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Wednesday, 23 December 2015 14:50

The Jeffris' final act: Historic Janesville theater takes a curtain call

Written by  By Jim Lyke, community columnist

Lykeminded blog, by Jim Lyke

In a book or play, the denouement is described as the final outcome of the story, generally occurring after the climax of the plot.

That definition can be applied to the recent demolition of the old Jeffris Theater in downtown Janesville. Its fate was sealed nearly a decade earlier when much of it was taken down, leaving the facade and not much else. But the march toward its ultimate demise was begun 32 years ago with a devastating fire.

That was followed by carving the building into multiple screens, and eventually abandonment, years of decay and destruction.

By the time of my childhood, the Jeffris already was a faded rose, no longer the "luxurious" showcase described in its 1924 grand opening advertising. I recall shabby, threadbare carpet in the lobby and wear and tear throughout the building. But I also remember the stairs leading to the balcony providing a clue to the theater’s former grandeur.

The Jeffris was cavernous, with 1,500 seats. Unlike today’s screen-on-the-wall cinemas, the Jeffris had a stage and curtains, a reminder of its history of live entertainment. Rather than being an ignored part of its past, the curtains were still drawn and closed at the beginning and end of movies.

As a lover of good motion pictures and ornate old theaters, it was painful to have a front-row seat for the beginning of the end of the Jeffris on March 27, 1983.

For me, that Sunday morning started out much like any other over the previous year and a half. A journalism major at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater, I was working a part-time job at WCLO/WJVL Radio writing and delivering the weekend newscasts. While other college students were sleeping off their Saturday night misadventures, I was making 5 a.m. visits to the law enforcement agencies, checking the blotters for any items worthy enough to write up for the morning newscasts.

Weekends were often slow for local news, which was just fine for a kid trying to learn his craft. But the Janesville Police Department had a scoop for me: The Jeffris was on fire. I remember not being overly impressed with that information at first, maybe because I was still in the process of waking up. One glance down Milwaukee Street, however, shook the cobwebs from my brain; I had a big story to cover.

As a raw rookie and the only one on duty, handling this developing story while doing the newscasts on both stations kept me hopping. Eventually, the narrative took a tragic turn when a body, asphyxiated by the smoke, was found in the adjoining Hotel Monterey.

It was a rarity on a Sunday morning when the telephone in the newsroom rang. But it started ringing off the hook. WTMJ from Milwaukee called, asking me to provide audio for them. Gulp. I still broke into a sweat when the "On Air" light came on in the WCLO studio in little old Janesville. Now I was recording a news story for a Milwaukee station? It took me two takes, and the second was less than perfect, but I wasn’t going to make the poor big city producer sit through another one.

The Associated Press picked up the story, too, sending it over the teletype to radio stations statewide with my name on it.

The Jeffris fire was my first big, on-the-job test. I aced it, but any satisfaction I felt always was tempered by the realization that if a downtown landmark doesn’t burn and a hotel resident doesn’t die, it’s just another Sunday that I filled out a time card.

With the Jeffris’ final exit, all of the local movie screens that existed when I was young have now vanished. It joins the Myers, the Hi-Way 26 Outdoor and the Mid-City Outdoor as cinematic ghosts.

But the loss of the others isn’t as meaningful to me as the Jeffris. As downtown redevelopment begins to take hold in Janesville, I think of that 1983 fire and wonder what if.

Jim Lyke is a writer who lives in Milton. His column appears monthly.

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