Sophie Bolich

The Downer Theatre Has Closed

East Side movie theater went dark on Sept. 19, after nearly 108 years in operation.

By - Sep 20th, 2023 12:31 pm
Downer Theatre. Photo by Jeramey Jannene.

Downer Theatre. Photo by Jeramey Jannene.

When Milwaukee’s Landmark Downer Theatre celebrated its 107th birthday in 2022, it was the city’s oldest movie house in operation. As of Tuesday evening, that’s no longer true.

The theater, 2589 N. Downer Ave., announced its closure on Sept. 19.

“Landmark’s Downer Theatre is now closed,” the company wrote in a social media post. “We are proud to have served its community over its many years of operation. We thank you for your support.”

Downer Theatre opened to the public on Friday, Dec. 3, 1915. At the time, most guests would have arrived via bus or streetcar — the latter operated a route on Downer Avenue, allowing for theater-goers to be deposited right at the doorstep.

The theater debuted during the height of film’s silent era — talking pictures would not become widespread for at least another dozen years. Thus, its first showing, Seven Sisters — and hundreds that followed — were projected without sound. Accompanying music was provided by Wangerin-Weickhardt Organ Company until the theater made the transition into “talkies.”

The neighborhood theater, which houses just two screens within its 8,781-square-foot confines, later found a niche in art, foreign and independent film, which remained a specialty until its closure.

Throughout its tenure in the Murray Hill neighborhood, the theater saw the rise of a flourishing shopping district, which remains strong more than a century later. Today, the street is home to an independent bakery, a specialty grocer, a locally owned bookstore and an upscale liquor store, with several additional small businesses still upcoming.

The Downer has changed hands several times since 1915, when Milwaukee developer Marc Brachman built the theater along with notable movie theater operators Thomas and John Saxe, who were also behind the Oriental Landmark Theatre.

Landmark Theatres, a national theater chain, has operated The Downer since 1989. Cohen Media Group acquired the chain in 2018. Landmark Theatres also previously operated the Oriental Theatre. Milwaukee Film took over the lease in 2018.

Bridge33 Capital owns the property that houses The Downer. The company acquired much of the Downer Avenue commercial strip in April 2020 for $11.25 million. It now owns the properties at 2551-2597 N. Downer Ave. and 2608-2650 N. Downer Ave. Aside from the theater, other tenants include Boswell Book CompanyCafe Hollander, Starbucks and Stone Creek Coffee.

The Downer is the second Milwaukee movie theater to close this month. Marcus Theatres closed the Southgate Cinema on Sept. 5. Oriental Theatre, the Avalon Theater and the Times Cinema are the only remaining theaters in the city.

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2 thoughts on “The Downer Theatre Has Closed”

  1. says:

    So sad; lots of great memories of nights (and matinees) at the Downer. I hope MKE Film takes it over and makes it an “art house” again.

  2. kenyatta2009 says:

    i walked by last weekend and didn’t notice anything different

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