Riverwalk Theatre: A Gem in Downtown Lansing

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Take a drive down Museum Drive in Lansing and you will find some interesting buildings.

Among them are the R.E. Olds Transportation Museum, Impression 5 Science Center and the Michigan Museum of Surveyors, clustered around a parking lot. Tucked away at the far end of the lot you will find one of Lansing’s hidden gems: Riverwalk Theatre.

The troupe of actors, directors and production crews have been entertaining people from Lansing and the surrounding area for 62 years. Riverwalk Theatre is in its 31st year of operation at its current location in Lansing. The organization has a rich history and a bright future, according to Riverwalk Board President Jeff Magnuson.

“Riverwalk Theatre has been a part of my life for over 30 years. The organization and the people involved have changed my life for the better,” Magnuson said. “We are incredibly lucky to have had inspiring and effective volunteer leaders over the decades – Bee and Karl Vary, Carol and Tom Ferris, Lee and Bill Helder, Bob Mellor, Roger Rochowiak, Marilyn Steegstra, Leonore Reizen, Ken Beachler, Linda and Bob Gras, Marge and Jack Hetherington, Sandy Norton – I could go on and on. All of them believed in the power of theater and the arts.

“All of them have given generously of their time, skill, effort and money, and left us with a theater building that we own with no debt,” he added. “This is the foundation that allows us to select and produce a variety of shows with local talent that will delight and entertain local audiences for the next 50 years and beyond.”

Act 1: Community Circle Players

The first iteration of what would become Riverwalk Theatre began when Hawaii and Alaska were still territories and Ike was in the White House.

In 1958 a group of theater lovers organized the Community Circle Players. The troupe staged productions in a revamped warehouse on Sheridan Street (now Oakland Avenue), according to Riverwalk Theatre’s website.

Having established itself as a nonprofit, the group moved its base to Okemos in 1964, which would be its home for the next 22 years. The Okemos Barn required significant renovations before any productions could be staged, and fundraising efforts and support from the community made the overhaul possible.

The troupe had to find a new home in 1986 when its lease on the barn was not renewed and the theater was torn down for new development.

Act 2: Riverwalk Theatre

The organization, renamed Riverwalk Theatre, once again had to renovate a warehouse into a venue for producing plays and musicals. With community and business support, the group raised $500,000 for the renovations.

Riverwalk Theatre’s first production in its new home on Oct. 22, 1989 was “Dames at Sea,” a “girl leaves the Midwest and finds stardom in New York City” musical.

Since converting that warehouse, Riverwalk has staged 321 plays as of June 2019, ranging from “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” (1992) and “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” (1999) to “Once Upon A Mattress” (2004) and “A Raisin in the Sun” (2008). By the end of 2019, Riverwalk had produced 19 plays and musicals during the year.

Act 3: Expansion

Between 2002 and 2008, the theater along the Grand River was expanded. Up to this point the troupe had been using Creole Gallery in Old Town for its sometimes avant-garde black box performances. The $335,000 expansion at Riverwalk Theatre created a black box theater in the same building as the main stage, among other improvements.

In 2013 the organization’s Shout it to the Rooftop campaign raised $150,000 to replace its roof. Also included in the renovations were a new furnace and an updated electrical system.

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