Eyes on Milwaukee: Return of The Avalon Theater » Urban Milwaukee
Jeramey Jannene
Eyes on Milwaukee

Return of The Avalon Theater

Everything you need to know, including behind-the-scenes photos, about Bay View's historic movie theater and its $2.5 million renovation.

By - Nov 5th, 2014 11:04 am
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It’s been a long time coming, but Bay View is about to get its only movie theater back and all indications are it’s been worth the wait. Lee Barczak, owner of the Neighborhood Theater Group, has been leading the diligent renovation of the iconic Avalon Theater at 2473 S. Kinnickinnic Ave. By the end of the year one of Milwaukee’s few remaining movie palaces will be back in business.

While new theaters, or cineplexes as they’re often called, are as cookie cutter as big box stores, the Avalon Theater is packed with character. Built in 1929, the entire theater is styled with a Spanish motif. That old-world elegance won’t be lost with the renovation. The lobby elements are being restored to their original grandeur, while new, modern elements will enhance the historic character. The unique ceiling in the theater, which used incandescent bulbs to mimic a night sky, has been updated to use LED lights and fiber optic light cables configured to look like Granada, Spain. While I toured the theater, representatives of the Neighborhood Theater Group gave a demonstration of the ceiling, including the ability to the launch two shooting stars towards the screen.

Unlike the iconic Oriental Theatre on Milwaukee’s Lower East Side, which was built to mimic a palace, the Avalon is an “atmospheric theater.” One of five built in the Milwaukee area, atmospheric theaters aimed to make you feel like you’re in another place. The walls of the theater mimic buildings in old world Spain and the ceiling makes you feel like you’re outside. Of the five atmospheric theaters built in Milwaukee, the Avalon is the last one left.

Dinner at the Movie

While dinner and a movie is a classic American date, the Avalon will give patrons the ability to enjoy both at the same time. Wait staff will be available in the theater, and the seats will be set up to comfortably enjoy a meal. But serving dinner with a movie requires special considerations, given that all the customers will want their food at the same time. To help staff deliver meals in a timely manner a special kitchen is being installed with high speed ovens.

Challenges and Capacity

The renovation hasn’t been without challenges. Barczak originally acquired the building in 2005 for $1.1 million, but the restoration was delayed by the Great Recession. Seemingly simple elements like the seats proved challenging. Instead of the traditional row after row of small theater seats, the theater will feature big, two-person, leather seats with fold-out tables to accommodate meal, snack or drink. Those seats weren’t easy to find, though, and ultimately are coming from China on a ship (expected to arrive this month).

The balcony is a challenge that has so far proved insurmountable. While it won’t be removed, it also won’t be open to the public. Historic buildings present many hurdles to restorers, particularly when they have multiple levels with no elevator, like the Avalon. On-top of the elevator issue, there are questions of market demand, capital costs for new seats and other accessbility issues, and on-going staffing costs (running food and drinks upstairs has its own logistical issues). The theater will open without the balcony, but that doesn’t mean it will never come back. I suspect someday Barczak will find a way to make it happen, given it’s where as a teenager, he tells me, he first kissed a girl.

The changes to the seats and the closing of the balcony will drastically reduce the Avalon’s capacity. The new seats will be set up no more than two across per section (space for four people), which, with the closure of the balcony, will bring the original capacity of 1,637 down to 264.

The total cost for all of the renovations is expected to be around $2.5 million. The investment says a lot about the theater and perhaps more about Barczak’s belief in the emergence of Bay View. It’s certainly hard to justify spending millions to restore a historic theater when a cineplex could be plopped in a suburban green field for far less. Barczak and his lenders clearly believe there’s an appetite for a high quality theater in the neighborhood.

Two Theaters

The Avalon was originally built to also support live music, which gave it a stage much larger than necessary for showing movies. That extra space won’t go unused in the renovated theater. A second theater, which was originally built in 1988 at the rear of the stage, is being completely overhauled.

This theater will be accessible by a hallway running along the south edge of the theater. In-house construction manager Andy Farrel has been diligently constructing a sound-proofing system that will keep the sound from bleeding between the two theaters (which was an issue when the last operator tried this). He ticked off a litany of insulation methods being implemented, including drywall, foam insulation, and THX-certified sound proofing boards. It may seem like overkill, but those watching the latest romantic comedy will appreciate not hearing a sound from the slasher film in the other theater.

The second theater will be substantially smaller than the main one, with just 68 seats in a stadium-style arrangement.

An Everyday Amenity

Barczak, who serves as the chair of the Kinnickinnic Avenue Business Improvement District, has substantial property holdings in the area outside of the theater. With a deep understanding of how the neighborhood works, he is keenly aware that a movie theater by itself won’t be the best asset for the neighborhood or maximize his return. With that in mind, the theater will include a street-fronting lounge and restaurant open to the public seven days a week.

The theater will also serve as a visual icon for the neighborhood, with a 25-foot tall sign being installed along the side of the building. In keeping with the building’s historic designation, the sign has been designed to mimic a traditional theater sign. No, there won’t be a 10-foot tall Nicholas Cage looming over Kinnickinnic; instead a vertical “Avalon” tower will dominate.

Building History

From May 4th, 1929 until July 2nd, 2000 the theater operated continuously, showing everything from silent films to musical acts. When the owners closed the theater, they said the last straw was the city’s refusal to grant them a liquor license (something the Neighborhood Theater Group has already secured).

The theater was designed by Frank Lloyd Wright disciple Russell Bar Williamson. Williamson also designed another Milwaukee entertainment venue, the Eagles Club (more commonly called The Rave today). Barr designed a number of Praire-style homes in the area, as Urban Milwaukee detailed in a past article.

The renovation of the theater has received architectural and design support from a number of firms due to the project’s complexity, including Holabird & Root, which has done over 100 theater renovations, as well as Keller Inc., Excel Engineering and Ascend Design.

For more information on the history of the theater, including why it took four years to build, the city has the nomination papers from January 2004 for its designation as a historic structure on file.

Neighborhood Theater Group

Lee Barczak and the Neighborhood Theater Group are no strangers to running local theaters. The firm has run the Times and Rosebud Cinemas since mid-2012 when Barczak acquired them at a foreclosure auction for $540,000. While neither theater is the palace the Avalon is, they’ve given the company plenty of experience in running neighborhood theaters. That includes being part of the Milwaukee Film Festival, which ran at the Times Cinema for 15 days this fall.

Barczak also owns a number of apartments in Bay View, in addition to the 19 attached to the theater. He also owns the Sheridan House restaurant in Cudahy and investment firm Morgan Kenwood.

Photo Gallery

18 thoughts on “Eyes on Milwaukee: Return of The Avalon Theater”

  1. Lee Barczak says:

    Thanks to you for a wonderful article! I am very excited that a long term vision of what The Avalon could be once again, is finally moving toward reality. This has been a wonderful project and we have received countless encouraging comments from so many past…and future..patrons. I cannot wait to see how people from Bay View and all over the Milwaukee Metro area respond to this lovely theater of days past. While all of those who remember The Avalon will recognize this movie palace, the modernizing of sound, projection, screening and comforts will create a movie going experience unlike any other in our area. Oh, one small point of clarification….our seating is all individual seats with no seat more than two seats from an aisle. The goal is to maximize the comfort you enjoy and that servers do nothing to disturb your experience while they cater to your needs. Hope to see you at The Avalon soon!

    Lee Barczak

  2. Bill Kramer says:

    I’m happy this restoration is happening. I don’t live in MKE any more, but in 1995 I was able to go to a movie there twice a week. I remember watching “Appolo 13” on the screen in the little stage theater, which was behind the curtain. I was disappointed the place closed up shortly thereafter.

  3. gary says:

    when is it openning? I remember getting friends and driving all the way from Mequon to see movies and hang out at the local bars when I was home from school

  4. Ron Zeilinger says:

    Thanks for the updates, especially regarding our beloved Bay View!

  5. Deb Switalski says:

    I’m just tickled pink happy to see that the Avalon has come back to us. I was born and raised in Bay View and spent many a Sunday afternoons here. It has given me more “wonderful” memories than I could ever list. While I can’t speak for everyone, I personally believe that those of us who grew up in the area are just elated that it’s been renovated and brought back to be better than ever!! In closing I would just like to say…

    “Thanks for the memories” Avalon Theater… and Welcome BACK!!! 🙂

  6. Kari says:

    Great to see the enthusiasm for these architectural works of art in our beautiful city! Hopefully the feeling will overflow to other restoration projects on the horizon like the magnificent Grand Warner Theatre across the street from Grand Avenue Mall. It is yet another architectural gem that just waits for theatre lovers like us to bring its unmatched historical beauty back to life. I feel like Milwaukeeans are lovers of entertainment; and having additional spaces available to us to produce or enjoy cinema, music, theatre, dance, etc. will only grow the general appreciation for such art around us. Kudos to all those involved in reviving this asset to our community!

  7. David says:

    I was an usher at the Avalon in 1966-67. I had an opportunity to stop in this summer to see the renovation being done. They’re doing a terrific job. I can’t wait to go back when it’s done.

  8. Rita says:

    This is just so awesome. I used to take my kids to movies at the Avalon when they were little. They loved to look up at the “stars” twinkling on the ceiling. I hope they have kept that wonderful detail! When it closed I had thought about how it would be the perfect place for a “dinner and a movie” type theater – glad to hear someone else did too! I look forward to seeing it open again.

  9. Suzanne Heronemus says:

    My dad, who was born in 1917, grew up in that neighborhood and went to the Avalon all his life. My sister, born in 1947, and I, born in 1962, were raised in the same house and also went to the Avalon throughout our lives through young adulthood (as did my nephews). The ceiling was my favorite thing and i’m so glad they kept that! I am sure they can find a solution with the balcony. The Avalon reminds me a bit of the historic Arcada Theater in St Charles, Illinois, with its Spanish architecture. That balcony is open though the stairway is much, much narrower than the Avalon’s. However, I believe there may be an elevator in another part of the building that leads back to the theater. Good luck with the Avalon’s reopening. Thank you for bringing back this treasure!

  10. John says:

    With this anticipated opening, I hope that this venue will be part of the Milwaukee Film Festival next year! I will be going to this theater as soon as it opens from Cedarburg. The Rivoli in Cedarburg has had a very successful time since it’s restoration. When a community gets behind a project like Bayview will in this case, it will be very successful.

  11. Pam says:

    Many great memories have been made at that beautiful historic theater. Took my oldest son to see his first movie at the Avalon, Peter Pan! The atmosphere of the theater really added to the magical event!

  12. William Campbell says:

    Hi I am happy that someone is going to restore the Avalon Theatre. I have driven by the theatre many times in the last couple of years and wondered what would ever happen to it. For more than 25 years, I played the organ at the theatre for special events and before movies. The organ was removed along with the Buddah statues years ago. However, I have a wonderful recording of the organ that I would like to contact Lee Barczak about. The theatre always had great acoustics and that it would be wonderful to bring that sound back to a theatre that was the first in Milwaukee to be built for sound pictures.

  13. Finkle says:

    Avalon is such a treasured place. Too bad this amateurish stylistic prose of this article did not really capture this effectively. Hopefully the balcony will open someday!

  14. Sharon says:

    I worked at the Avalon from 1970-72. We had to quit when we turned 18 🙁 , otherwise I’d still be there….kidding! Movies are still a weekly event in my life. I now live out-of-state, but have been checking, frequently, to see when the opening will be. So anxious to come to town, to check it out, with my family. Will you have online ticketing and seat selections? Hope so!

  15. charles fitzner says:

    i am one of past owners of the AVALON in the 70s , good to see what is getting done i miss all fun of operating the theaters i also owned majestic in cudahy and garden in south milwakee 1970 to 1979

  16. Chris says:

    Lee Barczak I’d just like to say thank you a million times for what you have done with The Avalon. I know that you have endured a waterfall of issues with the place, and from the reports I can only surmise that it is as lovely as the first day it opened. As you know from your own experiences, The Avalon holds a place in our hearts that cannot be filled by any other means. The first time seeing Star Wars, or a first kiss, or the vivid memory of a weekly family tradition with those who have long since left us are all wrapped up in that place, and it was tragic to think that they may be lost. When I heard you had purchased it, my fears dissipated. You were the perfect person to take control. I look forward to re-living a bit of the past, and I will smile as The Avalon’s accolades come pouring in. Great job.

  17. LEROY says:

    WHAT IS THE COST FOR AN ADULT SHOW TICKET ?? AND THE FOOD MENU AND PRICE… SO I KNOW HOW MUCH TO BRING WITH ME… THANK YOU ::::::

  18. david price says:

    An awful lot of teenagers got their first kiss in the Avalon. I was an usher and my job was to break up their teen aged lust.

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