Theatre took its shape through 'Grand Action'

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The Grand Rapids Civic Theatre & School of Theatre Arts dates back to 1925, and stands as one of the oldest and largest community theatres in the country. Renovation of the building was completed in September 2006 with the centerpiece renamed the “Meijer Majestic Theatre.”

Photos by Laszlo Regos

By Tom Kirvan
Legal News

A gifted storyteller, attorney Jon March enjoys telling a tale about his dear friend Frederic Meijer, the late grocery store magnate and billionaire philanthropist whose love for the greater Grand Rapids community has touched the lives of countless residents over the past 60 years.

Meijer, who helped pioneer the “one-stop shopping” concept with his father in the early 1960s when they opened the first Meijer Thrifty Acres store, had long been retired from active management when in 2004 he and his wife Lena had plans to attend a production of the Grand Rapids Civic Theatre as part of their season ticket package. For whatever reason, those plans had to be shifted, forcing Meijer to swap tickets for another night of the theatrical performance.

Despite his status as a local business legend and generous benefactor of all things Grand Rapids, including the Civic Theatre, Meijer was not accorded (nor did he demand) preferential treatment when he made the last-minute ticket exchange for another nightly performance of the show.

So, instead of their customary seats in the center orchestra level, the Meijers saw the show from a decidedly different vantage point, according to March.

“Their seats were in the balcony of the Civic Theatre, which at the time could only be accessed by a set of stairs,” March explained. “After he made the trek up those stairs, took his seat and began to look around, he began to wonder what would happen if a fire broke out during a production and everyone seated up there had to scramble to safety. While the Theatre met all the applicable fire codes, it nevertheless was a legitimate concern.”

As was the fact that there was just one restroom on the balcony level, forcing women to walk back down the set of stairs to the main level for their lavatory, according to March.

In short, the theater was crying for a long-needed upgrade.

“The need was made even more apparent that night when bed pans were passed around the audience to collect donations for renovating the restrooms,” March recalled. “That, in its own right, could have really ticked off some people and he could have easily said, ‘I’m done with this place,’ and gone elsewhere to enjoy theatrical productions. But not Fred. Instead, he rolled up his sleeves and went to work to make things better for the Civic Theatre and its patrons. He said, in a sense, ‘We can do better than this.’”

Meijer’s first move was to engage Grand Action, a not-for-profit organization dedicated to identifying downtown building and renovation projects, “to galvanize public opinion and support for these projects, and to design and implement funding strategies for each project,” according to its website.

With Meijer’s encouragement, Grand Action lived up to its name when it came time to fund renovation work for the Civic Theatre, attracting financial support from virtually all of the heavy-hitters in the Grand Rapids community.

Leading the way, not surprisingly, were Fred and Lena Meijer, the couple whose displacement from their normal seats one evening gave them an altogether different perspective on the need for a new theatrical look.

“By the time he was done, Fred – working with the Grand Action organization – helped raise $10 million for the renovation of the Civic Theatre,” March said. “It’s now one of the finest community theatre venues in the country, thanks in large part to him.”



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