Milwaukee’s historic theaters and the future of movie-going

By - Jan 31st, 2011 04:00 am
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The Oriental Theatre. Photo by Matthew Dwyer.

How glorious it must have been to have reveled in the halcyon days of the moving picture show. Beyond the ornate doors, lavish lobbies and luxurious auditoriums, the theater was where people went when they wanted the beauty of a world largely unknown to unfold in front of them. For a minor contribution of pocket change, any man, woman or child could witness the glories set before them by Hollywood, the keyholder to a world beyond imagination.

With 90 independent theaters, pre-World War II Milwaukee didn’t lack for venues. The Elite, The Regent, The Lincoln, The Warner, Tivoli, The Paris and The Roosevelt were just a few examples, thriving even as the country’s fortunes rose and fell, as we made our case for peace and marched steadily into war.

But in the mid 1940s, the bottom fell out. A federal anti-trust suit forced Hollywood production companies like Paramount and MGM to sell their theaters, resulting in discouragingly higher prices at the box office. But even more dramatically, the middle of the twentieth century marked the development and subsequent mass distribution of that magical little box, the television set. Its widespread availability raised an interesting question: Why leave the house when all the world’s delights are available right in your living room?


The Tosa Cinema, originally built in 1931, now home to the Rosebud Cinema. From the Larry Widen Collection.

Seemingly overnight the great movie houses fell, one by one, leaving empty marquees and faded photographs (or sometimes nothing at all) to commemorate their existence. But in recent years, efforts have been made to breathe new life into the shells left behind when the lights went out. Historic Milwaukee, Inc., an organization devoted to bringing awareness to the rich architectural history of the city, set out to shine a light on these efforts last week in the first of four panel discussions in 2011 on the past and future of some of Milwaukee’s landmark structures. Wednesday’s panel included Times Cinema co-owner Larry Widen; Times former owner and current Oriental Theater manager Eric Levin; Pabst and Riverside Theaters Executive Director Gary Witt; and Avalon Theatre property owner Lee Barczak.

Appropriately, the discussion took place at The Times Cinema on Vliet Street, built in 1935. It’s still standing — and operating at a pretty steady clip.

Larry Widen, who also co-owns the Rosebud Cinema, seems ambivalent about his position in the business. Though he got into owning his own movie house later in life because he wanted to escape the toils of the nine to five, he makes it clear that his profit margin isn’t anything to write home about.

The most straightforward reason is ever-expanding overhead, and the tumultuous economy is causing his prices to increase even more quickly than usual. Popcorn, for example, costs more than it did before the rise of biofuels, so Widen has to charge more. Electricity costs more, too, so the theaters can’t be open as often as he would like. The distribution model favors multiplexes: By the time Widen’s little art house even has a shot at a new release, there is a chance that the majority of the viewing public has already seen it.

Lee Barczak, admittedly five years into a frustrating effort to rehab Bay View’s Avalon Theatre, believes the key to success lies in creating an experience and making it count for something. “You have to make people want to experience the movie outside of just sitting there, slack-jawed” stated Barczak. “There is a sense of grandeur missing from the mainstream movie theater.”

The Pabst Theater. Photo by Vincent Desjardins via Flickr.

The Landmark Oriental remains one of the city’s more popular theaters, its decor modeled in an era that took pride in aesthetics. But much of what made classic movie houses great seems mostly unappreciated today. Eric Levin laments what he calls the “illiteracy of film,” a lack of appreciation for and knowledge of the history of the product.

The only panelist not completely convinced of the decline of the form doesn’t own or operate a movie theater. However, he does carry the keys to three of the top independent concert venues in the city. Gary Witt is the Executive Director of The Riverside and Pabst Theaters, and his team operates Turner Hall Ballroom. Witt says that his goal is to build a community of concert-goers that seek out dynamic entertainment that also pays homage to the architecture in which it is presented. By combining old and new, classic and modern, there is a sense of respect for history that is firmly rooted in moving forward.

Witt also made the bold assertion that, in the realm of independent theater ownership, there is no room for competition. “We can’t afford to be butting heads. Not in this time. Not ever.” He said that there must be a sense of hometown pride if any efforts towards restoration are to be successful. “Milwaukee needs to stop trying to be Chicago. We aren’t Chicago and that’s okay. We don’t need to be.”  In terms of geographic dominion, Witt said his main priority is bridging the gap between Madison and Milwaukee.

Bridging the gap seemed to be the major theme of the evening for Historic Milwaukee, their mission to spark a sense of wonder in a world that isn’t lacking in access to wonder, or at least a reasonable facsimile of it. What’s missing, perhaps, is the tangible connection to the world we admire, the one always readily at our fingertips. What’s to be learned from those making the case for building this connection through connecting us to our buildings? As with all aspects of history, only time will tell.

0 thoughts on “Milwaukee’s historic theaters and the future of movie-going”

  1. Anonymous says:

    never been to The Oriental. does it have just one theater? how many seats?

  2. Anonymous says:

    Jeff — the Oriental was one giant screen theater but was converted into three screens in 1988 but managed to retain the main room’s size and scope. During the Milwaukee Film Festival (coming up in a few weeks), the balcony even opens up to overflow.
    See more here:

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