, and a new seven-story tower accommodates the massive lights, curtains and props used in several Broadway-style shows. The refurbished seats are all original and the fiber optic stars on the atmospheric ceiling add to the 1920s ambience. And, according to Amy Malpica, Raue’s marketing director, there isn’t a bad seat in the house. “When people come to Raue Center they know they are going to get something great,” she says.

Adds Kuranda, “It’s a place for people to come and enjoy each other, enjoy the artists, to share an emotional experience, whether it’s laughter, crying or just being moved by a piece of music. That’s a pretty cool experience.”

Cosby to Tomlin

Over the years, Raue has showcased Tony, Academy and Grammy winners as well as local and regional acts. Past headliners include Bill Cosby, Lily Tomlin, Penn & Teller and the late George Carlin.

Raue books nearly 40 performances a year and rents out the facility for an additional 50 events. “Raue has really distinguished itself amongst the artists,” Kuranda says. “We’re proud of the fact that you can see a neighbor onstage with their community choir, a regional talent like Ramsey Lewis, or a national and international touring artist. That is rare.”

Community members often approach Kuranda on the street, to offer thanks for bringing in a particular act or to suggest future performances. Kuranda estimates that he’s booked about 20 performers from customer recommendations, including pianist Danny Wright and nine-year-old composer/pianist Emily Bear from Rockford.

The McHenry County Youth Orchestra performs at the Raue, as does the Crystal Lake Community Choir. An annual mid-summer talent showcase draws about 140 children, who sing, dance and take part in fashion design activities.

Three years ago, Raue introduced Lucy’s Café, monthly comedy and musical performances featuring local and national talent. The comedy night routinely draws about 150 guests. “Whether a big name or a lesser-known one, it’s about what the community wants to see, and that’s what we continually strive for,” says Malpica.

Today the Raue features national and international acts as well as local talent. (Dustin Waller photo)

Behind the Scenes

Raue’s revival has been a collaborative effort that includes community members, the board of directors and more than 400 volunteers. But it starts with Kuranda, who came to Crystal Lake armed with plenty of experience.

A native of Carbondale, Pa., Kuranda studied at the famed Actors Studio program in New York, and served as director of operations at New York City’s Signature Theatre, where he collaborated with leading American playwrights including Horton Foote, Arthur Miller, Sam Shepherd and Edward Albee. Kuranda co-founded Epic Repertory Theater in New York, where he produced 24 off-Broadway plays in three years.

Before joining Raue Center, Kuranda spent three years as producing director and interim artistic director for The Eugene O’Neill Theatre Center in Waterford, Conn., helping to develop shows such as “In the Heights,” a Tony Award winner.

“His energy and enthusiasm is just amazing,” says Judy. “He has a devotion to the theater and so do the people he’s brought in. They’ve made Raue the best possible asset.”

Raue boasts an impressive board of directors, led by current president Matthew Turk and past president Paula Dorion Gray. Community leaders like Bob Blazier, Bill Dwyer and Susen Håkansson Berg avidly support the Raue. The theater has more than 400 volunteers, who usher, work concessions and do anything else they’re asked. “Everyone has really stepped up,” Kuranda says.

Raue has an annual operating budget of $1.3 million and a full-time/part-time staff of 10. Nearly 45 percent of revenue is from ticket sales and the rest comes from grants, donations, sponsorship and annual fundraising events, such as the Bob Blazier Run for the Arts. In April, the theater had already secured 60 percent of its fundraising goal for its spring campaign. “We’re darn lucky,” Kuranda says. “Whether it’s a $10 or $50,000 check, we realize how valuable that is.”

Future

While Raue will continue to book national and international acts, a major part of future programming will be drawn from local talent. For example, the theater has started an in-house production group, Williams Street Repertory. “If we hire locally, we can see a better return locally on investment,” Kuranda says. “We know that in these economic times, for the arts to survive and thrive, organizations must step up and look out for the smaller guys.”

Two years ago, Crystal Lake earned the Arts Friendly Community Awards presented by Arts Alliance Illinois in partnership with the Illinois Municipal League. The honor recognizes and celebrates Illinois municipalities and municipal leaders who have gone above and beyond in building more vibrant and livable communities through the arts. The energy surrounding Raue was a vital part of that recognition.

“It’s great that we’re reflecting well on others and that we have great partners,” Kuranda says. “It all starts with the community effort. The community is really the backbone. None of this would be possible without support from people who truly care about the arts.” ❚

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