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There’ll be a lecture on abandoned theatres in partnership with the Theatre Historical Society of America at the Portage Theatre on Thursday November 13, 2014. Doors open at 6:30 and the lecture starts at 7:00. Admission is free. The lecture will be an updated version of “The Fall of the American Movie Palace” with photographs of the Loew’s Kings Theatre renovation.
Once upon a time, The Modjeska Theater, 1134 W. Mitchell St., was a neighborhood movie palace, the big daddy of Mitchell Street, the second busiest thoroughfare in Milwaukee after Wisconsin Avenue. The street was so bustling and such a magnet for surrounding South Side enclaves that it boasted six theaters in about as many blocks. Among them The Juneau, dressed up in Venetian splendor, was a big draw and so was the Granada, directly across the street from the Modjeska, and the Pearl, further west on 19th Street. The current Modjeska Theater, built in 1924 and designed by Chicago’s C.W. and George Rapp, needs work, but step inside and you’ll still be transported to the era of the grand movie palace. It’s richly detailed, both inside and out, and it was clearly a temple to motion pictures and to Vaudeville, which shared the spotlight here.
Among the theaters Rapp and Rapp designed were the Warner (“The Grand”, still standing) and The Wisconsin and the Uptown Theaters in Milwaukee, both razed.
An earlier Modjeska – named for Polish actress Helena Modjeska (nee Modrzejewska) who had died in 1909 – was built on the site in 1910 by Milwaukee movie moguls, brothers Thomas and John Saxe, who built a companion place Downtown on Third Street, the Princess (demolished in the ‘80s). The old Modjeska was damaged in a fire, but its 900 seats were inadequate to meet demand anyway, and so the old Modjeska was torn down to make way for the 2,000-seat theater that still stands today — though with a somewhat smaller capacity now — wrapped in terra cotta and currently undergoing what supremely knowledgeable theater historian Larry Widen (author of “Milwaukee Movie Palaces,” aka “Silver Screens”) — who had been leading the work before parting ways with the theater’s owners — called, “a really good clean up.”
“This is a Downtown-style movie palace,” he said as we stood at the foot of the stage and gazed up to the ceiling, three stories above. “It had all the trappings. There were five other theaters on this block and this was the most expensive. This was the pricey one. Usually what would happen is the movies would premiere Downtown. I think they played about a week. You know, the big Bogey or Cagy picture or whatever would start out Downtown. Then it would make its way out to the first tier of the suburban theaters and this was one of them. This one, the Uptown, the Oriental, the Tower, the Avalon, The National and from there they would kind of make their way down the street from 35 cents to a quarter, 20 cents, 10 cents to 5 cents.”
The theater has been closed for nearly five years and United Artists stopped running it in 1989. It was still screening films into the 1990s. The Modjeska had, for a period, been the Midwest home office for UA and by the early ‘80s it was a budget cinema, admitting patrons for $1 a head. Later, Stewart and Diane Johnson bought the theater and it became home to the Modjeska Youth Theater Co. and the venue continued to also host concerts and other events on a rental basis. Magician David Seebach often staged events there. In 2007, the youth group and the Mitchell Street Development Opportunity Corporation (MSDOC) partnered to create the Modjeska Theater Project, which purchased the theater, and three years later the youth group folded. Now, the Modjeska is owned by a non-profit trust called the Mitchell Street Development Opportunities Board. Having been vacant for five years, the theater already was in need of some TLC. Then last winter happened. More specifically, a pipe burst in the basement and here were about 900,000 gallons of water down there in February. Though it seems mostly dry and, remarkably, doesn’t smell too musty anymore, there’s a visible high water mark on the walls.
“Right now there is mostly painting and cleaning going on,” says Project Manager Jesus Enrique Nañez, who’s on the theater’s board. “We have several contractors that are volunteering some time for electrical and plumbing work to make sure we are up to code. The heaviest work load is in funding these repairs.” The roof has been redone and a crew of volunteers is helping to repaint and repair parts of the theater’s many surviving details, like gorgeous railings up to the balcony lobby, and scrollwork in the theater. The entry lobby is adorned with plaster motifs and appears to be in fine shape.
The orchestra pit was covered by the youth group when it extended the stage in the 1990s. Two boxes remain, though the organ and the pipes that would’ve been housed in lofts above the boxes are long gone. “As of right now we do not have a projected opening date,” says Nañez. “We have a goal to open some of the theatre space to artistic and community based groups in 2015. However, we will provide public access to the theatre during our participation in the Doors Open Milwaukee event and we encourage people to come over to check out the theater and all of the renovation progress.” The board expects to present a mix of programming in the theater, including a variety of films about 25 percent of the time. Concerts and performances by a range of arts groups interested in the space will round out the schedule.
The Modjeska was built as a stop for regional vaudeville acts and has hosted live music for decades. Marty Robbins played there in ‘61 and in more recent decades the theater has hosted performances by Marilyn Manson, They Might Be Giants (during whose concert the stage famously gave way), Ministry, Cheap Trick, Judas Priest, Gregg Allmann and others. “The stage was built with an orchestra pit with an organ and an organ box and a full stage,” said Widen. “The stage is now 28 feet deep to the back wall and it’s 40 feet from proscenium opening to opening. You can get a pretty good-sized act on the stage.”
Playing to the local crowd is what theaters often did, and the Modjeska screened Polish films in the 1940s to draw on the area’s heavily Polish population. In that spirit, Widen had said the Modjeska planned to spotlight films currently being made in the reinvigorated Mexican movie industry and Nañez suggests that remains the plan survives.
There are panoramic views of the city from the roof, and old offices above the retail shops that are part of the building. On the opaque glass panels in some of the doors you can make out the names of former occupants, which had been painted on. In one former office, the youth group had created a “mini Modjeska,” a tiny theater. Behind the screen you can open the windows and step out on to the marquee. If you lean out you can look straight down Mitchell Street, down to 11th, where the streetcar used to bend the corner around. Up in the projection booth, there’s an open toilet and sink in the corner because projectionists weren’t allowed to leave the booth under any circumstances, so the facilities were demanded by their union. Above the balcony level are two rooms where the films were assembled for projection.
In the basement, newly built wooden racks hold the letters that name the films on the marquee. This is where the dressing rooms for performers are located and the basement is a maze of rooms. Down here it’s dark, but one can see the quirky patterns on the walls left by the water of the winter flood. There are also walls adorned with graffiti left by performers of shows performed on the stage above. It was on the list of buildings for the 2014 Doors Open Milwaukee event, Sept. 20-21.
There’s work to be done, and only a portion of the estimated $150,000 required to complete the work has been raised. Much of the remainder is expected to be generated by revenue once the theater reopens. “This project is being completed by mostly volunteers and donations,” says Nañez. “Painting, cleaning up, creating a good buzz about the theater. Every donation helps us buy vital supplies needed to move the project forward. There will be great opportunities for individuals and companies vested in the area to have naming rights of different sections of the theater. we have launched our first mailer requesting donations and we have had some great results come in already. We are certainly in need of more support and would appreciate donations and volunteers at this time.”
If you are interested in donating time, effort and/or money, please contact Jesus E Nañez at (414) 982-9378 and help restore a vital part of the social history of Milwaukee’s South Side.
On the evening the Mid-City Outdoor Theatre opened, WLIP 1050 broadcast the opening ceremonies and the VFW Drum and Bugle Corps performed. The premiere program included “Red River” with Montgomery Clift. The last operator was Standard Theaters, and when a winter wind gust caused the screen tower to list, the town of Somers issued raze-or-repair orders. Standard decided to close before the 1985 season began. On May 1, 1985, the Mid-City screen tower fell to the wrecking ball (along with the neighboring Berryville Grade School) to make way for the Villa Rosa Apartments, but the concession building remained for a few years, open to the winds.
Is this the last year for the Keno? Conversion to digital may doom drive-in (April 16, 2013, by Deneen Smith)
Rumors are swirling that the Keno Drive-In, 9102 Sheridan Road, will be sold and turned into a Walmart. No officials have verified those rumors. Rumors of the Keno Drive-in’s demise have sparked a petition drive, a Facebook page, and an outpouring of regret, but little in the way of facts.
The Keno, 9102 Sheridan Road, has been operating since 1949. It opened for its 65th season this spring. Word began to spread on Facebook Friday that this season would be the Keno’s last, and that a Walmart would soon go up in its place.
A “Save Keno Drive-in, No Walmart Here” Facebook page quickly drew 3,000 likes, and an online petition calling on Pleasant Prairie to reject the Walmart had more than 1,760 signatures by Tuesday afternoon.
At Pleasant Prairie Village Hall, staffers were puzzled.
“We’ve been getting calls. Apparently something went on Facebook?” said Thomas Shircel, assistant village administrator. “I think there’s a lot of rumors going around.”
Jeff Rey, president of Cinema Management Corp., which has leased Keno for the past seven years, said he was told by the property owner last fall that this year would likely be the last for the drive-in. He said he doesn’t know for sure what plans are for the property — the property owners have not told him — but he said there have been crews doing soil tests and other work.
“We’ll see what happens,” Rey said. “We’ve got to keep our fingers crossed, but it doesn’t look good.”
Shircel said that while he cannot comment on informal inquires about the property, he said there has been no paperwork filed by Walmart or any other development on the property. “We have not received any formal application” for any development on the property, Shircel said. He said the land is slated in the village’s comprehensive plan for commercial use, but said “the land is not zoned or planned for a big box user.”
Kenosha County records do not show any recent property sale. According to those records, the drive-in’s owner is Berwick Properties Inc., which is owned by developer and real estate investor Steve Mills. He has owned the property since 1996. Mills could not be reached for comment.
A statement from Walmart said did not indicate plans for the property. “While we don’t have any new projects to announce at this time, Walmart is always looking for opportunities to better serve our southeast Wisconsin customers,” a company spokesman said in an email.
“Right now what I’m doing is more cautionary,” said Shanon Molina, who launched the anti-Walmart petition drive. Molina said there is “talk around town” that the drive-in property is one of several Walmart is looking to develop. “For me personally, I live on 90th and Sheridan and obviously, I don’t want a Walmart on that corner.” She said she also wants to block another Walmart development in the area, saying the company creates low-wage jobs and “is a proven local business killer.”
However Mills did indicate last fall that the drive-in’s days could be numbered. Movie studios are phasing out film in favor of digital projection technology, and old-fashioned theaters like the Keno would have to replace their film equipment with more expensive digital. Mills said last fall it was not clear if he would invest in the digital upgrade. “The decision hasn’t been made at this point in time. Just by the very nature of a drive-in theater, the season is very short. With the circumstances, we’re still going to research on what it’s going to be,” Mills said then. “It’s a bridge we haven’t crossed as yet.”
Rey said he operates another drive-in in West Chicago, Ill. He said the company invested $100,000 installing digital projection equipment there, saying the new projector will go online at the end of the month. “We could have worked out digital if that was their goal,” Rey said, although he said he believed about half the 366 drive-ins left in the country will likely go out of business this year because of the digital conversion costs.
Meanwhile, he said the drive-in will be open as usual this weekend, showing a double feature — the new Tom Cruise science fiction movie “Oblivion” and the comedy “Identity Thief.”
Despite rainy, cold weather this spring, business at the drive-in has been good, Rey said.
“I think people are wanting to get out there because this might be their last chance,” he said. “Unless something unexpected happens, it looks like it will be the end.”
The temple was offering to donate it to any viable theatre about two years ago. Contact Rabbi Dena Feingold there for more details. Thanks.
(Dec. 14, 1914, Charleston Daily Courier) The Grand Opera House was destroyed, telephone, light and street car service was crippled, and residences were endangered by fire which started in the theatre last night. Damage is estimated at $25,000 covered partially in the case of the theatre, by insurance.
Little is known regarding the origin of the fire. Two theories are advanced, one blaming defective wiring and the other a discarded cigar or cigarette.
Owing to the fact that the fire was not discovered until it had gained great headway, the firemen were unable to cope with the flames within the theatre and were forced to devote their attention to buildings in the vicinity which threatened numerous times to burst into flames because of the intense heat thrown out by the burning structure.
Difficulty was added to the work of the firemen by a stiff breeze from the northwest, which fanned the conflagration into fury and carried burning brands through the air for nearly a block. Many of these brands fell on the roofs of nearby houses, and but for the coat of snow would have started other fires.
Fire was discovered by persons living near the theatre about 9:10 o'clock. At that time flames were shooting from the south end of the scenery loft and from the windows in the rear of the theatre. Within ten minutes the whole interior of the building was a seething furnace, so quickly did the fire spread. Firemen arriving found their entrance to the theatre barred by tongues of flame. They were able to save a desk, a typewriter and papers.
Working in the intense cold in water-soaked clothing, the firemen remained near the blazing theatre until 2:30 o'clock this morning. At that time the ruins were still smouldering.
After the fire had practically gutted the theatre, the brick walls at the rear and side began to fall inward. The rear wall was the first to go. It carried with it a portion of the north wall, and nearly all of the south wall. Workmen this morning finished the work of the fire by pulling down the front wall and what remained of the north and south walls.
Heat thrown off by the blazing theatre building melted two telephone cables in front, thus cutting off 500 telephones. When the cable fell it swung against a pole bearing electric wires and the guy wire to the street car trolley wire. To reduce danger from live wires, the current in the electric was cut off, and the wires were cut near the corner of Van Buren and Sixth Streets.
Light from the big blaze was seen by farmers living three miles from Charleston. One of these said that the light was bright as that of the moon. He declared it to nearly approximate daylight. Those who did not learn of the fire by the sounding of the alarm bell were in many instances informed of it by the great light.
News of the fire reached Mattoon soon after the breaking out of the flames, and nearly 100 persons from that city came to Charleston on interurban cars to see the blaze.
The telephone exchange was hit hard by the fire. As soon as the alarm was sounded, calls began to come in to the exchange by the hundred. Although the operators worked at top speed for over two hours, they were scarcely able to give service at all. It is estimated that 1,600 connections were made immediately after the breaking out of the fire. Weather conditions added to the difficulties of the exchange.
Announcement was made this morning by H. E. Hayworth, local manager for the Central Illinois Public Service Company, that the loss of his company would be in the neighborhood of $500. A force of workmen repaired the damage done to the wires of the public service corporation today, and the current was turned on this afternoon.
The work of the telephone company will not be so quickly done. Hill Moss, local manager for the Coles County Telephone and Telegraph Company, said this morning that he did not expect to have repairs made before Friday. New cables have been ordered from St. Louis. According to Mr. Moss, 275 telephones were put out of commission by the melting of the cables. The loss to his company, he said, was in the neighborhood of $800.00.
No figures on the amount of insurance carried on the Grand Opera House could be obtained today because of failure to get into communication with J. E. Osborne of Decatur, owner of the theatre. William Quayle Setliffe, manager of the playhouse, said today that he did not feel at liberty to state the amount of insurance carried, although he admitted he knew the figure.
It is expected that the owner of the theatre will arrive in Charleston tomorrow to be present when adjustment of his claim is taken up by the insurance companies.
Because of the fire, seven dates for shows will be canceled by Manager Setliffe. Two of these dates were for this week, "The Girl and the Tramp," and the Belgian war pictures. The latter will be given in the Moose hall in the Richter building, while the former company will be notified of the disaster and instructed not to come to Charleston.
Manager Setliffe said today that he had no definite plans for himself in the future, but that he expected to remain in Charleston. He denied rumors to the effect that the plans were already underway for the construction of another playhouse.
An investigation of the circumstances surrounding the origin of the fire is being made by Oakley Hopkins, chief of the fire department. Information has reached the Chief which indicates that someone was in the theatre when the blaze broke out, he said today. The Chief would not state what he believed started the fire.
The Grand Opera House was built in 1903, when it was known as the Charleston Opera House. The builders were J. A. Parker, George Muchmore and T.G. Chambers. The dedication of the playhouse was on August 12, 1903. the estimated cost of the structure was $25,000.
Later the theatre was taken over by George Chambers, and later still was purchased by J. A. Parker, one of the builders. Within a few months of purchasing, Mr. Parker sold the theatre to J.E. Osborne of Decatur, the present owner. The last sale was made about four years ago.
The Rivoli Theater at 1816-20 Washington Street in Two Rivers, Wisconsin announces that the film “Hitlers Children” starring Bonita Granville and Tim Holt is playing. Barely visible above the theater doors is “Make Hitler Mad. Buy a War Bond Here.” Trees with early spring foliage line the street. The anti-Nazi “Hitler’s Children” was released in January, 1943 and played in both Two Rivers and Manitowoc that spring. This photograph was previously published in the Spring 2004 issue of the “Two Rivers Historical Society Quarterly Newsletter” under the title “World War II at Rivoli.”
The Kansas City Star, 19 November 1961, Page 96
(THE DAILY NORTHWESTERN, SATURDAY EVENING, FEBRUARY 5, 1927) “At 6:OO p.m. Oshkosh starts its triumphal celebration. On the hour the doors of this new palace of wonders swings open and this city takes its rightful place among the other cities of the world, theatrically.
Your new theater is a credit to Oshkosh, a monument to civic growth, a mark of firm faith in your future. Come to the opening tonight! It will be an occasion of delightful memory that will live with you always. 2,000 seats assure comfort in surroundings of unmatched splendor. A program of highest entertainment value awaits you. Look — Unit No. 1 "The Voice of the Theater”,
A Unique Screen Welcome & Unit No. 2, Overture “Bits of Hits” Introducing the Saxonians, Art Hastings, Directing.
Unit No. 3, Stage and Screen Novella “The Blue Boy”, An Epic in Color Film With Guila Bustabo, Wonder Child Violinist. Unit No. 4, “Here, There and Everywhere” with the Saxe Cameraman. Unit No. 5, Jack McConnell."
Plans are in the works to expand Fond du Lac Theatre on West Scott Street in light of the closing last week of Forest Mall Cinema. “"The trend now is for mega-screens or a small, plush deluxe theater and the mall just isn’t conducive to that,” said co-owner Dennis Frank who said the work could take place within the next couple of years. Options include adding a mega screen or a plush cozy theater to the existing eight-screen complex. The screen in theater No. 1 on Scott Street is about 40 feet across and nearly classifies as a mega-screen, which is typically 50 to 60 feet across. Frank and his brother Paul Frank also owned (since 1987) the 1973 FOREST MALL Cinema that closed last weekend and the RETLAW, which closed when the FOND DU LAC opened.
Genesee unveils grandeur of past;
Cosby will open Waukegan theater
(October 13, 2004, Chicago Tribune)
Comedian Bill Cosby will open the newly restored Genesee Theatre on Dec. 3, kicking off what officials hope will be a new era for Waukegan.
With its massive crystal chandeliers, lushly painted decorative plaster and state-of-the-art sound system, the Genesee was restored—at a cost of $23 million—to attract visitors to downtown.
“This will make people believe Waukegan is on its way back,” Mayor Richard Hyde said Tuesday.
And Cosby as an opening act “is like coming out of the starting blocks,” Hyde said.
City officials are banking on the 2,500-seat Genesee drawing people—and their entertainment dollars—to Waukegan and its lakefront, which the city wants to transform with shops, restaurants and homes. So far, a parking deck and some housing are under construction downtown.
“Things are happening all over the place, and it is an exciting time for Waukegan,” said city spokesman David Motley. “We’re looking at it as a catalyst for change in downtown.”
City officials gave tours Tuesday to reporters and other guests as workers installed red velvet seats and technicians tested the sound system.
“It is a first-class facility,” said David Rovine, general manager of the Genesee for SMG, the Philadelphia arena, theater and convention center manager recently hired to run the Genesee. “There are no limitations because it is so grand.”
Rovine declined to name other acts to follow Cosby or to say how many he expects to book a year.
He said the Genesee will bring something for everyone, from Broadway-style shows to concerts to comedians.
“We will really match the makeup and temperament of the people here,” he said.
In many ways the Genesee, opened in 1927 and closed in 1982, harks back to downtown Waukegan’s heyday when it was a bustling host to several grand theaters and their many patrons.
“There were lines down to Sheridan Road,” said Hyde, remembering the Genesee of the 1930s. “And it cost 15 cents to get in.”
Waukegan native Jack Benny premiered movies at the Genesee, which also put on circuses and musical acts.
But the restoration of the theater has not been without controversy. The project’s cost originally was pegged at $15 million, and it’s also opening a year later than planned.
And some residents still bring up the messy departure of Ray Shepardson, a national theater restoration expert who oversaw the project. Shepardson left earlier this year after quarreling with Friends of the Historic Genesee Theatre, a non-profit group formed to help raise funds for its operation.
Among other things, Shepardson and the non-profit disagreed on his programming strategy, which called for 200 to 300 shows a year. Some city officials and members of the Friends board called that plan unrealistic.
Illinois Sen. Terry Link (D-Vernon Hills), a member of the board, acknowledged the acrimony.
“We’ve had a lot of bumps in the road, and we have had a lot of peaks and valleys,” Link said. “But the only thing that matters is the peak of Dec. 3.”
Calling the Genesee one of the finest theaters in the country, Shepardson said he was heartbroken over what happened.
“I just think it’s very unfortunate that my approach to programming and operation of the theater has been abandoned,” he said. “Mark my words. Start counting the shows and you won’t need all of your fingers and all of your toes.”
But those thoughts were far from the minds of many who waited outside the Genesee on Tuesday afternoon for the announcement of the opening act. Tickets for Cosby will go on sale at 10 a.m. Oct. 22 through Ticketmaster. Prices haven’t been announced yet.
“Contrary to what Chicago thinks,” said Mike Pasiewicz, a local native with memories of the Genesee before it closed, “there is a Waukegan, and we are moving on up.”
(From host.madison.com )
The vintage Orpheum Theater, with its once-regal presence on State Street, is getting a facelift from the inside out. New co-owner Gus Paras is sprucing up the long-neglected auditorium. Interior artwork and stenciling are being restored with painstaking care. New front doors, resembling those that first swung open in 1927, are coming soon.
So are veiny black granite panels, meant to replace the blond brick that was put on the theater’s facade when it was “remuddled” in the 1960s.
“Remuddled” is the term of architect Arlan Kay, who has restored many a historic building and is overseeing changes to the Orpheum. Those changes are meant to undo alterations made to the movie palace half a century ago in the name of modernization.
The sign we see outside the Orpheum today is from that mid-century period. But oh, you should have seen what she looked like in her glory days.
Lights raced up and down the original sign, crowned with an Art Deco flair. The theater, designed by Chicago architects Rapp and Rapp, had cost a whopping $750,000 to build.
Now scarred with rust, the current sign stays in place because hanging a replacement over the sidewalk would violate city ordinances. City leaders are working on a solution.
It will take time — and many dollars — but one day the sparkling name Orpheum, like the theater itself, could again be a glamorous Downtown star.
(Motion Picture World, July-September 1911)
Kenosha, Wis. — The Orpheum was damaged to the extent of $5,000 by fire. The fire started just after a crowd of people had left.
There are some who consider the former Retlaw Theater a dilapidated, mold-riddled space with a leaky roof and standing water in the basement.
But a group operating mostly online with no ownership rights to the Main Street building sees a gem in the rough. Friends of the Retlaw Theater say the historic downtown building is structurally sound, has only surface mold resulting from malfunctioning roof drains and should be transformed into a usable theater for the community.
Louie Lange, president of Commonwealth Companies, has been granted an option to purchase the property that fronts 23 S. Main St. Once home to a grand theater, the buildings that are part of the theater complex have been vacant and for sale for seven years. Commonwealth intends to close on the property within the month and begin a project to renovate the building into a mix of offices, retail and apartment space. Lange said his project would not be financially viable with the theater.
“In order to develop the apartments that (financially) support the cost of the building, we need windows on the eastern side of the building — the same with the office space,” Lange said.
Parking, he said, is not as important as creating apartments on the eastern portion of the building. If parking were the only issue, he said Tuesday, the theater may have been salvaged.
Friends of the Retlaw Theater has been collecting signatures from people who want to save the theater. The group says it has 1,300 to 1,500 signatures but has largely stopped its petition efforts.
The following is posted online, petitioning Commonwealth Development Corp.:
“Please do not turn our Retlaw Theater into a 32-space parking lot. Utilize the auditorium in your redevelopment plan and be a hero to Fond du Lac citizens, young and old!”
Commonwealth is planning a $2.4 million project at the Retlaw site. The plan calls for creation of first-floor offices for 24 Commonwealth staff members and retail space. The second floor and part of the third floor will become 10 apartments priced at market rate including several two-story lofts. Wempner’s School of Dance may continue as a tenant on the third floor. Portions of the theaters facing Sheboygan and Portland streets will be razed and replaced with a parking lot.
Friends of the Retlaw group held a meeting Tuesday night at Fond du Lac Public Library that was attended by nearly a dozen people. The group invited all “Fond du Lac County residents, Commonwealth friends, Thelma friends, and the media to confirm facts and share ideas and find the common ground we all know exists to SAVE the Historic Fond du Lac Retlaw Theater for Fond du Lac’s Downtown Arts and Entertainment District.”
Fond du Lac resident Christine Clementi, who has been leading the Save the Retlaw Theater charge, said Tuesday she didn’t expect a buyer — any buyer — to have a plan that included demolition of the theater. When she and others learned of Commonwealth’s intentions, “they panicked,” she said, and started an online effort to try and find a way to work with Commonwealth.
Lange said his plan calls for construction of five apartments facing Main Street and five facing Sheboygan Street. The theater, he said, doesn’t fit with the design.
A 32-space parking lot could provide parking for some of his office employees, apartment tenants and retail employees/customers. Lange said he’s already purchased spaces in a nearby parking garage.
The historical character of the Retlaw Theater facade facing Main Street will be maintained. Lange said he will try and salvage architectural aspects of the building’s interior.
“It would be wonderful if we had an economically viable way to preserve that theater,” Lange said.
He said it would take at least $9 million to restore the theater. The Friends of the Retlaw group believe it can be done for a much lower amount.
The Retlaw complex Lange is purchasing is more than a theater — it encompasses the buildings at 17, 19 and 23 S. Main St.
A portion of one theater was made into a kitchen during the time it served as Fusion Restaurant and floors were flattened in another one-third of the building, said Amy Hansen, executive director of the Downtown Fond du Lac Partnership. She said a middle section still has theater seats, but they are covered with mold and can’t be reused.
Retlaw Theater is listed on local, state and national historic registries but it’s the local designation that is the most restrictive, said Dyann Benson, redevelopment planner for the City of Fond du Lac.
Benson said properties on the state and national historic registry are eligible for tax credits and funding for certain types of projects.
Because of the local historic designation, the city’s Historic Preservation Commission was required to vote on demolition and exterior alterations to the building.
“The HPC doesn’t have the authority to negate an accepted offer,” Benson said. An initial motion to delay demolition by three months was amended to allow immediate demolition when the committee questioned what a delay would accomplish.
Lange told them a delay could impact his plans for purchase of the building.
Ann Kelly, owner of Wempner’s Dance Studio, said a commercial cleaning specialist walked through the theater in October 2013 and told her the mold in the dressing rooms under the stage was “surface mold” and could be cleaned up and painted and that wood trim and wood doors should be removed to eliminate continual mold growth. The specialist said the mold was not dangerous black mold and would not require any special kind of cleanup.
Kelly said a structural engineer from a Green Bay firm inspected the theater on April 25 and reported that water damage is due to malfunctioning roof drains, and the building is structurally adequate and does not pose a safety concern.
A preservation architect from the Wisconsin Historical Society, Mark Buechel, who also viewed the property in April, said the theater is “in remarkable condition and a beautiful example of Art Deco architecture.” The architect said the theater could stand another 89 years if roof issues were addressed. He also wasn’t overly concerned about the basement mold.
Lange said Tuesday he is concerned dilapidated areas will “start eating at the rest of” the building.
Kelly has a secondary offer on the property, but Commonwealth’s is the offer accepted by owner Chuck Boyd.
Clementi said she believes the HPC should have voted to postpone demolition of the theater because another proposal (Kelly’s vision for a performing arts center for children) existed. The committee voted unanimously May 21 to allow demolition.
Fond du Lac City Council President Sam Meyer, on a recent online post, said the City of Fond du Lac does not have authority to dictate the terms of the property sale.
“This is a transaction between two private parties about a privately owned property,” he said. “The city can’t stop, alter, negotiate or deny any portion of this transaction because the city doesn’t own the property, nor does it have authority to do so. While some might not like it, if the private owner of this property decides they want to tear part of the property down, then that is their right.”
Meyer said no city taxpayer money was used in the development project/transaction and there isn’t a Council member associated with the seller or the buyer. Council, he added, did not vote to demolish anything related to the Commonwealth project. He said the owner does not need Council approval.
Hansen said she’s looked at the state of Rapp and Rapp theaters — the Chicago architects of the Retlaw Theater and 105 theaters in the U.S. Forty-seven have been demolished, 16 are vacant and still standing and 42 are open.
“It’s an unfortunate reality that not all of these properties can be saved,” Hansen said.
The Thursday, Oct. 25 2012 meeting of the Historical Society of Walworth and Big Foot Prairie featured the former Walworth Theatre and adjacent Showette. Sixty attendees at the 90-minute session saw Jim Jurgensen’s wooden armrest from one of the theater seats during demolition nearly 30 years ago. Society president Nancy Lehman opened the program at Golden Years Retirement Village with the history of the theatre and adjacent Showette soda fountain and lunch counter. Constantine Papas of Chicago built the Walworth Theatre after considering the tourist impact from metropolitan Chicago and northern Illinois spending summers in the area.
Architect Robert Chase of Janesville designed the theater and Showette. His original drawing of the theater was displayed at the meeting, but his rendition little resembled the actual building as shown in a photograph provided by Stan Fairchild. The grand opening was on April 25, 1947 with “Ramrod” starring Don DeFore, who was supposed to appear in person but canceled.
Louis Simonini of the Saunders Theatre in Harvard, Ill. was the first manager, but in 1948 Thomas and Dorothy Finin came from Decatur, Ill. with their children Jean, Carol and Tim. For the next 26 years Tom managed the theater and Dorothy the Showette.
When Papas died, ownership went to John Papas and Spiro Papas, who contracted with Standard Theatres of Milwaukee to operate the theatre. Tom Finin arranged for Standard to provide first-run pictures day and date with Milwaukee. Later, Delavan-area residents Ann and Harlan Seaver owned the Walworth Theatre, which fortunes declined after 1979. After closure, the building fell into disrepair, hastened by a collapsed roof, and was razed.
Past employees told of their experiences. Barb Krohn Nieman of Walworth worked at both places on and off for 14 years, beginning in 1954 at the concession counter for a year as her first job. “It was fun. I popped corn and sold candy and ice cream. The most popular were Jujubes, Juicy Fruit gum and Milk Duds. Then I moved into the Showette, where I was trained by Gloria Nieman, and sold hamburgers, hot dogs, fries and fountain drinks such as cherry vanilla phosphates and Green Rivers.” A pizza oven was added in 1956, selling for 70 cents and $1.50. Sunday nights were busy as tourists passed through on their way back to the Chicago area, as were evenings after local bal-l games.
Among the cashiers were Walworth residents Betty Lou Edgington Austin in 1947-49 and Betty Cunningham Nichols in 1950-56, working in a tiny, unheated box office. Austin’s boyfriend (and later husband) at the time was Leonard “Buster” Church Jr., who worked many years as a movie projectionist and managed the United Artists Cinemas in Kenosha. After work, he drove Betty home to the family farm northwest of Fontana. If they arrived after midnight, they often herded the cows into the barn for her father who later milked them. Betty’s sister Mary Kirkpatrick of Walworth (the historical society secretary) remembered Betty bringing home theatre popcorn and eating it in the bed they shared. She also recalled her Walworth High School senior American history class going to “Gone With the Wind.”
When Betty became bored in the box office, she’d wave at truck drivers passing by. They’d park their trucks around the corner and come to talk to her until Tom Finin intervened and sent the drivers on their way. She met her husband Ken (not a trucker) at the theatre after he moved to Walworth from Peoria, Ill., as part of a business transfer.
Wendy Church, who lives near Burlington, often visited her father Leonard Church Jr. in the small projection booth, which was accessed by a narrow, steep and curved stairway and learned how projectionists switched from one projector to another by watching the upper-right corner of the screen for white circles to cue the transfer. The large projection machines dominated the booth, which also had a counter for splicing and a restroom.
Another cashier was former Fontana resident Debbie Levine Vanderstappen who worked there in the early 1970s and got to know the Finins well, describing Dorothy as “someone who worked hard”. Dennis Janis, rural Burlington, grew up in Walworth and accompanied his father Hank delivering milk from his Walworth Dairy business in the 1950s and ‘60s. “Mrs. Finin was the hardest worker I ever knew,” Janis said. “I learned my work ethic from dad and her. The Finins did not make a lot of money, but she was the most dedicated worker I’ve ever seen. She split a hot dog and cooked it on the grill and toasted the bun. I can still taste it. I also liked the suicide Coke with all the flavors in it. I loved the Showette, and it broke my heart when the theater came down.” Janis was thrown out of a movie after a buddy produced a loud pop by stepping on an inverted paper cup. Tom Finin escorted Renk, Booth and Janis to the door due to guilt by association.
Many in the audience recalled Finin patrolling the two aisles with his flashlight. Finin was helpful to Sue Hoyt and her sister Jeanie McReynolds during a Sunday matinee when the sisters were only 6 or 7 years old. “One of us had to go to the bathroom, and the other was supposed to stay in her seat so we would know where to sit. But when the one came out of the bathroom the other was in the lobby, so we didn’t know where our seats were, which had our new winter coats. Mr. Finin helped us find our seats and our coats.” Jeanie was saddened the day she biked with her son Tommy to see the deteriorating theater. “I remember all the emotion I felt then because it was the end of an era. It was a wonderful little theater, and the Finins were wonderful people who worked hard.”
The steps in front of the theater were a popular place to hang out. Bob Pearce spent noon hours from the nearby high school there with his friends, who occasionally yelled loudly at drivers going the wrong way on the one-way streets around the square. He said one driver stopped and did not move due to the yelling. Stan Fairchild’s late wife Sandy worked at the concession counter in high school, and recalled the Showette parking lot filled with cars after a sporting event. “The Showette was so packed you couldn’t get in. I will never forget the hamburgers made there.”
Patrick Romenesko of Elkhorn as a child visited with Santa Claus, portrayed by Curt Hubertz of Fontana, in the theatre lobby, and remembered the free movies for kids on Saturday afternoons paid for by area businesspeople. Bill Bowie of Delavan solicited donations for the movies, and he ate at the Showette because of the good food.
Richard Rasmussen of Walworth Township went to Big Foot High School. “The Walworth and Fontana kids were in competition. The Walworth kids envied the Fontana kids because they had the lake and beach, but the Fontana kids were more envious of the Walworth kids because we had the theatre.” Dentist Tom Beci and his family moved to Walworth in 1976 because “the theater was a big selling point. We probably went to see a movie every other week.”
A handout at the meeting told about James Marsden of Fontana being arrested for breaking into the theatre and Showette and stealing money in February 1957. Dave Nieman of Walworth related that Marsden was apprehended after Walworth police followed the tire tracks of his car in the snow to his residence.
Jack Cunningham of Walworth drilled a hole in the Showette jukebox and used a wire to select records to play for free. “I don’t think Tom Finin ever found out about it."
Lynn “Gabby” Jensen was stranded at the theatre after a blizzard hit. She spent the night there, and Tom Finin brought her lots of popcorn. When she grew tired of eating it, Dorothy Finin showed up with “an armful of candy,” Jensen said.
Bonnie Cornue met her future husband Dick at the Showette, and told about a high school homecoming celebration featuring a snake dance around the downtown square. The dancers entered the front door of the theater and exited the back door – while a movie was being shown.
As a youngster Steve Schnitcke stopped in the Showette one day to buy a Coke from Dorothy Finin. No one else was there, so he couldn’t resist spinning all the seats of the stools, creating a lot of noise. When he reached the last stool, waiting for him was Finin with his Coke and a firm request to leave.
Mary Kay Nordmeyer recalled the aroma of pizzas cooking in the Showette wafting all the way down to the front of the theatre.
Dave Woodrich of Walworth Township watched the theatre being built from a window of Walworth High School during civics class.
The last movie Harold Bonner of Walworth watched at the theater was “Jaws.”
ANTIOCH THEATRE SEEKS COMMUNITY HELP FOR RENOVATION
(6/20/2014 by Jill Tatge-Rozell, Kenosha News)
ANTIOCH — The owner of the Antioch Theatre and an investor trying to save the iconic movie venue are reaching out to the general public to raise the final $65,000 needed to complete a $750,000 renovation.
Owner Cindy Kottke, faced with deferred maintenance issues and outdated technology, shuttered the theater May 16.
Investor Tim Downey, a member of the founding team behind the Great Wolf Lodge resort chain, said the theater survived prohibition, the Great Depression and World War II. He said he believes, with the right backing, it can also survive the digital age.
“Movie theaters are like heartbeats for small downtowns,” Downey said. “When a downtown theater closes, fewer people visit and other businesses suffer. too. I just didn’t want to see that happen.”
Downey and Kottke said the goal of the renovation project is to preserve the historical character of the building while transforming it into a financially viable, modern theater.
The building dates back to 1919, when it opened as a live performance house called Majestic Theatre. In 1924, it was converted to a single-screen movie theater and was renamed Antioch Theatre. “One of the great things about this theater is it originally opened as a live theater,” Downey said. “So we are going to keep the stage. We will be able to offer live events, such as comedy nights, live performances, speakers and community events and benefits.”
Kottke said they will also preserve the balcony seating. “Moviegoers love the balcony,” Kottke said. “We are going to keep it pretty much the same.”
Downey added that previous renovations did not keep the history, or future, of the theater in mind. The lobby, for example, needs attention, he said. “There are glimpses of what it was,” Downey said. “I don’t want it to have a modern lobby. Hopefully, when it’s done, it will tell the story of what it could have, or should have, looked like in the ‘20s.”
Other upgrades will include:
— The addition of a 29-seat theater room
— All new digital projection and sound
— A new screen in the main theater, new drapery and new seats
— A new marquee and a redesigned facade
— A renovated lobby and heated front sidewalk
— Sprinkler fire protection
Downey said digital projection will allow the theater to show first-run releases and broadcast special events. The smaller theater will allow for the transfer of a movie onto a smaller screen in the latter weeks of its run so a new release can be featured on the larger screen.
“The additional screen is critical for successful operation in the future,” Downey said. “Movie distributors require theaters to hold films for two to four weeks. However, as a movie’s attendance drops during its run, a single-screen theater is burdened with little income while it waits for the next new release.”
Downey and Kottke have energized the community and the village of Antioch to get behind the renovation. Raymond Chevrolet, Something Sweet Confectionery, Great Lakes Credit Union, the Antioch Chamber of Commerce, and an anonymous benefactor have pledged $150,000 toward the project cost.
The village of Antioch will lend the project $200,000, to be repaid by a village-wide movie ticket tax. Another $35,000 will be raised through the sale of granite sidewalk stars and other personalized promotions.
Downey said they are hoping to raise the final $65,000 in pledges with the help of “Kickstart,” a website used by those seeking donations for worthwhile projects. The online pledges will only be accepted if the funding goal is met by the July 31 deadline.
A minimum pledge of $1 can be made through the website, www.kickstarter.com, by searching for Save the Antioch Theatre project. Donations of at least $10 and upwards of $1,000 come with rewards ranging from free movie tickets and popcorn to seat sponsorship plaques and personalized glass wall stars that will hang in the theater.
The pledge drive went live June 16. As of Wednesday afternoon, 59 people had made pledges totaling nearly $5,500.
To make a donation pledge toward the Antioch Theatre renovation project:
— Visit www.antiochtheatre.com and follow the link to the “Kickstarter” website.
— Call Tim Downey or Cindy Kottke at (847) 395-0425
The pledge will only be collected as a donation if the $65,000 fundraising goal is met by July 31.
Renovation plans for the Antioch Downtown Theatre in Antioch, Illinois: https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/608543555/save-the-antioch-theatre
Chicago Daily Tribune, 7 January 1914, Page 3
Rhode’s windows undergoing a facelift (Kenosha News, May 23, 2014 by Bill Guida)
“Workmen began a fenestral facelift Friday at the Rhode Center of the Arts, with removal of the steel frames and glass panes from the arched second-floor windows of the vintage theater and opera house overlooking 56th Street.
Lowell Bros. Construction Co., of Kenosha, is doing the removal and is scheduled to install new, updated windows within the next two weeks.
Steve Mattner, a Rhode board member, said the new windows not only will be more energy efficient, but will “show off” to passersby the four original crystal chandeliers suspended from the ceiling of the ornate lobby inside the downtown Kenosha landmark.
Now home to The Lakeside Players, the original Rhode Opera House was built in 1891 but destroyed by fire in 1896, although it was rebuilt the same year.
The second building was razed by Milwaukee entertainment giants the Saxe Brothers in 1926 to make way for the “modern” building costing a half million dollars — more than $6.5 million in today’s money — and which opened in 1927 as the Gateway Theater.
The third building to stand on the site, the Gateway Theater was leased to another operator in 1963, who renamed it the Lake Theater, which underwent a building makeover in 1976 before closing 12 years later.
In 1987, the Kenosha Lakeshore Business Improvement District (now the Downtown BID) accepted the Rhode family’s request to take title to the property and renamed it once again the Rhode Opera House. In 1989, Lakeside Players, a community theater group, bought the building for the cost of improvements.
In July 2004, with the opening of the Pollard Gallery in the building, which also houses another art gallery in the second floor Madrigrano Mezzanine — Rhode Opera House was renamed Rhode Center for the Arts."
Correction: This was the GALLERY Theatre, built and operated by Henry Landa.
Children stand in line at the ZION Theatre, celebrating the repeal of the blue laws which had prohibited movies to be shown on Sundays. (Chicago Sun-Times photograph, April 11, 1949.)
The architect was G. H. Pridmore of 35 West Dearborn Street, Chicago.
1927 – Rumors circulate about the construction of a new theater next to the Agner Auto Co. garage on Geneva Street.
1928 – The Plaza Theater opens at the Agner site; over 1,200 in attendance. Vaudeville acts added later in the year.
1930 – New sound equipment installed at the Plaza and at the Crystal.
1931 – Kapitan, son of canine movie star Rin Tin Tin, appears live at the Plaza.
1931 – Stink bombs set off at the Crystal and Plaza.
1933 – Cowboy singing legend Gene Autry appears at the Plaza.
1938 – New air conditioning equipment installed at the Plaza.
1951 – Plaza remodeled; new candy counter and mural of Echo Lake are added.
1952 – Presidential candidate Harold E. Stassen speaks at the Plaza.
1953 – Plaza outfitted for three-dimensional films. Later in the year the screen is adjusted to accommodate wide-screen showings.
1989 – Steve and Dana Lind buy Plaza Theater from Mary Jane Faust.
1997 – $1.1 million three-screen addition added to Plaza.
1909 – Fenn Building on Chestnut Street becomes home to the Crystal Theater.
1910 – Owners of Crystal Theater announce plans to build new theater at Pine Street and Geneva Street (Commerce Street and Milwaukee Avenue). It opens in February 1911. The Vandette Theater opens in the Fenn Building, the former home to the Crystal. It closes operation in a month.
1935 – Crystal Theatre becomes the State Theatre.
1953 – City Council votes to buy property where State Theatre is located for construction of a parking lot.