Jeramey Jannene
Eyes on Milwaukee

Who Wants The Modjeska Theatre?

Historic Mitchell St. theater for sale or lease as an entertainment venue, but needs repairs.

By - Jan 30th, 2019 01:28 pm
Modjeska Theatre. Photo by Dave Reid.

Modjeska Theatre in 2016. Photo by Dave Reid.

Do you have a vision for operating a historic theater? If so, the Mitchell Street Development Opportunities Corporation would love to hear from you.

The non-profit organization, led by registered agent and real estate broker John S. Kesselman, is looking for an operator for the historic Modjeska Theatre at 1134 W. Historic Mitchell St.

A request for proposals (RFP) was recently issued, seeking a new operator who would operate the theater as an entertainment venue. “Our goal, as a community group, is to make it what’s best for the street,” said Kesselman at a recent meeting of the Historic Preservation Commission. “Our goal isn’t to own the property. Our goal is to make the street better.” The new management group could either lease or buy the theater according to the RFP.

Reopening the theater isn’t a turnkey operation. “All proposers must be aware that there are significant repairs and modifications that required to be performed to nearly all systems of the Modjeska,” says the RFP. In early 2016, Jesus Enrique Nanez estimated the total cost of renovation at $5 million, though much less than that would be required for a base level of operations.

Named for Polish actress Helena Modjeska, the 2,000-seat theater opened in 1924, replacing an earlier theater by the same name on the site. Designed by architects C.W. and George Rapp, the theater operated for decades, including as a live music venue in the 1990’s and early 2000’s. During that time artists and groups including Rob Zombie, Cheap Trick, Mogwai, The Gregg Allman Band, Judas Priest, Marilyn Manson, Faith No More and the White Stripes performed at the Modjeska. Finally it was operated for some years as a children’s theater before closing in 2010.

“We only joined the project to get financing for the Modjeska Youth Theater. They went bankrupt and left us with the building,” said Kesselman. Kesselman’s group acquired the building in 2006.

This isn’t the first attempt to reopen the theater. In 2014 a group stepped in, planning to reopen the theater in 2016. Kesselman says they did about $30,000 worth of work before going bust. That work included removing the lower level seats. That group had secured a “mothball certificate” — yes, that’s what the legal designation is called — for two years from the city, allowing incremental repairs to be made while avoiding code enforcement fines from the Department of Neighborhood Services.

Area alderman Jose G. Perez is pushing for action. “I’ve been struggling with this development for a very long time,” said Perez at a hearing for the project in January. “I showed up at the last hearing to deny the mothball and move things forward.”

A number of Milwaukee theaters have seen dramatic redevelopment plans in recent years, led by the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra‘s redevelopment of the Grand Warner Theatre into a music hall. The State Theater is also slated for redevelopment as an all-ages concert venue under plans by a non-profit group. Businessman Lee Barczak successfully redeveloped the Avalon Theater in Bay View into a modern movie house. And last summer, Milwaukee Film took control of the historic Oriental Theatre.

Instructions for how to respond and contact information for the Mitchell Street Development Opportunities Corporation are included within the RFP.


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