Westgate Outdoor Theatre (Racine, Wisconsin)

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Westgate Outdoor Theatre
General information
TypeOutdoor theater
Location4801 Washington Avenue
Racine, Wisconsin
Coordinates42°42′59″N 87°50′16″W / 42.7165°N 87.8378°W / 42.7165; -87.8378Coordinates: 42°42′59″N 87°50′16″W / 42.7165°N 87.8378°W / 42.7165; -87.8378
Construction started1948
OpeningApril 30, 1949
ClosedSeptember 18, 1978
OwnerPapas-Spheeris Company
Design and construction
DeveloperJ. & M. Enterprises (Minneapolis, Minnesota)

Westgate Outdoor Theatre, previously known as the Racine Outdoor Theatre, was an outdoor and drive-in theater that operated at the southwest corner of Washington Avenue and Ohio Street in Racine, Wisconsin from 1949 to 1978. It was located on what is now the site of the Westgate Mall Shopping Center, and its function as a movie theater was replaced by the Westgate Cinema indoor theater across Perry Avenue.

History[edit | edit source]

In June 1948, the 35-acre site was purchased by J. & M. Enterprises of Minneapolis, Minnesota, which announced that it would immediately begin work on constructing an outdoor drive-in theater with state-of-the-art features and a planned capacity of approximately one thousand cars.[1] Located in the formerly rural but rapidly suburbanizing area of Mygatts Corners, the site was immediately outside Racine's city limits at the time. In December 1948, the Nelson Walker homestead along Washington Avenue was demolished more than a century after it was built, in order to make way for the theater's ongoing construction.[2] During construction, on March 19, 1949, an oil burner in the production booth exploded, causing approximately $2,000 in damage but no injuries.[3][4]

The Racine Outdoor Theatre opened on April 30, 1949, with a showing of the 1948 musical romantic comedy film Romance on the High SeasThis is a link to a Wikipedia article.[5][6] In September 1950, a safe containing $400 was stolen from the theater, which was found empty and damaged "beyond repair" a month later along Four Mile Road.[7]

In September 1951, the theater was acquired by the Papas-Spheeris Company, which began major renovations in advance of the 1952 season. 650 new speakers were installed, post lights were added to improve visibility for drivers, and a children's playground was built at the base of the screen. Papas-Spheeris also renamed the venue, calling it the Westgate Outdoor Theatre.[8] Westgate reopened on April 17, 1952, with a showing of the 1951 Western film Passage WestThis is a link to a Wikipedia article.[9] The theater, located in a low-lying area, was in the path of the natural sewage drainage of houses on Perry Avenue and in Mygatts Corners, and its operators had initially agreed to allow the water to flow across their property unobstructed. However, in April 1953, the theater's owners announced they would block the flow, and during a heavy rainstorm a few days later, their blockage caused the basements of nearby houses to be flooded. After complaints from residents and the town board of Mount Pleasant, the theater agreed to unblock the sewer until a permanent solution could be found.[10] An attorney for the theater argued that blocking the drainage "was a dramatic method of pointing out to residents of the township that they have a definite sewage disposal problem, and that the time to get busy and correct it is now." The incident provoked the ongoing discussion of how to integrate the growing suburban areas into the city of Racine's sanitary sewage system, which had historically required the areas to be annexed into the city.[11]

On the night of May 23, 1958, four children of the same Racine family suffered from carbon monoxide poisoning when their father ran their car's motor too long during a show at the theater. The children were administered oxygen at St. Mary's Hospital and were released in the morning.[12]

The Racine Board of Education acquired a 9.2-acre site immediately south of the theater property for future school construction around 1950.[13] When planning for the school began in earnest, the Board decided that the site was likely too small for a junior high school, so in 1958, it began seeking to purchase an undeveloped area on the southern end of the theater property.[14][15] Spiro J. Papas, owner of the theater, initially agreed to sell the plot to the school board on three conditions: "that the school system never object to the use of his property to the north as a theater or for other commercial purposes, make no attempt to have the theater annexed to the city[,] and would re-sell the plot to him at the sale price, if no school were built on the site by the end of 1963. Only the last restriction remained" by the time the sale was finalized on December 8, 1958, when the plot was purchased from Papas for $27,500.[16] Construction of Starbuck Middle School began in 1960 and the school opened to students in 1962.

Westgate Outdoor Theater, located behind the Turn Style Family Center, as seen in 1966.

In 1959, the theater added a go-cart attraction, the Mighty Midget Race Track, to its property.[17] In March 1961, Papas announced plans to build Westgate Family Center, a 100,000-square-foot (9,300 m2) discount department store immediately north of the theater, at a time when such stores were a new concept in retailing. Although Papas owned the land extending north to Washington Avenue from the theater, his plan required purchasing land west of Perry Avenue from the Racine Water Department for part of the store's parking lot.[18] The Water Department agreed to sell the land for $27,750. By July 1961, Papas had come to an agreement with the Chicago-based Jewel Tea Company grocery store chain, which would open its first department store in the new building. The planned store was downsized to 90,000 square feet (8,400 m2), allowing a larger parking lot in front of the store and making the land purchased from the Water Department unnecessary for parking. Instead, Papas announced that the land would be used for a motel with 65 to 70 units, with the possibility of an attached restaurant.[19]

Construction on the Jewel store began in September 1961, requiring the Mighty Midget go-cart track, playground trampolines, and some of the theater's parking area to be removed.[20] During construction, Jewel acquired the Turn Style chain of four discount department stores in Massachusetts, and applied the Turn Style branding to the new Racine store. The new Turn Style Family Center opened on March 28, 1962.[21] On August 30, 1962, the Racine City Plan Commission agreed to annex the theater into the city of Racine.[22]

With the opening of the Westgate Cinema indoor theater across the street in 1968, the outdoor theater declined in popularity. In the mid-1970s, the nearby Christ Church United Methodist offered Sunday morning outdoor worship services at the theater.[23] These events sometimes included pastors from other churches as part of the "Community-All Faiths Worship series".[24]

Westgate Outdoor Theater ended the 1978 season without fanfare on September 18, showing a double feature of The EndThis is a link to a Wikipedia article (1978) and GatorThis is a link to a Wikipedia article (1976), both directed by Burt Reynolds.[5] After Jewel shut down all Turn Style stores that year, the Racine store was one of three that was not subleased to The May Department Stores Company to become a Venture store. Instead, ShopKo became interested in the location. Originally planning to renovate and expand the Turn Style building,[25] ShopKo later proposed tearing down both the store and the theater to build a new shopping center.[26] The theater was demolished in May 1979, shortly after the thirtieth anniversary of its opening.[27] It was replaced by the Westgate Mall Shopping Center, which opened in November 1979.

References[edit | edit source]

  1. "Outdoor Theater Announced Here", Racine Journal Times, June 21, 1948, page five.
  2. "Mygatts Corners", Racine Journal Times, December 14, 1948, page 21.
  3. "Happenings in the City", Racine Journal Times, March 19, 1949, page three.
  4. "City Briefs", Racine Journal Times, March 21, 1949, page four.
  5. 5.0 5.1 "Westgate Outdoor Theatre", cinematreasures.org.
  6. Advertisement, Racine Journal Times, April 29, 1949, page 19.
  7. "Happenings in the City", Racine Journal Times, October 16, 1950, page four.
  8. "Improve Theater on Highway 20", Racine Journal Times, March 21, 1952, page 22.
  9. Advertisement, Racine Journal Times, April 16, 1952, page 29.
  10. "Mount Pleasant Board Calls Emergency Sewerage Meeting", Racine Journal Times, April 28, 1953, page five.
  11. Edwards, Charles. "Sewage Problem In Mount Pleasant Angers Residents", Racine Journal Times, May 1, 1953, front page and page 2.
  12. "4 Racine Children Are Overcome by Monoxide at Outdoor Theater", Racine Journal Times, May 24, 1958, front page.
  13. "Consider School Site on Southwest Side", Racine Journal Times, November 22, 1950, page eight.
  14. "School Board Tackles Building Needs", Racine Journal Times, August 20, 1957, page five.
  15. "City School Bill Is Cut by $5,000; Expand Summer Session Curriculum", Racine Journal Times, May 13, 1958, page four.
  16. "School Board Defers Budget Cuts Until Year End Surplus Is Known", Racine Journal Times, December 9, 1958, page four.
  17. "A Go-Cart Race Track Starts to Click in Racine", Racine Journal Times, September 13, 1959, page 18.
  18. "Westgate to Build Store Containing 50 Departments", Racine Journal Times, April 6, 1961, page six.
  19. "Plan New Motel of 65-70 Units", Racine Journal Times, July 28, 1961, page 4.
  20. "Jewel Tea Expects to Break Ground for Family Center About Sept. 1", Racine Journal Times, August 20, 1961, page 32.
  21. Advertisement, Racine Journal Times, March 27, 1962, page 3B and page 4B.
  22. "OK Annexation of 55 Acres", Racine Journal Times, August 31, 1962, page 4A.
  23. "News of the Churches", Racine Journal Times, June 22, 1974, page 4A.
  24. Dose, Emmert H. "Outdoor theater is place of worship", Racine Journal Times, July 16, 1977, page 4.
  25. Pfankuchen, David. "ShopKo may buy ex-Turn Style store", Racine Journal Times, November 28, 1978, page 1D.
  26. Pfankuchen, David. "ShopKo key to development", Racine Journal Times, February 4, 1979, page 1C.
  27. Conrad, Fred W. "Goodbye to Westgate" (editorial), Racine Journal Times, May 8, 1979, page 6A.

See also[edit | edit source]