In many ways, the Main Street area in downtown Edwardsville, Illinois, is the charming, real-life version of what films and television shows try so hard to depict — tree-lined, pedestrian-friendly city blocks filled with historic homes, cozy cafes, the neighborhood brewery, civic buildings and an arts center where you’re just as apt to discover something created by a friend as you are a household name. Here in this St. Louis suburb, it’s fairly easy to run into your neighbor as you renew your driver’s license or see your child’s elementary school teacher while picking up a pizza
Before going dark in the 1980s for nearly three decades, the Wildey Theatre had been a key draw to that downtown strip. And now after an extensive restoration, the three-story, art-deco building with the majestic marquee is back at it, hosting everything from classic rock bands to local plays to long-lost films, all the while contributing to the reemergence of Edwardsville as an economic and cultural stimulant for the St. Louis region.
As a veteran of the local and national entertainment circuits, Wildey operation manager and talent buyer Al Canal knows that he runs a gem of a venue. With 325 seats in the theatre, every performance is intimate, every note crystal clear. “There is no venue like this in St. Louis, and there are actually not a lot like it in the Midwest,” Canal says.
Canal — who greets teammates and visitors daily with a neverending assortment of colorful hats, sharp vintage clothing and comedic zingers — recognizes the Wildey’s place in history and asserts that it’s one of the reasons the theatre has become the town gathering spot once again. Built in 1909 as an opera house, the building also served as a meeting place for the International Organization of Odd Fellows, a fraternal organization. Musicals and vaudeville shows were regular tickets for the 1,150-seat auditorium at the outset, with films and community events to follow in later years. When the Wildey announced its closure in 1984, thanks to competition from the new technology of the decade, more than 400 people showed up to watch “The Big Chill.”
“Single screen movie theaters were beginning to shut down because multiplexes, VCRs and cable TV came out. People wanted more choices,” Canal says. “[After the theatre closed] it was in total disrepair. The roof leaked and all this stuff. It got to a point where the city decided that it would need to tear down the building.”
But instead of demolishing the structure, the city of Edwardsville ultimately recognized the Wildey’s importance to local culture and, with the approval of residents, secured funds to purchase and preserve what was left of the theatre in 1999. After salvaging decades-old ornamental lamps, adding a new roof, restoring the marquee and overhauling all of the theatre’s systems, the city government reopened the Wildey in 2011 to great fanfare.
“Luckily, what really saved this building is the people. Edwardsville is a multi-generation community, and some families can be traced back almost to the beginning,” Canal says. “A lot of the people in the 1970s and 1980s were coming in here as teenagers; they’re now in their 30s, 40s and 50s, and they have great memories. So the community pulled together with the city and decided to make the commitment to rebuild the place.”
Though Canal lives in Creve Coeur, he became an integral part of the Edwardsville community when he began managing the Wildey in 2014. But thanks to decades in the business, the man comes with his own pedigree in entertainment. After testing his stand-up comedy chops at tiny clubs in the 1970s and 1980s, he moved into management, ultimately running his own booking agency and becoming an in-demand “fixer” who streamlined operations and found new lucrative revenue streams for venues around the country.
But after seeing a performance by progressive rock band Pavlov’s Dog at the Wildey, he knew what his next adventure needed to be.
“I was in between projects. I just got done doing a five year run, living in Denver for about a year and doing a club there, and then in Ohio, in New York,” Canal says. “They [Pavlov’s Dog] asked me to come see the show [at the Wildey], and I walked in and felt this was such a beautiful place. Then they tell me, ‘I heard they’re looking for a new manager.’”
Canal has been running the Wildey ever since, bringing the theatre back into the essential fabric of Edwardsville and the St. Louis region. He and his team immediately began implementing community-minded programming like showing films for $2 every Tuesday at 7 p.m., opening an event space and serving as a gathering spot during town parades.
“That’s one thing I do believe in, in business, if you want the community to support you, you got to support the community,” Canal says.
But in addition to the civic initiatives, the Wildey is increasingly known nationwide as one of the best venues in which to perform. In addition to full-scale tribute bands, Pat Boone, the Boxmasters, 10,000 Maniacs and more clamor to play the house, and James Walsh’s progressive jam band Gypsy came out of retirement to perform at the Wildey as a Special Olympics fundraiser.
Music aficionados certainly have noticed.
“We have had people who have traveled from Texas, Minnesota, New York, California specifically come to shows here, which is great for the city because they stay in hotels and they eat in the restaurants,” says Canal, who frequently introduces Wildey acts with a bit of stage humor. “The restaurants and bars would tell you point blank that on days we have shows, business picks up dramatically. At the Stagger Inn, I would walk in there and see 20 or more people who were at the show, who went down there afterwards.”
And although Canal is pleased with the Wildey’s reputation within the region and among entertainment connections, he’s always looking to improve further.
“For the most part, people are really happy with the way things are now, but we only have achieved about 40% of what is possible to achieve here. I know there is so much more,” Canal says. “With the right support, the place could be even better and better, and that’s what I hope to see here.”
“In my opinion, if you’re not growing, you’re declining.”