JOHNSON CREEK — The young performers who take the stage at the Gobbler Theater’s premiere tonight only have known the iconic building as a vacant shell.
But the parents and grandparents sitting in the cushy new theater seats probably will remember the building in its heyday — the rotating bar, psychedelic wallpaper, purple shag-carpeted walls, gloriously outre pink-and-purple accents, and unusual curves and angles of the entire space.
That’s the atmosphere Dan Manesis recalled when he spotted the vacant Gobbler building a couple of years ago while on an outing to the Johnson Creek Outlet Center.
“Hey, isn’t that the Gobbler?” he asked, as he pulled in closer, spotting a sign on the chained-off property that read, “buythegobbler.com.”
And suddenly Manesis’ imagination took flight. He envisioned the Gobbler up and running again, not as a restaurant, but as a site for live music.
The next day, Manesis got in touch with the owners of the property, and two years later, that vision has come to pass. The building has been transformed, with all-new theater seats, carpeting, top-of-the-line sound equipment and more.
However, enough of the classic supper club remains to be recognizable — the rotating bar surrounded by the pink-and-purple leather seats, the entryway, the eye-popping wallpaper and tile lining the hallway on the lower level, and, of course, the unique circular shape of the building.
The Gobbler Theater will open to the public at 7 tonight for a free concert by the Johnson Creek High School band, jazz band and choir.
Manesis offered the use of the building for free to the high school’s music department. The School District of Johnson Creek currently is building a new five-dome middle and high school on the edge of town, complete with a cafetorium. However, that building is far from finished and in the meantime, most big school events, including concerts, still are taking place in the old school gym.
“I said, ‘why not come here?’” Manesis recalled. “It builds goodwill in the community. People at the school are excited about performing in a real venue, and it will bring a lot of people in that might not otherwise see the theater. I told them they’re welcome to use the place whenever they need it, at least until their new school is up and running.”
Manesis said he has heard from a lot of parents and community members who served as busboys or waitresses back when the Gobbler Supper Club was a regional draw.
That’s how he got to know the building, back in the day.
Designed by renowned Fort Atkinson architect Helmut Ajango, the building first opened in 1969 and drew diners from all around Southern Wisconsin and beyond.
The first owner, Clarence Hartwig, was a turkey farmer, and he had the building designed to resemble a turkey — thus, the unusual name. He owned not only the Gobbler Supper Club, but also the Gobbler Hotel located just up the hill. The hotel was demolished in 2001.
Having grown up in Madison, Manesis was a teenager when he started coming there on big dates.
“A steak cost $17 in 1969,” he said. “At the time, I made $1.50 an hour, so that was a big investment, but it really made a big impression.”
The diners, too, seemed pretty cosmopolitan, the men wearing three-piece suits and the ladies “dressed to the nines,” Manesis said.
“The waitresses had little outfits that looked almost like Playboy bunnies, except that instead of a bunny tail, they had feathers,” he recalled.
“You know, Willie Nelson played here in 1969 for $60,” he said.
Later, the supper club added an elevated dance floor above the rotating bar, which Manesis has removed to provide clear sight lines to the new stage, located in the former kitchen area.
The Gobbler enjoyed great popularity during the 1970s, changed owners in the 1980s and closed in 1992. A succession of short-lived businesses, including a steak house and a rib house, followed the supper club, but failed to make a go of it.
There even was a proposal for a casino, and one for a strip club that would have been named “Gobbler-a-Go-Go.” Both of those ideas failed to gain approval from village and county decisionmakers.
Meanwhile, Manesis moved from Madison to Chicago, then New York, working in retail. He bought a hardware store in the Milwaukee area in 1975 and later built a trucking company from scratch. He has been at it for 35 years now and said has had enough success to be able to try a venture like this “just for fun.”
Manesis had tossed around the idea of remodeling an old movie theater as a live music venue, but never found a space that seemed quite right — until he looked at the Gobbler.
It didn’t take long for him to reach a deal with the previous owners, Marv Havill and Daryl Spoerl.
He purchased the building for $635,000 and since has invested about $2 million on its renovation.
He said the Village of Johnson Creek and his financier, PremierBank, were extremely helpful in getting the project complete.
“My main goal is to provide a venue for family-friendly music — country, rock-and-roll and Christian music; no rap or headbanger stuff,” he said. “It’s not about creating revenue right now, but about making the Gobbler a going concern again, to have fun and to provide a good value to the community,” Manesis said.
After purchasing the building, Manesis hired an architect to redesign the central area of the old restaurant into a theater, with all of the seats angled just right to provide the best view for all audience members.
Then began the extensive demolition and remodeling.
“We had to do all new electrical, heating, ventilation, air conditioning, carpeting and sprinkler system,” he said.
“I tried to balance all of the new with retaining the flavor of the old building,” Manesis said. “It still has all the purples and pinks and the weird angles — nothing is really symmetrical in the whole place. Even the bar is not really in the center of the room —it’s slightly off to one side.”
The theater has a seating capacity of 405.
The old kitchen was demolished to make a new stage area.
Manesis wanted to keep the Gobbler’s signature bar that revolves once per hour, even at the cost of additional theater seating, because of the nostalgia value. However, the elevated dance floor had to go in order for everyone to be able to see the stage.
“The dance floor weighed 70,000 pounds, and it hung by wires from the ceiling,” Manesis said. “We had to be very careful taking it down.”
The revolving bar remains in the center of the theater seating and will be open for later concerts, but not at Thursday’s premiere featuring the local high school music department.
The unique pink-and-purple leather bar stools also stay in place, while the old-fashioned lightbulbs under the bar have been replaced with new LED lights that change colors.
In the building’s southside entryway, Manesis took out old booths and installed lighted glass floor panels that represent the turkey’s “eyes.”
The old courtesy counter remains, however, and has become the “ticket office.”
The lower level of the building was pretty dilapidated in terms of aesthetics, but the entire structure was still strong and sound.
“It’s built like a bomb shelter down here, all reinforced concrete and steel beams,” Manesis said.
The new owner has kept a few touches of the old Gobbler in the basement area, like the psychedelic pink-and-silver wallpaper and tiles that line the hallway, and a spot of the old purple shag-carpeted wall around an old shell-framed phone booth. He’s still looking for a nonfunctional pay phone to place inside the frame to complete the look.
But large areas of the basement have been transformed into dressing rooms and lounges for the featured artists and their bands, with mini livingrooms, kitchens, showers and bathrooms.
“The tour buses will pull up to the back, and they’ll have their own space,” Manesis said.
A Pepto Bismol-pink door, thick as a vault, leads to a newly renovated cooler area.
Manesis still has plans to renovate a larger space in the basement area for use for receptions and other events, but right now it’s just serving as a storage area. He also retained the old elevator/dumbwaiter shaft and said he’s considering renewing it if there are enough requests from the performing artists.
Having completed the main construction, Manesis installed nearly $300,000 of sound equipment and lights, advised by Michael Allison, a sound engineer with a solid resume of working with stars such as Bon Jovi, the Rolling Stones, Genesis and Eric Clapton.
As work on the new Gobbler Theater progressed, Manesis employed K-Nation to help book musical acts. No dates have been firmed up yet, but Manesis said he expects to start hosting national acts in January, with around one major show a month.
In between big shows, the facility would be available for rental for seminars and other events.
One of the performers Manesis is working with to set a show here is Danielle Bradbery, who won NBC’s “The Voice” in 2013.
Tickets for the major acts will cost between $15 and $40 per seat. Beer and wine will be available, but there will be no food service on site.
“It has been an educational experience,” Manesis said of the process of restoring and opening the Gobbler Theater.
“The most fun part has been seeing the transformation,” he added. “I am excited to be able to share this with the community and to offer a state-of-the-art performance space while making it accessible to everyone.”