Jonathan Jackson
Op Ed

The Magic of the Oriental Theatre

It changed my life. Now I hope it can change the city’s cultural life.

By - Jun 23rd, 2017 12:54 pm
Oriental Theatre - Screen 1. Photo by Pamela Strohl courtesy of Milwaukee Film.

Oriental Theatre – Screen 1. Photo by Pamela Strohl courtesy of Milwaukee Film.

I grew up in Cleveland, OH raised on a diet of blockbuster films at multiplexes and bad television. I devoured media, but for whatever reason always focused on mainstream fare. It was not until my freshman year of college that my tastes evolved. A friend on my dorm room floor introduced me to independent and foreign cinema. I was forever hooked and became a rabid consumer of art cinema, but my relationship to these genres was still only on the small screen. The Oriental Theatre changed that.

In 1998, I made the decision to transfer from a school down south to the nationally ranked University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee’s Film Department. I always thought I would attend UWM for a few years and then move straight to New York City, but my first night in Milwaukee changed my life forever. After agreeing to move into the first place I saw that afternoon—a boarding house of sorts with roommates that included six college students and the owner (a penny stock trader who liked Jazzercise)—I decided to explore the city. Naturally, the first thing I did was identify the movie theatre closest to my new house and go to see a film there.

That is when I met the Oriental Theatre.

There is something magical about seeing a movie at the Oriental Theatre. It’s a true palace of cinema. The main house looks like a temple: the elegant drapery, larger-than-life Buddhas, ornate ceiling, and gigantic screen combine to create a transcendent cinematic experience.

And that’s what film is for me: a spiritual experience. I love to lose myself in cinema. It transports me to places I have never been and communes with my conscious and subconscious like no other art form. I feel different—richer as human being—after I see a great film.

The film I saw that first night in Milwaukee was Darren Aronofsky’s debut film Pi, a psychological thriller with surreal elements. The film stands as the epitome of an independent film: black & white, no Hollywood stars, and a language all its own. I was hooked. I came back again the next day to see it again. A few weeks later, I started working in the Oriental Theatre concession stand, selling tickets and cleaning the Oriental Theatre cinema floors after shows.

Now, nearly 20 years later, as Artistic & Executive Director of Milwaukee Film, I will have the opportunity to operate and program the Oriental Theatre. I believe the Oriental Theatre has the potential to provide the greatest cinema experience in the world. I am humbled and in awe of this opportunity, and we at Milwaukee Film are going to commit ourselves to providing magical movie experiences for all of Milwaukee for years to come.

I also realize that, were it not for the Oriental Theatre, I might not have made Milwaukee my home, where I’m proudly raising a family, and leading a cultural institution to do great things for this city that I love.

Jonathan Jackson, Artistic & Executive Director of Milwaukee Film.

3 thoughts on “Op Ed: The Magic of the Oriental Theatre”

  1. Christina Zawadiwsky says:

    The Oriental Theater is indeed magical (and I understand how it kept you in MIlwaukee!). You may be interested in seeing Adolf Rosenblatt’s rendition of it at his (posthumous) show at the Jewish Museum (currently).

  2. hinty says:

    Congratulations. Maybe you could bring back the monthly flyers that highlight all the films showing that month? Remember those — maybe an 8×16 sheet folded once with a small horizontal box for each film/concert? As a suburban nerd kid, I actually hung those things up on my wall and developed a system of which films I had seen and which I wanted to see.

    And rock shows? I saw DEVO there during the New Traditionalists tour and it remains my favorite show.

    Well, whatever is in your vision, do it and keep it weird.

  3. Vincent Hanna says:

    What’s going to happen to the Downer? Is Milwaukee going to have no Landmark Theaters?

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