Midway Theater is NOT closed—part one

StoryImage( ‘/Images/Story//img-CtMasfktDg.jpg’, ‘File photo’, ‘Contrary to a rumor started in July, the historic Midway Theater in downtown Rockford remains open for business.’);

Every once in a while, this writer gets a bee in her bonnet about something, and is forced to take literary action in the hopes of making readers aware of the problem.

A while back, I attended Talent Night at the Midway Theater, and was shocked and disgusted at the lack of attendance at this venue of astonishing architectural beauty, and with a stage featuring more diverse local talent than should be ignored.

Since then, even after the downtown road construction ended and made access to the Midway easier, there hasn’t been much of a change. That needs to change.

Tooling about downtown every day, one can’t help but pass the historic Midway Theater with regularity. With its Spanish renaissance design, gorgeous front foyer and impressive roof dome, the Midway stands out as one of Rockford’s most prized jewels (no offense to the Coronado). Unfortunately, somehow a rumor got out that the Midway was closed or for sale.

I met with Erin Gilbert, executive director of Midway Urban Visual and Performing Arts Center, to talk a little about why no one seems to take enough notice of the great work they do.

“I have no idea how that rumor got started,” Gilbert said. “It’s certainly not because no one’s here. There seems to be very little faith in our programming…there’s an air of mystery and confusion about the Midway that needs to be cleared up.”

She chattered briskly as she whisked me down the halls upstairs, showing me the offices of Systeams (Suite 201), Hands to Heal Therapeutic Massage (Suite 202B), Jaynell’s Electrical Repair (Suite 200), iWebwerks studio, and The Last Rose of Summer Dance Studio.

Knowing the building so well, Gilbert led me through the “green room” in complete darkness without skipping a beat, while I stumbled over something that I hoped wasn’t important.

Gilbert is a charming young woman, 25, whose professionalism and passion for promotion of the arts far exceeds her years. As she guided me around the theater, one of our stops brought us to the old reel room that still has the same equipment used when the Midway was a movie theater. It all still works; the 35-50 years since the equipment’s existence has not tarnished its uses, and Gilbert informed me they will be buying a screen and should be showing movies again by this time next year.

We dropped by the recording studio, which housed First Assembly of God Church’s TV station, and is used for all sorts of multi-media recording purposes. We visited Roc Noizy, who runs Talent Night, Best of the Midwest and Roc Noizy productions, but he was on the phone and didn’t look like he had too much time to chat.

Finally, we ended up back in the recording studio’s viewing room, and sat down to talk, interrupted only by the occasional visit of a young man whom Erin called “Boogie,” I think, and whose job description seemed to entail everything from secretarial duties to manual labor. “I’m the one who makes it happen,” he smiled. “I do all the dirty work.” Erin amiably dismissed him to go get her lunch from Beef-A-Roo, and we continued.

“The construction really killed us,” said Gilbert. “The fact that no one could get in or drive by the front to see the marquis from April through August made attendance seriously decline. We weren’t really given the proper forewarning to prepare for the construction, either.”

The road construction on East State Street, which began last spring, stretched from the area around the Midway down through the 500 block. Most of the businesses in the area suffered from the difficult driving and parking conditions caused by the construction.

Gilbert noted that one of the aspects that perpetuated the rumor that the Midway was closed was that no one could drive by the front of the building to see the marquis, which announces the performance schedule.

According to Gilbert, rumors first started flying July 26. Someone called Doug McDuff on WNTA-1330-AM and said on air that the Midway was closed. There was no factual basis for this report, and Gilbert was, to say the least, a little irritated that the conversation lasted so long without any call to her for confirmation.

When asked if WNTA had a taped recording of the conversation, the radio station said it only tapes shows when requested in advance. About the conversation that occurred, McDuff said: “It was a brief discussion and wasn’t the thrust of the conversation at all. It was never a big thing on the station. If I haven’t thought about it since July, it’s not a big deal.”

When asked if he thought Gilbert was making more of a fuss over the situation than necessary, McDuff said, “Oh, God, yes.”

McDuff also said he thought it was odd that no one from the Midway contacted WNTA, although a listener did call the station to say the Midway was not closed.

The financial blow the Midway has suffered since the road construction on State Street this past summer seems irreparable, but MUVPAC is continuing to plug on. Gilbert blames a bit of their monetary woes on the public’s misconception that the theater is no longer in operation.

When asked how she felt about the stereotype that the Midway performances are targeted toward the African-American community only, Gilbert shrugged.

“That image is probably more about the music than anything,” Gilbert said. “People got the impression that since African Americans come here, that it’s exclusive. We’re open to every kind of music and performance…ours is one of the most diverse theaters.”

Gilbert listed the various kinds of performers the Midway has had in the past, including John Mueller (the Buddy Holly impersonator), Bone Thugs-N-Harmony, and Talent Night, which showcases rap performers and rock musicians.

Next week, we’ll delve a little deeper into the history of the Midway and MUVPAC, and the many programs the Midway has to offer. We just had to set the record straight in this issue, and hopefully attendance will increase during the winter to ensure the monetary security of this wonderful theater.

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