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People are talking about the Plaza Theater

With the coronavirus pandemic still preventing full-scale cinema openings, Burlington’s Plaza Theater is planning to deliver movies outdoor style.

Pop-Up Movies, a series of classic and newer movie titles, will begin this Saturday night on a two-story, inflatable movie screen erected across the street from the Milwaukee Avenue theater in the parking lot of Reineman’s True Value Hardware. Audio will be broadcast on an FM radio frequency and through outdoor speakers.

The first movie on the schedule is “Onward,” the 2020 Disney Pixar animated comedic adventure who turn to magic to conjure up their late father who had died when they were too young to remember him. The showing begins at 8:30 p.m. Saturday.

Pop-Up Movies is intended to bridge the period between the loosening of restrictions on society and the full opening of indoor theaters.

“There is a gap,” said Plaza owner Shad Branen regarding the situation facing theaters. “Businesses can re-open but new movie product isn’t available to us.”

“As COVID-19 began to take hold around the globe,” he explained, “movie studios began pushing back spring premier dates for highly-anticipated films like ‘No Time To Die,’ the new James Bond film, and Disney’s live-action remake of ‘Mulan.’ Once Safer-at-Home measures were put in place, the studios reacted further by halting movie productions.

“A lot of titles we are expecting are not available, and in some cases, are not even finished,” Branen said.

Weighing more heavily is social responsibility in this new day and age. Branen said the consensus among Wisconsin theater owners is to delay openings so safety concerns can be adequately met and the public can feel comfortable going to movies again.

Branen’s solution to the industry’s gap time and COVID-19 safety concerns is the Pop-Up series — taking movies outdoors under the nighttime sky.

Admission will be charged per carload only and limited to allow distance between vehicles; therefore, reservations will be taken only through plaza4.com and Plaza Theater’s Facebook page.

The theater building will be open during Pop-Up Movies for concessions and restroom use but masks and social-distancing measures are requested. For families who don’t feel comfortable entering the building, Plaza staff will deliver movie popcorn and other concession orders to vehicles.

Plaza and Geneva theater owner vows to reopen after public health crisis is over

The theater seats may be empty, and there may be no smell of fresh popcorn coming from the lobby, but there still is plenty of action going on inside the Geneva and Plaza theaters.

Co-owner Shad Branen is determined that the Plaza Theater, 448 Milwaukee Ave., in Burlington, and Geneva Theater, 244 Broad St., in Lake Geneva, will survive the current coronavirus shutdown and will re-emerge as cultural centers.

Branen and his staff are using this downtime to complete some cleaning and interior renovation work on the theaters, which offer movies and other special events when they are open.

Damaged seats have been repaired. The lobby floor has been seal-coated. Computer software has been upgraded. And walls inside the building that needed some touching up were painted.

“We will be opening up better and cleaner,” he said. “It’s a good opportunity to do cleaning and improvements throughout the buildings.”

At the Plaza Theater, Branen said they have stripped and epoxy sealed the floors, a process that typically requires 24 hours to dry, something near impossible when the theater is operational. They have also taken the opportunity to work on cleaning projects and update computer software.

The Plaza Theater originally opened in 1928, the same year as five other theaters opened in the Racine area. “All these theaters have a history dating back to the vaudeville era,” Branen said.

The Plaza was later converted to a four-screen theater, closed briefly due to bankruptcy and reopened approximately 20 years ago to its previous owner. Branen has owned the theater for 11 years.

Branen also owns Mercantile Hall, a wedding venue located at 425 N. Pine St., in Burlington.

Obviously, the coronavirus has also impacted that business, but Branen said he is also using this time as an opportunity to go through that building.

Geneva Theater
The Geneva Theater brings people to Downtown Lake Geneva to catch Hollywood’s latest in a classic old-style movie venue.

Also built in 1928, the theater was closed and dormant for many years before Branen acquired the property and reopened it in March 2017 following an estimated $2 million restoration. The city extended a $900,000 loan for the effort, which will be forgiven if Branen owns the theater for at least five years.

The theater is home to the Geneva Theatre Actors Guild, a group that presents live stage productions and contributes the proceeds to area charitable organizations. The Geneva Theatre Actors Guild has announced the cancellation of its spring season of productions, with plans to resume operations in the fall.

Branen is completing similar maintenance at the Geneva Theater. “We’re keeping very busy,” he said.

Branen said he had to throw away concession items such as pizza ingredients, and he is no longer ordering soft drinks or beer. He had planned to order a new movie screen, but the manufacturer is temporarily closed for business. “It’s having a ripple effect,” he said.

Employees affected
Branen said that he has approximately 20 employees total between the two theaters, with a dozen who work at the Plaza, and some employees at work at both facilities.

While the theater offers curbside concessions during limited hours on Friday and Saturday, Branen said the COVID-19 has forced him to furlough “virtually the entire staff.”

Luckily, Branen was recently approved for a paycheck protection program which will allow him to bring back some of his staff.

But he looks forward to resuming normal operations as soon as possible. “It’s all a waiting game,” Branen said. “Everyone is anxious to get back to work.”

Movie studios currently are not releasing any new movies to theaters. “The biggest challenge theaters will face when reopening is what products will be available from the studios,” Branen.

Some studios have released films instead to online streaming services, but Branen said he is not worried about it. “I think there will always be a place for movie theaters,” he said, “because people like to go out.”

Tony Romo (left) and filmmaker Chris Hanna pose for photos at the premier of Hanna’s film “Now or Never: A Tony Romo Story” June 27 at the Plaza Theater in Burlington. (Photo by Sophia Branen)

Romo documentary premiers at local theater

By Jason Arndt


Before Tony Romo donned a Demons football jersey, the former Dallas Cowboy quarterback played soccer, which is one of many insights featured in a documentary that follows his life in Burlington.

The documentary titled “Now or Never: A Tony Romo Story” premiered June 27 at the Plaza Theatre in downtown Burlington, where Romo, his family and friends, along with former high school coaches and teammates watched the 90-minute film.

El Paso, Texas-based producer Chris Hanna, of ZGN Productions, LLC., spearheaded the documentary and spent time in Burlington gathering insight from football coach Steve Tenhagen and basketball coach Steve Berezowitz along with conducting interviews with community members.

As part of the film, Hanna and his production crew spent two summers collecting footage from Romo’s annual youth football camp at Burlington High School’s Don Dalton Stadium.

Romo, who hosted this year’s camp on June 27, said Hanna remained passionate about working on the film and diligently sought to make it accurate.

“They have been here for a few years now, I think they have been working on it for 2 1/2 years,” said Romo. “Anytime anybody does something on you and your family, you feel honored by it.”

“Chris is a passionate guy. He has got a talent,” he said. “He was just dogmatic in his approach and that is what you have to be if you are going to do something, especially if it is going to be any good.”

Hanna, meanwhile, told two El Paso media outlets, one of which was present at the June 27 news conference, the film has gone according to plan.

“I’m not nervous about Tony watching it, just anxious. He’s already seen the movie and he loves it, and he’ll love it even more now that is finished,” Hanna told the El Paso Times.

To read the entire story see the July 4 edition of the Burlington Standard Press.

Plaza Theater owner Shad Branen said a late July burglary of the Burlington theater has hurt his business and he’s reaching out to the community for help in solving the crime.

Plaza Theater owner Shad Branen said a late July burglary of the Burlington theater has hurt his business and he’s reaching out to the community for help in solving the crime.

By Ed Nadolski, Editor in Chief

A late July burglary of the Plaza Theater has left the owner of the downtown Burlington fixture reeling and now he’s appealing to the community for help in solving the crime.

“The magnitude of the loss is a real struggle,” said Shad Branen, who has invested heavily in the four-screen theater to upgrade to the latest technology in the four years he’s owned it. “Insurance will likely cover only a fraction of the losses.”

That’s because the main focus of the thief, or thieves, was stealing cash. According to Branen, a large safe was taken along with the contents of a small safe and several cash drawers during the burglary in the early morning hours of July 27.

While both Branen and police declined to divulge the amount stolen, Branen said it is enough to have an impact on the business and him personally.

“It’s not like we’re under the protective umbrella of a big corporation,” he said. “As any small business owner will attest, it’s challenging enough to run a business in today’s environment.

“We’ve been making upgrades throughout the facility with new projectors, screens and seats,” he added. “Some of our future plans could be put on hold for now.”

While the burglary has taken a toll on the business, Branen said it also tarnishes the goodwill generated by efforts to revive a theater with a history dating to the late 1920s.

“It becomes personal,” he said. “The emotions are all over the board – sad, upset, worried. It deflates you.”

Branen, who cleared his comments with City of Burlington Police prior to speaking with the Standard Press, said he has done his best to cooperate with investigators and has also been in contact with the FBI.

Burlington Police Chief Peter Nimmer said Detective Rodney Thurin has been working extensively on the case and is making headway.

“It’s just going to take some time,” he said. “(But) I think we’re headed in the right direction.”

Nimmer declined to provide further details about the case.

Branen also expressed optimism in the investigation.

“It would be to someone’s advantage to cooperate with authorities now,” he said.

Branen also said anyone providing information about the crime could be eligible for a $1,000 cash reward offered through a tipster program sponsored by the Burlington Area Chamber of Commerce and the police department.

The tipster hotline is (262) 210-0112. Informants remain anonymous.

By Jennifer Eisenbart, Editor

When the world loses an icon, responses roll in.

When the world loses an icon like Robin Williams – in particular, to the horror of suicide – people stand up and make statements.

Such was the situation Aug. 28 at Plaza Theater in Burlington. What started as a movie buffs discussing their favorite Williams’ film turned into a Robin Williams’ Night at the theater.

The Plaza chose to show “Dead Poets Society” – not the winner of favorite film in the Facebook poll, but a film that employees at the Plaza felt would be most appropriate for the evening.

The film deals with the troubles of teenage boys while at an all-male boarding school in the 1950s, and also with teen suicide.

In addition to the choice of film, though, the Plaza Theater staff invited several organizations – including Burlington High School’s S.O.S. program and iCare out of Waterford – to make sure resources were available about suicide and other mental health issues.

The free showing of the film drew a full house in the Plaza’s main theater, which seats…

But as much as the Oscar-nominated film drew an appreciative audience, the opportunity to use the evening as a teaching point was just as important.

In addition to the groups invited to offer information before the more, Dr. Mervin Langley of Clinical Psychology Associates in Burlington. He said for those suffering from depression, there is often a feeling of failure, especially with the stigmas of depression.

He identified three major identifiers in depression – mood, a lack of energy and not thinking clearly. In teens especially, though, depression shows as irritability, Langley said.

He also stressed that treatment is effective, combining more than 50 different kinds of medication with cognitive behavioral therapy.

One important key, though, was the importance of talking about suicide.

“Don’t keep the secret,” he said.

Cindi Schweitzer, who owns Integrity Funeral Services in Waterford, has another job with iCare – a group that provides support both financially and figuratively for those working through their teenage years.

“People need to be educated about those types of things,” Schweitzer said about suicide and other mental health issues.

Schweitzer got involved when she started seeing teen suicides begin to rise.

“We started seeing some deaths,” she said. “It was either teens or young adults. Really, just seeing the families and how devastated they were.”

Schweitzer said families needed more resources, which is how iCare came about, whose motto is “saving and improving lives.”

It isn’t just suicide. The group also helps family with other mental health issues. The group provides education awareness and funding back to the community for working on relationships between family members.

There were others involved as well. Burlington High School guidance counselor Ken France was there with his wife, Julie Taylor, and the BHS SOS program – a preventive program against suicide.

France got an email from the Plaza shortly after Williams’ death. He admitted to being affected by that – and seeing others affected.

“It triggered a lot of emotion in a lot of people,” said France. “Stuff we, as counselors, deal with all the time.”

France came with Taylor – a Burlington Area School District social worker – with the intent of providing any and all help teenagers could need.

France said all freshmen area screened at the high school.

He will miss Williams, though, and thought the choice of film appropriate.

“It really did touch a lot of people,” France said.

Move to new technology helps owner avoid extinction

By Ed Nadolski, Editor in Chief

Plaza Theater owner Shad Branen says he plans to hang onto at least one of the 35-millimeter film projectors that have been a staple at the Burlington theater since it opened in 1927. Facing a “convert-or-die” ultimatum from movie studios, Branen recently converted the theater’s four screens to digital projection. (Photo by Ed Nadolski)

When Shad Branen talks about the long history of the Plaza Theater – and the fact that it has essentially used the same technology of film projected on a screen since it opened in 1927 – he gets a little bit nostalgic.

But as a businessman and theater owner, Branen is also forced to have a practical side.

And when his practical side told him it’s time to change or go the way of the dinosaurs, Branen listened.

The 9 p.m., March 22, showing of “Oz the Great and Powerful” was the last at the theater projected in the 35-millimeter film format.

Since then all of the shows on the Plaza’s four screens have been projected in clear, crisp 4K digital format.

But this story is about much more than a small-city theater making a quantum leap in technology – it’s about the very survival of independent theaters and the perpetuation of a local pastime that dates to the time when horses and buggies were tied to posts outside the theater on what was then known as Geneva Street.

Convert or die

From a practical standpoint the Plaza Theater – and some 2,000 other independent theaters across the nation – are facing a “convert or die” ultimatum from the motion picture industry.

Branen said most of the major studios have already informed theater owners that they will stop distributing movies on film by the end of the year. That means the theaters that don’t convert will have to compete for a dwindling number of films from dwindling number of studios – until there’s no film at all.

According to officials with the National Association of Theater Owners (NATO), the full conversion to digital will save studios about $1 billion a year in the cost to make and distribute movies.

For the studios, the decision is a no-brainer – the digital movies are cheaper to produce and provide a higher-quality experience for the theater patrons. And with roughly two-thirds of the nation’s 5,700 for-profit theaters (representing 39,888 screens, according to NATO) already converted to digital, the time is right for the studios to force the hands of the remaining theater owners.

The challenge, however, comes in the fact that most of the theaters that haven’t made the conversion are small independents – many lacking sufficient financial resources to make the leap to digital.

For Branen, the decision to go digital hinged on a chance meeting with a Sony representative and a relatively attractive financing plan.

“It’s kind of bittersweet that film is going away,” Branen said. “But once you see the (digital) picture the bittersweet goes away.”

On the cutting edge

The 4K digital technology offered by Sony and installed at the Plaza is touted as having four times better resolution than the 2K digital format currently in use at most theaters, according to a company press release.

That puts the Plaza on the cutting edge of projection technology and, for the time being, gives it the distinction as the only theater in the state with Sony’s 4K format, according to Branen.

In addition, the system comes with Dolby 7.1 sound capability and the ability to employ a dual-lens projection system that will accommodate 3D movies.

“The picture quality is phenomenal,” Branen said. “This (system) gives us even more potential in the future.”

He is in the process of replacing the four screens in the theater, which should further improve the images and allow the Plaza to take full advantage of all the features of the digital projection system.

Branen said the new screens should be in place in a matter weeks, most likely sometime in May.

With a price tag topping $250,000, the Plaza’s conversion to digital was not made lightly or easily, Branen said.

Like the 1980s battle between VHS and Beta videotape formats, Branen wanted to be sure he selected a digital format that would be in use for a long time.

While he’d been considering various options for more than a year, it was a chance meeting at a NATO conference about six months ago that led Branen to the Sony 4K system.

“It was everything we wanted,” he said. “And it was just by chance I sat next to (the Sony representative).”

Financing is key

The system comes with a financing package – Virtual Print Fees, or VPF – that offers points that can be reinvested into the cost of the conversion. Branen said it is similar to a lease-to-own program.

That package, along with Branen’s own investment and financing made the project viable.

“To do this completely on our own is cost prohibitive,” he said.

The technology itself is so new that Sony is still working out some of the bugs of the system with the Plaza as one of its testing grounds.

Now rather than receiving weekly shipments of labor-intensive 35-millimeter film reels, the Plaza receives digital hard drives that can be loaded directly into one of the four projectors or a central server. In the future, the theater should be able to forgo shipments entirely and download the new releases by satellite to the Plaza’s server.

And instead of having an employee hover over a projector to start each movie, the digital projectors can be started with a remote button in the concessions stand or even from a smart phone app, Branen said.

Also gone are the days when film breaks occasionally led to delays and dissatisfied customers in the middle of movies.

Eye on the future

While he’s excited about the advances digital projection brings to his theater, Branen does feel a bit conflicted about abandoning the film format so suddenly and permanently.

He plans to keep at least one of his film projectors around for tours and educational purposes as a tribute to the history of the theater.

But that doesn’t mean Branen is stuck in the past. Since purchasing the theater several years ago he has made several changes intended to improve the movie-going experience for customers.

Last summer he installed new, wider seating with cup and tray holders. A year before that he introduced food, beer and wine service.

All of the changes are designed to help the Plaza remain competitive in a market dominated by corporate theater ownership.

Of all the changes, however, the conversion to digital allows the Plaza to remain relevant as a first-run movie theater.

“It was crucial to the survival of the Plaza,” Branen said. “It secures our future.”

The Plaza Theater of Burlington will host a special showing of the popular family movie “Dolphin Tale” with proceeds going to a fund set up to benefit the family of a local newspaper reporter critically injured in a bicycling accident.

All tickets for the 7 p.m. show on Thursday, Oct. 13, will be $10 with profits going to “The Friends of Mark Dudzik Benefit.”

Dudzik was critically injured when he was hit by a pickup truck Sept. 17 while participating in an organized bike ride in Sheboygan County.

Dudzik remained in intensive care at Theda Clark Medical Center in Neenah as of Monday and faces the prospect of a long recovery and rehabilitation.

At the time of the accident, Dudzik was the major breadwinner for his family, which includes his wife and two children, ages 10 and 7.

Proceeds from the benefit showing will be used to pay the cost of continuing his medical insurance.

Dudzik is employed by Southern Lakes Newspapers, which publishes the Standard Press where he worked as a reporter for nine years as well as the Waterford Post and Westine Report where Dudzik has served as editor the past two years.

“Dolphin Tale” is inspired by the true story of a dolphin and the compassionate strangers who band together to save its life. The cast includes Harry Connick, Jr., Ashley Judd and Morgan Freeman.

Those who are unable to attend the movie but would like to help may send donations payable to: Friends of Mark Dudzik Benefit, North Shore Bank, 116 S. Pine St., Burlington, WI 53105.

Effie Trinket (played by Elizabeth Banks, left) and Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) in “The Hunger Games.” Burlington’s Plaza Theater will host a midnight showing of the film based on the popular book Thursday night..

Fill up with exciting opening weekend “Hunger Games” activities, being held at the Plaza Theater in Burlington thanks to the special events savvy of Marie Frederick, who operated the Wildlife Refuge Tavern in Kansasville for 15 years.

She is now coordinating special movie events at the Plaza and will be on hand Thursday, March 22, to welcome the Plaza crowd to the midnight “Hunger Games” premier dressed as the movie’s villainess, Effie Trinket.

Joining her will be the Plaza’s Katniss Everdeen, heroine of the Hunger Games, who will open the box office at 11:30 p.m. Thursday.

As part of the evening’s activities:

• All children ages 12-18 entering the theater will put their name in the glass ball for The Reaping.

• Everyone is welcome to enter the costume contest dressed as a favorite character from the story and compete for prizes.

• Villainess Effie Trinket from The Capitol will explain the Nation of Panem (pronounced pa-NEM) and Hunger Games from 11:30 p.m. to 11:45 p.m. with the aid of a huge map on the big screen.

• The Reaping will commence at 11:45 p.m., when Effie draws tributes’ names from the glass bowl. Those in the best costumes and the chosen tributes will try to eliminate each other by correctly answering questions in the Tributes Trivia Game.

• Each person who brings a non-perishable food item can enter their name in a drawing for prizes at the end of the Plaza’s Hunger Games run. All food will be donated to Love, Inc, Burlington’s non-profit organization dedicated to helping families and individuals live better, more productive lives.

• Everyone is welcome to have a picture taken with Katniss and Peetaa.
Other free activities will be offered during all show times, including an arena photo station with life-size cutouts of Katniss and Peeta and a Hall of Districts, where moviegoers can learn about the Nation of Panem.

At the concession stand, special homemade Capitol Cupcakes will be offered to starving district residents in flavors they’ve only heard about: Orangesicle, Girl on Fire Rootbeer Float and Gale’s Reverse Peanut Butter Chocolate.

Hunger Games dinner specials will be offered Friday and Saturday nights during the 4 p.m. and 6:50 p.m. shows.

Tickets for Plaza’s midnight Hunger Games premier are $10 each; advance tickets are on sale now.

The theater is located at 448 Milwaukee Ave., Burlington. For all showtimes and more information, visit online at Facebook and plaza4.com.


A quick Hunger Games primer 

Whereas George Orwell’s “1984” is the granddaddy of all Big Brother
totalitarian tales, “Hunger Games” is the newest dystopian adventure.

It is set in a post-apocalyptic North America where war and natural
catastrophe have resulted in a smaller country (California and Florida have likely disappeared into the oceans).

The new Nation of Panem is ruled by The Capitol and each year it forces a boy and girl from each of the 12 districts to fight in the Hunger Games.

The winner is the one who stays alive.

Hunger Games is the first book in a trilogy written by Suzanne Colllins
(“Catching Fire” and “Mockingjay” are the second and third, respectively).

It is on pace to be the next world-wide book-to-movie craze, following on the heels of the Harry Potter and Twilight Series.