Oriental Theatre

2230 N. Farwell Avenue,
Milwaukee, WI 53202

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JimRankin on July 23, 2001 at 10:10 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 3:28 pm

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.