Oriental Theatre

2230 N. Farwell Avenue,
Milwaukee, WI 53202

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JimRankin on April 14, 2004 at 5:24 am

The following message was sent to me by the courtesy of Mr. John Dahlman who is connected to the ORIENTAL, and is most illuminating regarding the new improvements in sound to come to both the ORIENTAL and DOWNER theatres here. As much as many patrons appreciate the new more ‘high fidelity’ sound, I shudder to think what the possible addition of future “ceiling speakers” could mean for the decor of the ORIENTAL. The DOWNER’s ceilings are no longer pristine since the 1990 splitting of that theatre, so one could add such speakers there with a minimum of architectural disruption, but I am not sure that that will be the case in the as yet untouched, ornate ceiling of the East Indian-inspired ORIENTAL. Let us hope for the best!

Great news for all who watch movies at the Oriental and Downer: We now have Dolby Digital in both smaller theatres at the Oriental, and weâ€\ve had it in the main theatre for 6 years, so the Oriental Theatre, Milwaukeeâ€\s last surviving movie palace, is an all digital sound theatre now. Also, the Downer Theatre now has Dolby Digital in itâ€\s main house. The oldest operating movie theatre in Milwaukee, possibly Wisconsin, now has digital sound.

Iâ€\m sure most of you know all of this, but to clarify: there have been 3 competing digital sound formats SDDS (Sony Dynamic Digital Sound), DTS (Digital Theatre Sound) and Dolby Digital, all competing with each other for ~13 years. SDDS seems to have lost the battle, and the other 2 are the prevailing digital sounds. SDDS and Dolby Digital sound information is found on the film itself, while DTS sound info is found on an accompanying CD-type disc, which you cannot play on a normal CD player.

Most films that we show currently, say 95%, are encoded with digital sound info. However, not all films we show will have been made with digital sound information. For example, THE BATTLE OF ALGIERS(1965), which we are currently showing, is in mono sound, much like most titles before ~1965, unless they have been digitally-sound-restored. Mono sound means that the sound emanates from the speakers behind the screen only, so there is only one dimension to the sound. All Hollywood studio films today are encoded for all sound formats, the three digitals and stereo. The older titles, and some foreign language films, and smaller independent films and documentaries may not be encoded to play in digital. It is an expensive luxury to some filmmakers and companies on a tight budget. So a few rare films that we will show in the future will be silent, or in mono, or a few more in stereo, and even more in Dolby SR, but most will now be in Dolby Digital. The smaller theatre at the Downer will continue to play films in stereo, which will be fine.

Stereo sound in movie theatres took off in the ‘60â€\s and ‘70â€\s and in 1977, STAR WARS was the first film issued with Dolby SR sound. SR means surround sound, or a kind of enhanced stereo. Speakers were not just behind the screen anymore but placed in the auditorium on the left and right side, and in the back. With Dolby SR, you can have a different amplifier process sound for the left and right speakers in the auditorium. Also, it is a kind of branding and marketing tool, of course.

THE ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW was released in 1975 in stereo. The Oriental Theatre started showing it as a midnight film in January of 1977. The Oriental did show it as a regular first run feature a year earlier for one week; it didnâ€\t do so well. Several years ago, 20th Century Fox recalled all prints of RHPS, and reissued new prints to theatres with a more defined Dolby SR soundtrack, which is how we present it now. Incidentally, we still have the world record of the longest continuous engagement of a film and we are on our 3rd or 4th print of RHPS.

Digital sound really took off in the 1990â€\s. With digital sound, there is more definition of sound throughout the theatre, especially on the left and right speakers in the auditorium. With digital sound there is more differentiation of sound effects, music, dialogue, etc. emanating from specific speakers. With STAR WARS PHANTOM MENACE, a new sound came in the way of Dolby Digital EX. Iâ€\m not sure what the “EX” specifically stands for, but this whole new phase meant that another amplifier was added, and speakers were added in the back of the auditorium(unless the theatre already had back speakers), so sound can emanate from these speakers themselves. EX is something used predominantly in mainstream theatres for certain blockbuster films. Iâ€\ve heard tell that the next big thing in sound will be to add speakers to the ceilings of auditoriums so there will be yet another dimension of sound.

All of this enhanced sound doesnâ€\t matter too much in a dialogue-driven movie; itâ€\s the story for which everyoneâ€\s looking. But proper use of sound can really enhance the movie. You will notice that the sound will be louder, and that there will be more definition of sound on the left and right sides of the auditorium. The sound presentation will be more in tune with how the filmmaker(s) have created the film. In my experience, some filmmakers are extremely good with using the potential of digital sound, certain films could be improved with better uses of sound, and some filmmakers really need some instructing in how to use sound. Iâ€\m sure weâ€\ve all heard abuses of the sound as well. Weâ€\ve shown low-budget films in stereo that are far superior in sound quality to A-list multi-million dollar blockbusters. But weâ€\ve also shown some great sounding blockbusters, and poor sounding smaller budget films. It all comes down to how well the filmmaker recorded the film, and how much emphasis they have placed in creating the sound environment of the film. Unfortunately, there does not yet exist an amplifier to better process those pesky British, Irish, Scottish, Welsh, Australian, New Zealand, South African, etc. accents. Youâ€\ll just have to play it by ear.

Now, what is THX? THX is not an amplifier, nor a speaker, nor information on film. THX is a term and the concept was developed by George Lucas with projectionists and technicians to create some kind of perfectly balanced auditorium. For an auditorium to be “THX Certified,” technicians must come in and test the sound levels at all locations throughout the auditorium, and try to balance the sound levels so that wherever you sit everything sounds perfectly balanced. So an auditorium is THX certified, not an entire theatre, unless itâ€\s a 1-screen, or all auditoriums are THX certified. One component for a theatre to be THX certified is that there can be no internal or external sound influences heard in the theatre. The Orientalâ€\s main theatre could not be THX certified because we have air conditioners that make a small amount of noise in the auditorium when we use them in the summer. Theatres built today generally have all HVAC machines built on the roof, with long ducts separating the noisy machine from each auditorium. Neither the Oriental or Downer has THX certified auditoriums, but there are some in the area.

To find out what sound formats our films will be played in, refer to our website, the Milwaukee page of www.landmarktheatres.com, or refer to the daily ad in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. We will also have this info on our recorded message line, which for both theatres is (414) 276-8711.

Sorry to ramble….. perhaps in a year or 2 weâ€\ll have our tutorial on Digital Cinema. I lament the passing of film, but we seem to be heading that way.

Dolby website: http://www.dolby.com/

THX: http://www.thx.com/index.html


John Dahlman

Milwaukee Marketing Leader for Landmark Theatres

(414) 276-8711, ext. 6

Downer House Manager

(414) 964-2916

JimRankin on February 12, 2004 at 8:36 am

These Comments, originally in the EVENTS section, should be reproduced here:

Mr. Enk, you are very right to be alarmed by the rumor that the ORIENTAL will be
demolished. I heard that the three Pritchett brothers who have owned it since 1972 are now
elderly and retired and about to will the building to their children, who evidently made it clear
that they would immediately demolish and sell the site to a condos developer. The brothers
didn’t want that to happen to their beloved theatre, so they quietly offered it for sale, and in a
conversation this Saturday with Mel Pritchett I was told that they have a prospective buyer
who they are “95% certain” will complete the purchase by the end of March. He would not
tell me the name of the buyer(s), but says that they are committed to continue the operating
theatre. There is also a lease with Landmark Theatres, the operator, to be completed, but I do
not know the term. Mr. Pritchett did not know if there would be a press announcement at the
time of sale.

It should be noted, however, that even though the ORIENTAL is a local landmark, that law
only protects the EXTERIOR of the building, and any new owner could turn right around and
gut it for any other use the city allows. Therefore, there is no ‘absolute’ assurance that the
theatre will always be with us. As Mr. Pritchett said, the building is over 80 years old now and
needs some major investment in repairs, as witnessed by that episode last December when
they had to evacute the place when a damper on the boiler froze and allowed masses of
poisonous carbon monoxide to drive the patrons from the theatre. Bad enough publicity, but
an indicator of the expense to be met by any new owner. With the movie makers/distributors
now offering DVDs of films on almost the same day and date of theatrical release, and
on-demand ordering of titles on-line almost here, the handwriting is on the wall as to the future
of exhibition, and it is not good. Any new buyer will have to figure out how to pay the
bills/taxes without films in the not too distant future, sad to say. Jim Rankin (
posted by Jim Rankin on Feb 9, 2004 at 2:13pm

If the Pritchett brothers indeed do sell the Oriental to a new owner “committed to continue the
operating theatre,” Milwaukee’s movie-palace gem, one hopes, will remain operating for
years—decades—to come.

It is certainly better than the situation that, for example, Milwaukee’s Avalon Theatre currently
faces. (See this site’s entry for the Avalon for more information. And many, many thanks,
Mr. Rankin, for all your research and input about Milwaukee-area theaters on this Web site!
That, you, and your dedication are deeply appreciated! What is the latest on the Avalon? If
Mr. Rankin or anyone else who reads this knows, please post it under that theater’s extensive

Thanks, too, Jim, for your detailed information about the Oriental at its respective place on
this Web site. Don’t anyone be surprised if you, I, or someone else soon posts to Cinema
Treasures about other “neighborhood” Saxe Brothers theaters in Milwaukee, including the
Tower (which Larry Widen and Judi Anderson, in their book Milwaukee Movie Palaces,
called a sort of “sister” to the Oriental), the Plaza, and the unusually decorated but intriguing
(at least for the Midwestern, as opposed to the Eastern, United States) Colonial.

Yesterday (February 10), a representative of the Milwaukee-area Kimball Theatre Organ
Society informed me that Angela Lansbury had to cancel her Milwaukee appearances in
connection with Broken Blossoms on February 14. Broken Blossoms, and all the rest of
the KTOS’s wonderful “Silents Please” program set for that day, however, is still on. Ms.
Lansbury, I was told, might still well appear at a future “Silents Please” program, perhaps later
this season.

Hope to see all you “Third Coast” silent-film fans at Broken Blossoms. _Bring a friend—or
two or more! Spread the word—silent film is cool!

Scott Enk
(A Devoted Silent-Film Fan Since 1963!)

posted by Scott Enk on Feb 11, 2004 at 6:07pm

Antani on October 22, 2001 at 11:05 am

When you search for this theater using your search engine its not to be found! (i made my way to this link off of a milwaukee website) It’s also not listed within your full list of theaters. Please add it back – you’re missing one of the most beautiful theaters in the country!

One additional correction to the above – the theater wasn’t carved up into 3 theaters until sometime in the late 80’s perhaps even early 90. Having seen countless number of movies and several concerts, including Tears for Fears in 1984, it was definitely one giant movie house well into the late 80’s.

JimRankin on July 23, 2001 at 2:10 pm

About those “dozen life-size Buddahs”: there were and are only six such gilded larger-than-life seated Buddahs, three on each auditorium side wall in niches with multifoil arched tops. Each one has a light inside the turbaned head which illuminates a red jewel diadem in the forehead and the slits of the downcast eyes in nile green. In front of each is a simulated incense burner which actually contains a hidden up-light cast upon the Buddah above. There is also a hidden row of floodlights in the three house lights colors (red, blue and yellow) which is supposed to light the figures and their background behind the dark red drapery, but they are very inaccessible and rarely work. The lighting effects are one of the prime features in such a themed theatre, and it even extends to the green glass eyes of the “eeahlees” (Hindustani for “baboon monsters”), 26 of which line the upper cove rim on all four sides, and it would be nice if this long-failed feature were to be restored, but since 1950s air conditioning ducts were placed in the attic behind their access ports, it is very difficult to relamp them. I offered a detailed method to use modern low voltage discs of L.E.D.s to be mounted upon each eye since they would never ‘burn out’, but costs apparently sunk that idea. These days it is enough to keep the general lights on, much less have money for improvements.

It should be noted that even though the theatre has been split into three screens, two of them are in the old seating space under the balcony, so the center aisle of the original seating is preserved, and the two new screening rooms are decorated so as to blend into the exotic decor, and not too much was lost. Architect Joseph Valerio of Chicago designed the two spaces to be easily removable in case the ORIENTAL is ever restored. And while the theatre is certainly one of the “most exotic and ornate” in the nation, it was not the only such in Milw.; from 1927 through the 1960s their EGYPTIAN featured a wonderful design recently recreated on the cover of “MARQUEE” magazine of the Theatre Historical Society of America, and had the planned ARABIA theatre ever been built, the ORIENTAL would certainly have had more competition to the title of most exotic in Milw.

JimRankin on July 7, 2001 at 7:28 am

The description and facts listed for the ORIENTAL contain a number of errors, so much so that it may seem as though I am speaking of another theatre, but, no, there is only one ORIENTAL in Milw. but it is not and never was an ‘Atmospheric’. That term is not used in a general sense in writings such as this, but in the specialized jargon of the Movie Palace where they were originally either “Standard” (‘hard top’) in emulating a regular theatre but usually to a theme decor, or they were “Atmospheric” which meant that the ceiling of at least the auditorium was fashioned as a sky vault complete with twinkling stars (tiny light bulbs). The giant ornamented, red and gold ventilator grille smack in the middle of the ceiling clearly shows that it was not a sky vault, but merely the blue painted dome above the two levels of ornamental cove lights below it. Neither were there “a dozen life-size Buddahs” nor “100 lions”. There were just eight unique porcelain lions-of-the-temple glazed in black with metallic gold, red and blue accents. There were nearly 100 elephants if one counts all their sculpted and painted occurances, but the theatre was no menagerie unlike certain other oriental theatres in the nation. And contrary to the writer’s description of the theatre as: “Chinese-meets-East Indian”, the ORIENTAL in Milw. was unique in being the only solely East Indian decor in the nation, there not being a hint of Chinese or Japanese, the two themes usually characterized as ‘oriental’. There is indeed a trio of chandeliers in the exotic lobby, but they are NOT inspired by Tiffany, even though he probably would have approved of them had he ever seen them. To have stained glass in a fixture does not mean it is ‘Tiffany’, and these three do contain slumped glass in marbled honey gold as well as cobalt blue. The elaborate and unique design was done in Milw. by Gezelschap & Co. and are in polished brass over a steel frame with candoliers supported by brass elephants painted in white with accenting colors.