Genesee Theatre

203 N. Genesee Street,
Waukegan, IL 60085

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DavidZornig on October 3, 2022 at 2:25 pm

July 1952 photo credit Genesee Theatre added to gallery, via their official Facebook page link below.

DavidZornig on June 18, 2019 at 12:35 pm

If you scroll right from this Facebook photo, there are 500+ various renovation photos on the Waukegan Revsisted page. Pipe organ etc. All credit Dan Paul.

DavidZornig on January 1, 2019 at 1:41 pm

June 25, 1939 photo added. Jack Benny brings his radio show and premiere’s the film Man About Town at the Genesee Theatre. Link to radio broadcast below. Photo & description credit Genesee Theatre Facebook page.

BobbyS on May 26, 2015 at 6:21 pm

I just heard from a friend that the Genesee management is looking for an organist to play before shows. Does anyone know if they restored the barton and it must be in working order? I see where they resumed the movie series and you can buy tickets for events in person at the box office as well as the Chicago Theater in Chicago which means MSG is the new managment I imagine.

Trolleyguy on July 19, 2014 at 6:52 am

Anything current on this theatre?

LouRugani on July 18, 2014 at 8:14 pm

Genesee unveils grandeur of past; Cosby will open Waukegan theater (October 13, 2004, Chicago Tribune) ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ Comedian Bill Cosby will open the newly restored Genesee Theatre on Dec. 3, kicking off what officials hope will be a new era for Waukegan.

With its massive crystal chandeliers, lushly painted decorative plaster and state-of-the-art sound system, the Genesee was restored—at a cost of $23 million—to attract visitors to downtown.

“This will make people believe Waukegan is on its way back,” Mayor Richard Hyde said Tuesday.

And Cosby as an opening act “is like coming out of the starting blocks,” Hyde said.

City officials are banking on the 2,500-seat Genesee drawing people—and their entertainment dollars—to Waukegan and its lakefront, which the city wants to transform with shops, restaurants and homes. So far, a parking deck and some housing are under construction downtown.

“Things are happening all over the place, and it is an exciting time for Waukegan,” said city spokesman David Motley. “We’re looking at it as a catalyst for change in downtown.”

City officials gave tours Tuesday to reporters and other guests as workers installed red velvet seats and technicians tested the sound system.

“It is a first-class facility,” said David Rovine, general manager of the Genesee for SMG, the Philadelphia arena, theater and convention center manager recently hired to run the Genesee. “There are no limitations because it is so grand.”

Rovine declined to name other acts to follow Cosby or to say how many he expects to book a year.

He said the Genesee will bring something for everyone, from Broadway-style shows to concerts to comedians.

“We will really match the makeup and temperament of the people here,” he said.

In many ways the Genesee, opened in 1927 and closed in 1982, harks back to downtown Waukegan’s heyday when it was a bustling host to several grand theaters and their many patrons.

“There were lines down to Sheridan Road,” said Hyde, remembering the Genesee of the 1930s. “And it cost 15 cents to get in.”

Waukegan native Jack Benny premiered movies at the Genesee, which also put on circuses and musical acts.

But the restoration of the theater has not been without controversy. The project’s cost originally was pegged at $15 million, and it’s also opening a year later than planned.

And some residents still bring up the messy departure of Ray Shepardson, a national theater restoration expert who oversaw the project. Shepardson left earlier this year after quarreling with Friends of the Historic Genesee Theatre, a non-profit group formed to help raise funds for its operation.

Among other things, Shepardson and the non-profit disagreed on his programming strategy, which called for 200 to 300 shows a year. Some city officials and members of the Friends board called that plan unrealistic.

Illinois Sen. Terry Link (D-Vernon Hills), a member of the board, acknowledged the acrimony.

“We’ve had a lot of bumps in the road, and we have had a lot of peaks and valleys,” Link said. “But the only thing that matters is the peak of Dec. 3.”

Calling the Genesee one of the finest theaters in the country, Shepardson said he was heartbroken over what happened.

“I just think it’s very unfortunate that my approach to programming and operation of the theater has been abandoned,” he said. “Mark my words. Start counting the shows and you won’t need all of your fingers and all of your toes.”

But those thoughts were far from the minds of many who waited outside the Genesee on Tuesday afternoon for the announcement of the opening act. Tickets for Cosby will go on sale at 10 a.m. Oct. 22 through Ticketmaster. Prices haven’t been announced yet.

“Contrary to what Chicago thinks,” said Mike Pasiewicz, a local native with memories of the Genesee before it closed, “there is a Waukegan, and we are moving on up.”

figaro14 on October 10, 2011 at 4:57 pm

While it was incredible that a renovation of this old movie palace ever was accomplished, it is a shame that the renovation team felt the need to alter and change the exterior marquee and entrance, going with a “modernization” look. If one is going to preserve and restore, then keep the original marquee and front of the theatre.

DavidZornig on April 27, 2010 at 5:43 am

Nice Chuck1231. We’re those some type of promotional pics at one time?
They seem a bit enhanced with photoshop or something.
The street surface is perfect in one. Plus the moon, shadows and interior details in the night shot look almost fabricated.

LouisRugani on August 30, 2009 at 5:02 am

The silver screen will be back in use at the Genesee Theatre in north suburban Waukegan starting next month. Officials are lining up a schedule of classic films to be shown with the $40,000 of projection equipment that was installed earlier this summer.

The first feature is being held close to the vest, with Mayor Robert Sabonjian telling City Council on Monday only that it will be “a true American classic.”

Genesee Executive Director Gary Zabinski said Tuesday that an exact weekend date in August, as well as the movie in question, will be announced later this week. He added that “a lineup of classic films as well as more recent ones” will be put on the schedule.

But Zabinski made it a point to say that “we’re not going to be a movie house” in the strict sense of the term.

“The Genesee is not going to revert to being a movie house where you have movies being shown there six or seven times a week,” Zabinski said. “It deserves to be more than that, and it’s proven it can be more than that. [but] I think there’s room for this.”

In announcing the installation of the equipment at Monday’s City Council meeting, Sabonjian said he hoped that the regular scheduling of movies would be part of “adopting a more businesslike attitude” at the Genesee.

Sabonjian noted that the theater requires an annual $1 million payment from the city to retire the $24 million in renovation bonds, and another $350,000 in the form of a “support payment” toward operations from the Friends of the Historic Genesee Theatre.

Zabinski said details of film offerings are still being worked out, but the general plan is to offer screenings “initially one night a week for a while” around the theater’s live performance schedule, which typically eats up weekend dates.

The purchase of projection equipment was put together by the nonprofit Friends organization, which conducts fund-raising efforts for the theater. Zabinski said the equipment — a 35 mm film projector, and a digital model with both high-definition DVD and Blu-ray capability — is a mix of new and refurbished equipment, including parts culled from vintage Genesee projectors.

Also on the entertainment front, Sabonjian said Monday that his decision to pull funding for the Waukegan Municipal Band’s lakefront concert series was made “in order to demonstrate good faith” with employees whose jobs are on the line during budget talks.

According to Sabonjian, the annual $60,000 stipend for band members would cover the salary of one full-time police officer or firefighter.

“It is not a decision I took lightly,” said Sabonjian, encouraging the Municipal Band to launch “a vigorous fund-raising effort or seek a corporate sponsorship” to float a concert series in 2010.

Band officials announced last week that they would perform the final three Tuesday night concerts on a volunteer basis. The season concludes at 7 p.m. July 28 at the lakefront’s Stiner Pavilion with a presentation of “Audience Favorites.” – from the Chicago Sun-Times

DavidZornig on April 14, 2009 at 10:44 pm

Just to remind anyone who is interested. The Genesee’s marquee is pretty much identical to that of the Coronado in Rockford Illinois. Shape & style, minus the various colored insets.

DavidZornig on August 24, 2008 at 10:03 pm

I was at the Genesee about 3 years ago to see Olivia Newton John. The theatre had been beautifully restored. One of the employees describing the original theatre said there was a tunnel underneath that brought cool water directly over from the lake, which operated as air conditioning back in the day. (And Genesee recently paid what for HVAC?)
He also said I think Jack Benny had his own special office somewhere in the building. One he could sleep in overnight if need be.
Pay for a hotel? Pleeze.

That extra lobby foyer under the marquee seemed to have been added at a later date. It’s where they staged the ticket holders prior to entry. Unfortunately the table that sold all the ONJ stuff was just inside as well. Causing a bigger back up than already happening.

Our seats were underneath the balcony wings on the left. The further back the seats were under these wings, the less you saw of the top of the stage. In ONJ’s case, she had a ever changing video montage running up & behind her during the show. This was a little difficult to see fully, but was workable.

The only real problem was, they have small speakers mounted on the underside ceilings of these wings. Presumably to increase the performer’s sound to those not directly in front of the stage. However, the overall volume even with these additional speakers, was drastically inadequate.
So much so that more than a few people kept yelling back to turn it up. To no avail. When I kindly mentioned this deficeincy to the sound engineer on the way out, he snapped as if every single person in the house had already told him the same. And boldly stated that “that is how it is”.
He also was rather rudely telling fans that “she was already long gone from the building”.
Elvis couldn’t have left that fast.

Out front was one non descript bus. So we instinctively went around back to find a much nicer bus with Oregon plates. Idling away and giving a contact diesel high to the few who were waiting by the two swinging stage doors.

I will never in my life forget, the stunned face of the poor dude who came out first to a storm of flashbulbs.
Carrying two small, metal water bowls for ONJ’s dogs.

kencmcintyre on May 4, 2008 at 9:20 pm

Here is a 1991 clip that was on youtube:

Broan on August 22, 2007 at 6:04 pm

No, it was restored under Ray Shepardson. The Cadillac Palace was under Dan Coffey.

supercharger96 on August 22, 2007 at 5:44 pm

I believe (but could be wrong) that the restoration was headed by the same people who restored the Cadillac Palace. It is not nearly as ornate as the Cadillac Palace and the lobby and entrance, while enlarged by a glassed in mud lobby are rather smallish.

The lobby chandelier is said to have originally hung in the long-ago demolished Orpheum in Seattle. Damaged by a fire and then demolished the owner boxed the chandelier and kept it in his garage until it was called on to grace the Genesee.

The round chandeliers in this picture (third from the right in the auditorium pictures) are said to have

come from a theater called the “Marboro”, but I think that they meant the Marbro that was demolished long ago on the West Side of Chicago.
View link

Batwoman on August 21, 2007 at 8:37 pm

The pictures reminded me of the cadillac theater (if I’m remembering correctly, the one Spamalot is/was at).

I really want to go inside there now and see it for myself. I had no clue it was so nice. I guess I’m used to seeing it when it sat dormant back in 99 my last semester at CLC. It was another abandonded building to me since I’d never been inside before.

supercharger96 on August 21, 2007 at 8:31 pm

There are indeed plans to reinstall the organ. After speaking with people involved with the theater, the problem with the organ is related to the massive water damage that the theater sustained.

Broan on August 21, 2007 at 8:29 pm

Wow, that floor is really sloped.

supercharger96 on August 21, 2007 at 8:27 pm

I had the luck to spend some time inside of this beautiful theater recently with some lovely people.

Shots of her:
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Stage. The stage was actually butted out further than the original during remodel.
View link

Lobby chandelier.
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Auditorium main chandelier.
View link

The auditorium.
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The auditorium, different angle.
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Original seat ends.
View link

moody1785 on March 13, 2007 at 1:23 pm

Genesee Theater is on the list of the Illinois Dept. of Commerce as a Seven Wonders of Illinois â€" your favorite interesting, beautiful or just plain quirky Land of Lincoln destinations.
official destination

This link will allow votes. View link Click to vote. Select Chicagoland.
Scroll down to Genesee Theater.

curiouskate on December 5, 2006 at 10:17 am

The theatre is dark more often than not. What happened to 186 shows in a season? Most of the summer was dark, then fall saw a few here and there – Dec sees a lot and then we’re back to sporadic. What gives? There should be something in that theatre AT LEAST every weekend.

curiouskate on December 5, 2006 at 10:16 am

The replacement Barton pipe organ that was supposed to be installed still lies in pieces unassembled. The theatre has been open for two years and still there are no plans to install the organ. Are they going to let this one fall apart?

Life's Too Short
Life's Too Short on July 6, 2006 at 6:56 pm

They sure did do a fine job with the place. I remember how shabby it looked sitting there on Genesee Street in the 90’s.

Batwoman on March 28, 2006 at 8:48 am


Hopefully I can get to waukegan before the end of time and stop by at night to take a picture. I actually live about a half hour due west of there, but would love to see what the theater looks like. I remember seeing the building sitting closed back in 99 when I took night classes at CLC (which is down the street fromt there).

If I can, and I remember, I’ll take a few pictures and send them your way. that is if you’re still looking for some.

JimRankin on January 10, 2005 at 7:51 am

Here is the story Bryan refers to without having to Register, which is just a means to sell your name and address to dozens of others; they then profit from your lack of privacy.

Date: 10 Jan 2005 14:19:59 -0000
Subject: [Historic Movie Palaces] Digest Number 75

Message: 1
Date: Sun, 9 Jan 2005 09:46:20 -0800 (PST)
Subject: Waukegan theater a costly gem

This story was sent to you by: Louis Rugani

GENESEE, Waukegan Il.

Waukegan theater a costly gem

Genesee’s restoration price soars while revenue falls short

By Trine Tsouderos
Tribune staff reporter

January 9, 2005

With its domed ceiling and 18-foot crystal chandelier, the newly
restored Genesee Theatre was designed to be the crown jewel in a sweeping
revitalization of Waukegan’s moribund downtown.

But despite a gala opening last month with two sold-out shows by
comedian Bill Cosby, some residents are howling about decisions that nearly
doubled the project’s price while halving the number of shows initially

Originally envisioned as a moneymaker that would cost $14 million, pay
off the city’s bonds and draw 500,000 people annually, the
Waukegan-owned theater is now expected to operate in the red for years. Just a
handful of shows have been announced so far.

As money woes piled up—the costs ballooned to $24 million—so did
controversy. Ray Shepardson, a nationally known theater restoration expert
hired to run the project and book a packed year of shows, was fired
months before the opening.

Project critics, citing the cost overruns and construction delays that
plagued the theater restoration, now question the city’s ability to
handle an overhaul of its lakefront and downtown that would cost hundreds
of millions of public and private dollars.

“It’s almost mind-boggling,” said Newton Finn, legal counsel for the
local watchdog group, Taskforce on Waukegan Neighborhoods. “If that
project is run the same way, that project is doomed to fail.”

Pointing to, among other issues, a $13.2 million no-bid contract the
city awarded to a company run by sons of a project insider, the task
force has called for an independent audit of the Genesee finances.

From Chicago to Elgin to Hinsdale, city officials and preservationists
have attempted to revive similar old theaters, often with limited
success as money remains scarce and developers seek to turn them—and their
usually central locations—into condos, stores and office space.

These relics of the past are almost never preserved because turning a
profit can prove difficult and restoring them can be tricky, experts

Waukegan officials and board members of the non-profit Friends of the
Historic Genesee Theatre, which raised money for the restoration,
acknowledge their project ran into trouble. But they also point to the
stunning result—a lavishly renovated theater that in October sold out
Cosby’s two shows in about three hours.

“It couldn’t be better,” said Waukegan Mayor Richard Hyde.

The easy thing, said Waukegan director of governmental services Ray
Vukovich, would have been to allow the 77-year-old theater to decay and
eventually face a wrecking ball.

“Looking back, there are a lot of things I would recommend we would
have done differently, after you have been through this mess,” said
Vukovich, who oversaw the project for the city.

Waukegan officials blame the cost overruns on GSI Architects, a
Cleveland-based company the city hired to design the renovation, but then
fired as problems piled up. They also say the price tag grew as the seating
capacity was expanded.

Costs underestimated

Things went awry almost immediately. GSI underestimated how much the
project would cost, saying it could get the job done for $14 million.

“We found out how wrong” they were, said Hyde, who said he felt like he
was “gullible” in accepting GSI’s original estimates.

Many line items in GSI’s original budget wound up costing two or even
three times more than estimated. For example, GSI originally tagged the
stage and seating area expansion at $1.26 million. The work actually
cost about $3 million.

Representatives of GSI did not return calls.

For much of the project, Waukegan didn’t have a construction manager, a
situation that can lead to trouble, said Bruce D'Agostino, executive
director of the McLean, Va.-based Construction Management Association of
America, a national trade organization with 2,300 members.

A construction manager keeps tabs on costs, schedules and change orders
while working independently of architects and contractors, D'Agostino

The fact the theater would cost $10 million more than initially
estimated took Vukovich by surprise when he first found out around April 2003,
two years after the project began.

One problem in determining what happened is the lack of change
orders—written authorizations of changes, which can significantly add to the
cost or deadline of a project. Vukovich said there are “none

Change orders were not used because contractors managed to stay within
their budgets and didn’t go back to the City Council for more money,
said architect Steve Kolber, who was hired by the city in 2003 to act as
a construction manager.

The problem, Kolber said, was that those budgets were larger than GSI
originally estimated.

Kolber, who admitted that the frequent delays that pushed back the
theater opening a year or more “technically” should have required change
orders, said there still is a paper trail —files of receipts and
payouts. “You can document exactly where all the monies went,” he said.

A few months after learning the project was over budget and behind, the
city fired GSI in the summer of 2003. Desperate to complete the work,
officials turned to local Pickus Companies, already a contractor on the

Conflicts of interest seen

Waiving its bidding procedures in November 2003, the City Council voted
to enter into a contract of up to $13.2 million with Pickus Companies
run by sons of Friends board secretary Allan Pickus, even though another
company, St. Louis-based Clayco Construction, was preparing to submit a
proposal for $570,000 less. Calls to Allan Pickus were not returned.
Pickus companies officials would not comment.

City attorney Brian Grach said the City Council is allowed to waive bid
procedures with a two-thirds vote of the aldermen.

As Pickus Companies readied to finish the theater, they awarded a $1.9
million contract to install air conditioning and heating to low-bidder
Air-Con, a company run by Fred Abdula, a member of the Friends board
and board chairman until November 2003.

Those moves, and the no-bid contract, caused some residents to question
how board members so intimately involved with the project could benefit
from it financially.

“I am a little surprised that people who hold contracts for major
projects are allowed to be on the board,” said Cheryl Ptasienski, co-chair
of the Taskforce on Waukegan Neighborhoods. “To the general public, it
looks like a pretty big conflict of interest.”

As the city poured more money into the project, the Friends struggled
to raise $4 million to fund Shepardson’s plan to open with a debut
season of hundreds of shows. So far, the board has raised about $1.5

With the theater’s opening looming, the Friends ousted Shepardson, who
says he is still owed $97,000 in back pay, and replaced him with SMG, a
Philadelphia-based company hired to run the venue.

In a management plan presented to the city in July, the company
announced it would start with 86 shows in the first year, with a deficit of
about $900,000 over the first four years. In the fifth year, SMG’s plan
shows a $17,000 profit for the city, with about 124 shows.

Meanwhile, the task force is calling for a public hearing to discuss
the cost overruns, Ptasienski said.

“The whole thing is that it is 200 percent over budget,” she said. “Two
hundred percent over budget is unrealistic without getting any

Copyright © 2005, Chicago Tribune