Raue Center’s 20th Anniversary: Crystal Lake’s ‘Main Street’ Theater

What do Bob Saget, Jane Lynch, Amy Grant and Joan Rivers all have in common? They’ve graced the stage at Raue Center for the Performing Arts. Explore the 90-year history of this hometown theater and what makes big-name performers feel right at home.

Backstage at Raue Center for the Performing Arts there’s a veritable who’s-who of photographs depicting some of the theater’s famous visitors. Joan Rivers, Amy Grant, Rick Springfield, Bob Saget, Jane Lynch, Bob Newhard, Los Lobos and Ben Vereen … the list goes on. And that’s only the most recent visitors. This old vaudeville playhouse-turned, moviehouse-turned civic center has been a local fixture for more than 90 years.

Crystal Lake’s hometown theater hasn’t lost a bit of its charm. Still perched at the entrance to downtown’s main drag, Raue Center is the kind of place where even big-name performers feel right at home.

“When Amy Grant comes to town or Jane Lynch visits, they’ll say, ‘Let’s go for a walk down Williams Street,’” says Richard Kuranda, Raue Center’s executive director. “Or, Amy might say, ‘Are the girls at Clip Joynt open, because I’d like for them to do my makeup. I want to go over and relax.’”

Kuranda has had to gently nudge the likes of Jim Belushi and Garrison Keillor out of Starbucks while they’re rubbing elbows with the locals. Then, there was the time he had to politely break up Los Lobos’ backstage birthday party at 2 a.m.

“It wasn’t like that typical rock ‘n’ roll beerfest,” he says. “It was just really cool watching people get to know each other. They really cared, and that’s so cool. They love that we’re a Main Street theater. There aren’t many of us left.”

Yet here they are, 20 years after a group of dedicated, passionate art lovers – driven by a generous benefactor – set out to preserve a location where the arts could thrive. And thrive they have, with an in-house theater company, a rotating series of comedians, touring stars, live tribute bands, a theater education program, support for local nonprofits and much more – even in the midst of the ongoing pandemic.

“Our board and staff go above and beyond, and I think that’s exceedingly rare,” says Kuranda. “Having been in the business for 30 years, I can tell you it is rare. And I think the artists recognize that.”

Oohs and Ahs

Since its grand reopening in September 2001, Raue Center has welcomed more than 1 million visitors, including some 400,000 children gathering for school performances.

It’s a special treat as they explore the beautifully restored theater, with its Spanish Mission architecture, a Moorish village in the wings of the auditorium and a ceiling filled with “stars” – twinkle lights recessed above – that glow during a performance.

“There is nothing I find more invigorating or just plain beautiful as coming into the theater with 750 kids who are all on a field trip to see a great small musical or a historical play,” says Kuranda. “The twinkle lights are on, and for most of them it’s the first time they’ve ever been in a theater that big. For most of them, it’s the first time they’ve ever seen a professional theater, so what’s amazing is they’ll dim the house lights and the twinkle lights stay on. You’ll hear ‘Ooh,’ and ‘Ah,” and their undivided attention is towards the stage. You can hear a pin drop.”

Adults also admire the scenery. The grand foyer is adorned with Spanish Mission-style sconces and chandeliers, tan stucco-style walls and a tiled floor that looks like a mosaic of Spanish pottery. To one side of the arched portal is a lobby cafe, complete with a small stage and a piano. Upstairs, another small stage and a bar provide additional nooks for live arts.

In good times, the 750-seat theater is bustling with activity most weekends, but even now, when activity is limited to digital-only, the stage is still keeping audiences engaged.

“Our mission really is to service everyone in the county and beyond, and we take that seriously,” says Kuranda.

A Historical Gem

The building we now know as Raue Center was christened as El Tovar when it opened to the public in 1929. It was designed by local architect Elmer F. Behrns – he also imagined the Arcada in St. Charles and the Egyptian in DeKalb – and it fully embraced the era, with a small stage for touring vaudevillians and a silver screen for some of the first “talkies.”

El Tovar’s first general manager was a trailblazer named Margaret Gracy.

“The history shows that, just prior to its opening, she was being shaken down by the mob out of Chicago,” says Kuranda. “She refused to give in, and so they bombed the theater. And she had it up and running in three days. She was tough as nails, an incredible business lady, and back in the ’20s, for a woman to be a leader and to be running a theater and a vaudeville house was really remarkable.”

For years, El Tovar was the city’s go-to movie house and community gathering space, a place for first dates, special occasions and memory-making. It became The Lake in the 1950s, hosted local theater in the 1960s and became Showplace in the ’80s. By then, it was showing its age, and like downtown Crystal Lake at the time, was at risk of being forgotten.

Except it wasn’t. In 1994, the estate of Lucile Raue, another business leader, gifted $2 million to purchase and restore the old theater. Raue’s family had owned the local hardware store and been ingrained in local civic life. She lived most of her life around downtown. (See sidebar on p. 71). Ground was broken in 1999, and in September 2001 the newly re-christened Raue Center for the Arts held its first performances.

Audience Favorites

One of Raue Center’s enduring favorites is Williams Street Repertory, an in-house, Equity theater company that began in 2011. The group has played all variety of shows, from world and regional premieres to experimental pieces and classics.

The cast has embraced outlandish plays like Steve Martin’s “Picasso at the Lapin Agile,” which centers around an imagined meeting between Pablo Picasso and Albert Einstein.

They’ve revived classics like “A Streetcar Named Desire,” and “Guys and Dolls,” and they’ve brought to life newer musicals like “Sweeney Todd” and “Ring of Fire.”

In fact, it was “Sweeney Todd” that earned the crew their first BroadwayWorld Chicago Awards, in 2014, when Williams Street Rep earned Best Direction, Best Musical Direction, Best Lighting Design and Best Scenic Design.

Miriam Naponelli, Raue Center’s marketing director and a three-time Williams Street Rep cast member, played a dog in the quirky “Sylvia” in 2018.

“It’s a blast, and I think growing up in Crystal Lake and going through the theater department at one of the local high schools, I look at Williams Street Rep and I’m just so grateful that we call Crystal Lake home,” she says. “We are so lucky to have such wonderful theater programs, so there are a lot of kids growing up who are experiencing theater here.”

Children have become a major focus over the past decade. From its start as a summer camp for local children, the Sage Studio program now draws hundreds of local youngsters who want to learn about theater. Classes are led by working professionals who cover acting, musical theater and production.

Through the new Sage on Stage program, a few talented youngsters are honing their skills in the classroom while applying what they’ve learned in a mainstage production. In late 2019, Sage students portrayed Pugsley and two ancestors in “The Addams Family.”

“We have a wonderful manager, Amanda Flahive, who has really grounded it in the past eight years,” says Kuranda. “We’re selling out; there’s a huge demand for it, and I’m sure it will continue to grow.”

Sage Studio alumni have gone on to top theater schools, some even landing work as TV actors or performing on “American Idol.”

“I am blown away, constantly, by the sheer number of talented people in this area,” says Kuranda, who’s talented in his own right. Involved in the theater industry since his childhood, Kuranda worked in New York City and landed among places like The Actors Studio, Signature Theater Company and Eugene O’Neill Memorial Theatre Center before arriving at Raue Center in 2007.

Hard Reset

For all of its successes, Raue Center has certainly faced its challenges, none so strong as this past year’s COVID-19 pandemic. Last March, the theater abruptly cancelled its season. The stage was dark for more than a month.

Summer brought new programming, most notably live comedy, which could be presented to a limited in-person audience and streamed digitally with a new four-camera system.

The hard reset – and a summer of social unrest that followed – has inspired Kuranda and his team to take a renewed look at their ability to touch the entire community.

“We’ve really taken a look at what’s important for the next 20 years,” says Kuranda. “So, one program we launched recently is Our Voices, Our Town, and it’s supported by the Chicago Community Trust and the State of Illinois. It’s designed to provide an opportunity to allow the community and our population to come together and heal.”

Our Voices, Our Town will be presented in video, with one episode released each month in 2021. The kickoff episode puts comedian Kevin Boseman, a relatively new face on Raue’s comedy scene, in a face-to-face interview with John DaCosse, a longtime friend of the Raue. Catch the videos online at rauecenter.org.

“[Kevin is] an African-American comic and he talks about growing up in and raising a family in the suburbs and Chicago,” says Kuranda. “Our second installment really examines our history and what does it mean for us to protest, how we protest, and we interviewed a sculptor, Eric Bloom, who happens to live in Crystal Lake.”

Meanwhile, the Raue Center is also doubling down on its commitment to area nonprofits. The team is planning fall fundraisers for Pioneer Center, Rotary Club of Crystal Lake Dawnbreakers and other groups that will take advantage of the theater’s assets and arts connections. The annual Bob Blazier Run for the Arts 5K race, which starts and ends just outside Raue Center’s marquee, is scheduled for May 2. All proceeds benefit local arts programming.

Looking Ahead

The future is never really certain, and the Raue Center has had its share of challenges. The recession in 2007-08 hit hard. A decade later, the theater faced another crisis at it sought to cover a budget shortfall. Kuranda, his team and the board took their plight public, and within a few months, they’d paid the last of their renovation debts in part thanks to a long-term sponsorship with Home State Bank. Now, the locally owned community bank will handle the theater’s capital needs for years to come.

“Raue Center will definitely have a home for the next 20 to 25 years and potentially the next 125 years. That’s something we’re incredibly proud of,” says Kuranda. “We don’t have to worry about the roof or the plumbing. We only have to worry about putting on great shows for the community, and we wouldn’t be able to do it without Home State Bank.”

This pandemic and its forced shutdowns have brought their own challenges, especially last spring when the theater sat empty.

“Retiring that last bit of debt three years ago really made our survivability that much greater,” says Kuranda. “I don’t think we would have survived if we still had all of that debt over our heads. As we look to the future we’re debt-free, we want to give back to the community and we want to fulfill our mission of providing the arts for all.”

There are still plenty of uncertainties, but Kuranda is confident moving into the spring. In early March he expects to announce a new lineup of entertainment, some of it resurrected from last year and some of it well-adapted to the new reality.

GreenRoom Improv, a local improv troupe that in which Naponelli is a member, returns in April. Singer Amy Grant is scheduled to return in November. Kuranda is also planning for comedian Colin Mochrie, of “Whose Line is it Anyway,” to bring a show that combines improv comedy and the hypnosis of Asad Mecci. Plans are being finalized around several tribute bands, including some that will play in the Brink Street parking lot just northwest of the theater. Williams Street Repertory is working out final protocols for its presentations of “Native Gardens,” “Always: The Patsy Cline Musical,” and “Matilda,” performed with help from Sage Studio. If all goes to plan, November and December will bring a return of “A Christmas Carol,” “The Nutcracker,” and a special performance by Elgin Symphony Orchestra, among others.

There’s more in the works, says Kuranda, but it’s still too early to announce. “I really think by September of this upcoming year, we’ll be welcoming more people back into the space above our current 50-person occupancy,” he adds.

A Community’s Passion

For all the excitement that exists onstage, there’s plenty of enthusiasm offstage, as well. Behind Kuranda and his staff of 20 stands a team of nearly 400 volunteers who support every event. Their passion and enthusiasm are contagious. Naponelli admits that, when she first started at Raue Center, she spent many sleepless nights absorbed by her work.

“I could barely close my eyes because in that first month I had so many ideas of what I needed to get done, and what I wanted to get done,” she says.

Kuranda just laughs. As a father of four children, he knows the feeling.

“Everything I did before coming here was wonderful, and I’m exceedingly proud of it, but I think I’m more fulfilled because this is the theater that my kids come to,” he says. “They show up and help out at the box office, and if my wife needs a break, she says, ‘What’s going on at the Raue?’ I feel like I’m having a positive impact, but I’m only able to do my job because of the board, the staff, the volunteers and this community.”

Who’s Raue?

Benno (Ben) Raue arrived in Crystal Lake in 1893 with his wife and young child. The German immigrant had worked at Elgin’s watch factory before opening a jewelry store in downtown Crystal Lake. He later established a hardware store at 69 N. Williams St., in what’s now The Flag Store. The handpainted sign for Raue Hardware still adorns the transom window as customers enter.

Raue served his community in many roles, including as mayor, a director of Home State Bank, and a founding member of the Crystal Lake Park District. He had four children: Ethel, Benno Jr., Leone and Lucile.

None of the children ever married, but the youngest, Lucile, took over the family business when her father retired at age 89. She spent most of her life engaged with the area around downtown.
Upon her death in 1994, Lucile gifted numerous local causes, including the nascent arts venue that would bear her name.

The Raue family home, built by Ben in 1901 at 25 W. Crystal Lake Ave., currently houses the offices of Downtown Crystal Lake.

Preview “Our Voices, Our Town” right here!