JOHNSON CREEK — You can still find a patch of purple shag carpeting, the Art Deco foil wallpaper still graces a downstairs hallway and the rotating bar with purple and pink leather lounge chairs remains.
But one of the state’s most visible and architecturally unique buildings has been transformed and will soon be back in business for the first time in nearly 15 years.
The exterior of what is now called the Gobbler Theater remains largely unchanged. The interior of the Helmut Ajango-designed building completed in 1969 has undergone an extensive renovation, all in an effort to create a 405-seat concert hall for up-and-coming rock, country and Christian music artists.
Those types of acts, including country singer Danielle Bradbery, who won NBC’s “The Voice” in 2013, will begin playing here in late January. But it will be 60 students from the concert band, jazz band and choir at Johnson Creek High School that will christen the stage at 7 p.m. Thursday and bring the storied property out of its long hibernation.
“The buzz around town and in the school is that everyone is really excited about it,” said Dominic Gischia, 23, who is in his first year as band director at the school where concerts are typically held in the school’s gymnasium. “They’re excited about having a legitimate performance space. It’ll be pretty cool. ”
Next year’s concert will likely be in the district’s new high school and middle school that consists of a series of domed buildings scheduled to open next fall on the village’s west side. The $18.9 million facility, like the Gobbler, is likely to be another talker for this community of almost 3,000 people, but it will lack the history, glitz and drama of its counterpart at the eastbound exit of Interstate 94.
Back in the 1970s, the Gobbler Supper Club drew crowds from Madison, Milwaukee, Lake Geneva and Chicago for fine dining and the Roost, an elevated dance floor above the circular, rotating bar that made one revolution an hour. The Gobbler closed in 1992 and several businesses tried making a go of it in the space but ultimately failed.
Dan Manesis, the owner of a West Allis trucking company, purchased the building last year for $635,000 and over the past 18 months has spent nearly $2 million to renovate the former supper club into an intimate concert hall. He offered the space for free to the high school for its holiday concert, but the rotating bar will be closed for the performance.
The crowd for Thursday’s free show at the Gobbler, according to Gischia, will include a few parents who worked as waitresses there years ago and community members eager to hear holiday numbers and get a first glimpse of the revamped digs.
Manesis thought he would be able to remodel the building in six months and be open in late 2014, but its design presented challenges both structurally and philosophically for Manesis and his architects and contractors.
“All of the stuff that we estimated might take a week took a month,” Manesis said. “In the end, what’s so critically important about this is that you have a good facility for people to come and see a performance.”
The improvements added cantilevered, cushioned seats, removed the kitchen to make way for a stage while the Roost was taken out so that those seated in the back of the house would have clear sight lines. Dressing rooms were added to the basement, the entire building has been rewired and new heating and air conditioning and sprinkler systems have been installed.
Leaving the rotating bar in the facility at the cost of more seating was a no-brainer for Manesis.
“That way, the people that came in here in the old days, they would be able to appreciate the fact that it still looks like the Gobbler and young people who don’t know what the Gobbler is can come in and get a state-of-the-art performance,” Manesis said.
Sound is also key as Manesis has spent nearly $300,000 on sound equipment and lights and is getting guidance on that part of the project from Michael Allison, who brings a hefty resume. Allison has spent nearly 30 years as a sound engineer and has traveled the world with some of the biggest names in music including the Rolling Stones, Bon Jovi, Genesis and Eric Clapton.
He believes the design of the Gobbler Theater, with the farthest seat from stage just 55 feet away, will provide an ideal setting for the audience and performers and that the building’s domed ceiling won’t be a sound issue.
“With sound, you work with what you’ve got,” said Allison, who has his own studio and sound engineering school in Lake Mills. “He’s doing it right. It’s going to be a very intimate setting.”
Clarence Hartwig, a local turkey farmer, spent $1 million to build and open the Gobbler along with the Gobbler Hotel up the hill to the east. Both closed in 1992 with Fort Atkinson car dealers Daryl Spoerl and Marvin Havill and Jefferson attorney Ray Krek buying the property in 1996 for $494,000 as an investment.
The motel was demolished in 2001 and the trio put more than $600,000 into the former supper club building. At one time, there were plans for a casino and, in 2003, a strip club that would have been called “A Gobbler-A-Go-Go” had the Johnson Creek Village Board not nixed the plan.
A large billboard in front of the building advertised its sale and a website, buythegobbler.com, helped promote the property but to no avail.
That led to a 2009 auction in an attempt to sell the building, land and furnishings. Some bought dishes and kitchen equipment; others drove away with purple and pink lounge chairs while rock hounds and collectors paid $2 to $4 a pound for petrified wood removed from the building’s once lavish interior.
No bids, however, were submitted for the building or land.
“It had just gone to the dogs,” Manesis said. “What we need to do now is to get it to the next step, and it will take on a life of its own.”
Manesis, 62, grew up in Madison, was a customer at the Gobbler back in the day and rediscovered the building after he went on a shopping trip to the outlet mall here with his now wife. He had looked at converting a few different spaces in the Milwaukee area into music venues but after touring the Gobbler in 2014 made a quick decision to buy the property, located about midway between Madison and Milwaukee.
For now, tickets, depending on the acts, will range from $15 to $40 a seat. Beer and wine will be served, but there will be no food service. The facility is also available for corporate events and conferences and Manesis has plans to renovate a large banquet space in the basement for meetings and catered parties.
Unlike past ventures in the building, Manesis brings deep pockets and patience to the venture and says his primary goal in the short term is to promote and showcase the facility.
“I’m more interested in giving a good show than making money right now,” Manesis said. “I want to get established, I want to make sure people have a good time and that it’s affordable. We’re in a position that we can run this for as long as we need and continue to keep people happy.”
Barry Adams covers regional news for the Wisconsin State Journal. Send him ideas for On Wisconsin at 608-252-6148 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.