Group hopes to save historic movie theater

The Retlaw Theater in Fond du Lac, July 2014
The Retlaw Theater in Fond du Lac, July 2014

FOND DU LAC - A Fond du Lac group is trying to save a nearly 90-year-old movie theater. A local developer is looking to turn it into an office building.

The Retlaw Theater is on Fond du Lac's Main Street. It's been an icon in the community since 1925, but for the last seven years it's been empty, falling into disrepair.

If you grew up in Fond du Lac, chances are you have a happy memory at the Retlaw Theater.

"It was so neat to be in there, it was so beautiful. It really was amazing and it just breaks my heart they wanna destroy something so beautiful," Jeremy Fettig told FOX 11.

Commonwealth Companies of Fond du Lac wants to knock down the theater and make it a parking lot, while putting office space and apartments next door. The group does plan to save and rehabilitate the front facade of the building.

"There'll still be the lobby space. In fact, we're going to restore it back to its old, historic grandeur," explained Commonwealth Companies President Louie Lange III.

"It's kind of like taking the pages out of a book. We think the theater needs to stay," said Michael Winkler, a member of the group, Friends of the Retlaw Theater, which has formed to save the theatre.

"Fond du Lac, over the past 30 or 40 years, has really lost a lot of the historical buildings," Winkler explained.

They admit the art-deco building needs work: the roof leaks, there's water damage and mold.

"The state found it to be structurally sound in April. So they're really throwing the baby out with the bathwater," Winkler told us.

"I completely applaud their passion for it, but you have to step back. These old buildings, they cost more to redevelop than they do to build new space," said Lange.

The city told FOX 11 it's been about a decade since the theater was open.

"If there had been an opportunity to redevelop the theater in a financially feasible way, it probably would have been done by now," said Dyann Benson, redevelopment planner for the City of Fond du Lac.

The city will receive a $400,000 grant from the state for the Commonwealth Companies' development plan and says it's the right move.

"The longer a building is vacant it becomes a blight on the community and the downtown is an important part of the community," Benson explained.

"When it's gone it's never coming back," said Winkler.

Commonwealth Companies' president told us the sale of the property should be finalized in the next few days. He said construction would start soon after.

The Friends of the Retlaw told us they've retained a lawyer to try and stop the project.