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Wisconsin Theater destroyed by fire 57 years ago today
(La Crosse Tribune, December 28, 2009)
During the early morning hours of Dec. 28, 1952, the Wisconsin Theater at 514-520 Main St. in La Crosse was destroyed by a spectacular fire. Thanks to the efforts of the La Crosse Fire Department and a firewall in the theater’s auditorium, the offices and apartments that occupied the front of the building were spared extensive damage and no lives were lost. Two firemen had to be hospitalized during the blaze.
The Wisconsin Theater was originally known as the Majestic Theater when it opened Jan. 3, 1910, as a vaudeville house. Frank Schwalbe and Peter Newburg were the original owners.
The Majestic had a seating capacity of 800, with 700 seats on the main floor and 100 in the balcony. Steel and asbestos was used in the construction of the theater for fireproofing. The massive stage curtain was also laced with asbestos.
The interior design work was done by the Odin J. Oyen Co. of La Crosse. Alex Soderberg, an artist working for Oyen, painted a large mural in the theater that symbolized a comedy, tragedy and musical stage performance.
The basement of the Majestic Theater contained a large four-boiler steam heating system. Each chair in the theater had a small heating vent beneath it.
In the early 1920s, the majestic began showing the new silent movies. By the late 1920s, the theater was showing motion pictures with sound.
It wasn’t long before the La Crosse Theater Company, which managed the Majestic, realized that motion pictures were replacing vaudeville as entertainment for the masses.
So a significant remodeling of the Majestic began in early 1936 under the direction of Minneapolis architect Perry E. Crosier. It was soon decided that the name of the theater would be changed to the Wisconsin Theater.
Among the improvements made in the 1936 remodel was an increase in seating capacity from 800 to 1,100. A firewall was also installed at this time. A brand new marquee was installed and featured a 58-foot tall “Wisconsin” sign, which was built by the Electrolite Sign Co. of Milwaukee.
The Wisconsin Theater opened on Sept. 19, 1936, with the Warner Brothers motion picture “Anthony Adverse,” starring Fredric March and Olivia DeHavilland. Theater manager Frank Koppel-berger received many congratulatory notes on the theater opening from several Hollywood luminaries, including Lionel Barrymore, Jean Harlow, Clark Gable and the Marx Brothers.
The former site of the theater is now occupied by a parking lot located just west of St. Joseph the Workman Cathedral.
(Source: La Crosse Public Library Archives.
(Chicago Tribune, September 27, 1996)
Sign Of The Times
State Street Is Losing Its Brightest Light, But Only For A Short While.
Chicago Theatre Getting A Brand-new Old Look
By Sabrina L. Miller, Tribune Staff Writer.
Aging stars don’t burn out—they get replaced. After 75 illuminating years, the towering Chicago Theatre sign, State Street’s brightest star and one of the city’s most recognizable landmarks, is coming down this week. The 76-foot-high steel sign, with 2,534 lights screaming “Chicago” for all to see, is corroded beyond repair and must be removed, said Chicago Theatre Executive Director Wendy Heimann-Nunes.
“We are ensuring that the sign will look as it did when it was first put up,” he said.
Theater officials discovered the sign’s deterioration during a routine inspection last March, after the Civic Preservation Foundation assumed management of the theater. The sign appeared fine on the outside, but 75 years of Chicago’s harsh weather had taken its toll on the inside.
“It had to be close to falling, the steel was so rusted,” said Steve Kieffer, owner of Kieffer & Co., the Sheboygan, Wis., firm that is manufacturing the replica for $500,000.
“If it was at all possible to keep the original, we would have done it,” said Heimann-Nunes. “But it would have cost us two to three times as much to repair than to replace.”
So, how does one go about replicating a national landmark? Painstakingly, said Kieffer. Everything must be identical, from the seams between the metal pieces and obsolete maintenance ladders inside the top of the sign to intricate scrollwork.
The entire project will take about 860 hours of work, he said. The sign will be made in Sheboygan, then shipped to the Kieffer firm’s Buffalo Grove office, where an installation team will take it to Chicago.
The replica will be constructed from aluminum, which weighs about one-third less than the current steel sign and will ease stress on the building, Kieffer said. There will be a modern wiring system and “chaser” lights around the perimeter will be reconnected.
“We’ve gone to the nth degree to replicate it,” Heimann-Nunes said. “I don’t think anybody will know the difference.”
The art-deco MITCHELL Theatre was built and opened on May 10, 1938 from remnants of the neoclassic NATIONAL Theatre, which opened on March 8, 1923 and was damaged in a January, 1928 fire. The MITCHELL was destroyed in a fire on October 17, 1984.
This theatre became the HOO-HOO in 1940; previously it was the WRIGHT.
The Westgate Theater opened near the corner of Sunnyside and France Avenue in 1935. The owner, Carl Fust, a retired life insurance salesman who once traveled Europe as a professional violinist with the Minneapolis Symphony, conducted the orchestra that night.
Although the Westgate stood less than a mile away from the successful Edina Theater, which opened just the year before at 50th and France, Fust had no worries about the competition because like Fust, people went to the movies every Friday night. Admission was 25 cents. Movies were America’s most popular form of entertainment.
Fust’s “retirement project” used architect Perry Crosier of Liebenberg and Kaplan, the same architectural firm that designed the Edina Theater, to create an Art Deco streamlined design. Although much smaller (seating 500 compared to the Edina’s 1000), the Westgate included air conditioning, high fidelity sound, modern décor, and a club and bridge room with catering service.
Unfortunately, Fust learned he couldn’t compete with Edina Theater’s monopoly on high-rated movies so “our attendance was not very good,” wrote his daughter Margaret Delin in her memoirs.
Fust didn’t have the chance to fight the system. After what seemed to be a minor car crash in the fall of 1937, his health failed due to undiagnosed internal bleeding, and he died in March 1938, and the Edina Theater owners Issie and Ben Friedman bought the Westgate.
For some, the big attraction wasn’t the main features but the weekly serials, installments of Charlie Chan, Batman and Buck Rogers. One young fan worked as an usher at the Westgate for 35 cents an hour, including a uniform and free admission, popcorn and candy. John Hurley, top manager for both theaters, offered him work at the Edina as well as the Westgate and, during World War II, took on more responsibility as his male co-workers shipped out for military duty.
Newsreels updated moviegoers on the war before every feature, and Westgate manager Howard Hinton chain-smoked as he worried about keeping his 16-year-old son out of the war, and sold war bonds and emceed raffles for dishes, cigarettes and bank nights, a raffle drawing for a check.
He delivered weekend cash receipts for both theaters by streetcar to the Lake and Hennepin Northwestern National Bank in brown paper lunch bags with thousands of dollars in bills and coins.
In the late 1940s, the library saw more customers than the theater did on many days, recalled a former manager who was used to bigger theater crowds in his native Pittsburgh, and was surprised to see no one in the audience on New Year’s Eve 1946, his first night on the job. Only he and his new wife, and her parents sat in the audience minutes before the first show.
“Should we cancel?” he asked the projectionist. The projectionist urged him to wait, and perhaps nine people eventually showed.
The theater provided a quiet haven for Morningside’s lone police officer, who patrolled the streets until he retired at age 83. When he needed a rest, he’d sit in the darkened theater and told the manager to get him if his wife (who answered police calls at home) wanted him.
The Westgate Theater continued on, but didn’t achieve big audiences until the 1970s with “Harold and Maude”. The dark comedy opened in mid-1972 at the Westgate Theater, and no one in the audience suspected that they’d have another 1,956 opportunities to see the popular film that achieved a cult following. For over two years, “Harold and Maude” played at the Westgate.
By the beginning of the third year, disgruntled neighborhood residents picketed the theater with signs reading “Our plea to Westgate. Your neighbors want variety” and “Two Years Too Much.”
The record-breaking run of “Harold and Maude” brought it and the stars Ruth Gordon and Bud Cort national acclaim. Cort said later that the Minnesota run would boost his career.
Both stars visited the Westgate Theater. Ruth Gordon attended the first anniversary showing, and both came for the second anniversary, as picketing continued.
The movie played for a total of 1,957 showings from mid-1972 until June 1974, setting a new record for number of showings for any movies in the Twin Cities.
“The Rocky Horror Picture Show” would break that record in the late 1970s, but the Westgate began the strategy of finding a market to stay alive in a time when multiplex theaters took most of the movie business from small single-screen operations like Westgate.
The Westgate experienced several reports that it was closing after “Harold and Maude” ended. An Edina Sun headline on August 10, 1977 read “Was W
estgate’s ‘death’ greatly exaggerated?”
“The Westgate Theater, scheduled to close in July ‘is open and running,’ said the General Cinema Corp. division manager in Minneapolis. He and a Boston-based General Cinema Corp. official denied earlier reports of the proposed closing.
Eventually, he said he theater’s future was in doubt.
Soon, though, the Westgate, though playing such top billings as ‘Silver Streak’ and ‘Annie Hall’ was scheduled to close along with the Suburban World and two of St. Paul’s three downtown theatres, apparently due to lack of profits. In fact, the theater did close later in 1977.
Today, the theater building is home to the Edina Cleaners & Launderers. The marquee is gone, and the building has been remodeled and expanded, but the lines of the original building still can be seen.
Former Riant box office worker has star qualities
(Published Wednesday, February 28, 2007)
By: M. English
Back then, the borough had its own movie theater. The Riant was an Art Deco-inspired picture house on the southwest corner of West First Avenue and Fayette Street, and during most of the ‘30s Cahill manned its box office.
The 850-seat theater fell to the wrecking ball in the mid-1970s, and the site is now occupied by the Keystone Building and a tenant roster that includes Conshohocken’s municipal offices. But Cahill can still picture the restless queue of kids waiting to push through the Riant’s front door as she approached – keys in hand – from her home on nearby West Elm Street.
“Saturday afternoons they’d have a matinee, and the kids lined up for blocks,” remembers Cahill, whose father appeared on area vaudeville stages. “They couldn’t wait to get in. They all had their 11 cents to buy their tickets. They were so excited, and when they saw me coming, they’d cheer ‘Hurray … here she comes.’ To tell you the truth, I was just a young girl, and that was always so embarrassing.
“But I loved working there. The manager was a wonderful man. And it was beautiful inside. I remember even in the ladies room there was always a bouquet of flowers … and a hostess … Kay, I think her name was … to make sure everything was alright.
“I was the second youngest of nine – I had one sister and seven brothers – so, as a kid, I never had much money for going to the movies. But working there, I got to see the movies for free. So, working there was more like a pleasure than a job.”
Cahill was “disappointed” by the recent 2007 Academy Awards. “Most of the girls [at the Oscars] looked like they needed a good hair-combing.”
Back in the day, Cahill was a big Jean Harlow fan. The draw for the kids who awaited her arrival at the Riant?
“Oh, they were there to see people like Hoot Gibson or Gene Autry,” she says. “There was lots of cowboy stuff back then. And they were always double, even triple features. Of course, you always had the kids who tried to sneak in without paying … by one of the other doors. But once they were in, they could spend all afternoon in the movies.”
According to borough history buff and businessman Jack Coll, the Riant opened Nov. 11, 1921, the same Saturday Conshohocken and West Conshohocken co-hosted a “massive” parade and celebration to dedicate the new concrete bridge that linked the neighboring Schuylkill-side boroughs. Coll’s research indicates the theater property was previously occupied by a “candy-ice cream store” and took “nearly two years to construct … (with workers using) hand-built wood scaffolding and horse and wagon to haul away debris.” “The name for the theatre was chosen in a public contest,” Coll says. “The name Riant was submitted by the late George Chell Sr., who resided [on]…West Fifth Avenue. Riant is a French word meaning ‘laughing, smiling, pleasant and cheerful.’ Mr. Chell received a year’s free pass to all performances for submitting the winning name.”
The theater’s first movie “The Sign on the Door” starring Norma Talmadge had a two-night run, followed by “The Old Nest” on Nov. 14 and 15. The latter featured Dwight T. Crittenden, Mary Alden and Nick Cogley, advertised in the local press (contemporary celebs, take note) as “the greatest star cast ever assembled.”
Adult admission was 25 cents plus a three-cent war tax (17 cents total for non-holiday matinees). Children’s tickets cost 15 cents plus a two-cent war tax (11 cents total for non-holiday matinees), and fancy lodge seats were 36 cents plus a four-cent war tax. Of course, the Riant showed nothing but silent films until 1928.
In those days, Coll notes, Conshohocken actually had its share of movie theaters, among them, Little’s Opera House, the Gem and the Forrest. “An Uptown movie theater that Nicholas Talone had proposed at the northwest corner of Ninth and Fayette street never developed,” he adds.
The proprietor of Coll’s Custom Framing as well as a current borough councilman, Coll says the Riant was part of the H. Fried Enterprises theater group during the 1930s and ‘40s. The chain also included the borough’s Forrest, Wayne’s Anthony Wayne, Ardmore’s Suburban Theatre and Bryn Mawr’s Seville – today’s restored Bryn Mawr Film Institute.
Coll figures the Riant stopped showing films in the early 1970s. The property was purchased by Montgomery County Redevelopment Authority in 1975 and demolished in 1976. “And contrary to what a lot of people think, ‘Mash’ wasn’t the last movie that played at the Riant,” he says. “‘Mash’ is on the marquee in some of the pictures you see today, so people make that assumption. What happened, though, somebody was making a movie in town and wanted something up on the marquee and ‘Mash’ was what they came up with.”
Here’s a memorial tribute to Mr. Alex Kouvalis, who I was fortunate to meet shortly after he took over the PATIO. http://www.findagrave.com/cgi-bin/fg.cgi?page=pi&GRid=104918232 Comments and tributes are welcome.
The STAR Theatre was refurbished and reopened as the SHINGLEHOUSE Theatre in 1939 and later acquired by Kenyon Reed. It came under the ownership of Marian and Don Enstrom and Margie and Neil Barnhart in 1949.
(Janesville WI Gazette, November 21, 1923)
THEATER CLOSED FOR TAX FAILURE
Konosha. —Representatives of the federal collectors of Internal Revenue this afternoon padlocked the Strand Theater in Kenosha on the claim that the theater had failed to pay taxes on admissions since January. The tax with penalties was alleged to amount to more than $3,000.
Add to the 1987 paragraph that on the night of December 29, 1987, which was the GATEWAY (LAKE) Theatre’s 60th Anniversary, the Theatre Historical Society (THS) toured the theatre.
Manuel Ramos Rejano was born in Palma del Río (Córdoba) Spain on October 19, 1851. Having perfected a ceramic enameling process, he founded his ceramics factory in the district of Triana in Seville. At thirteen, he arrived in Seville intending to join the Spanish army, but took employment instead in a hardware store until he was 25. His brother motivated him to open the Bazar Sevillano shop in Seville, initially a toy and fine-jewelry store which eventually added pottery. Through this he met potters Francisco Diaz Alvarez, Fernando Soto Jimenez, and Mensaque (of Mensaque Rodriquez and Co.). During this time he perfected techniques for clearcoating without impurities. As production increased, he moved the factory in 1905 to San Jacinto. Its output in the early Twentieth Century along with that of competitors Manuel Garcia and Carlos Montalvan Pickman started a new boom in Seville ceramics, receiving awards at the 1930 International Fair of Liège and the Grand Prize of the 1929 Ibero-American Exhibition of Seville (1929). Besides the benches depicting the Don Quixote legend in the Grand Lobby of the 1927 Gateway Theatre in Kenosha, his work was seen in the 1929 Latin American Exhibition of Seville in ceramic decorations on the exhibition buildings, the fronts for Metro Buenos Aires, Madrid’s Palacio de Comunicaciones interiors, and Hospital Day Laborer Maudes on commission from architect Antonio Palacios. Manuel Ramos Rejano died in Seville on October 26, 1922. The factory continued on with a change in the name to Vda. Rejano Ramos and Sons and later as Rejano Ramos Sons
until its final closure in 1965.
Manuel Ramos Rejano was born in Palma del Río (Córdoba) Spain on October 19, 1851. Having perfected a ceramic enameling process, he founded his ceramics factory in the district of Triana in Seville. At thirteen, he arrived in Seville intending to join the Spanish army, but took employment instead in a hardware store until he was 25. His brother motivated him to open the Bazar Sevillano shop in Seville, initially a toy and fine-jewelry store which eventually added pottery. Through this he met potters Francisco Diaz Alvarez, Fernando Soto Jimenez, and Mensaque (of Mensaque Rodriquez and Co.). During this time he perfected techniques for clearcoating without impurities.
As production increased, he moved the factory in 1905 to San Jacinto. Its output in the early Twentieth Century along with that of competitors Manuel Garcia and Carlos Montalvan Pickman started a new boom in Seville ceramics, receiving awards at the 1930 International Fair of Liège and the Grand Prize of the 1929 Ibero-American Exhibition of Seville (1929).
Besides the benches depicting the Don Quixote legend in the Grand Lobby of the 1927 Gateway Theatre in Kenosha, his work was seen in the 1929 Latin American Exhibition of Seville in ceramic decorations on the exhibition buildings, the fronts for Metro Buenos Aires, Madrid’s Palacio de Comunicaciones interiors, and Hospital Day Laborer Maudes on commission from architect Antonio Palacios. Manuel Ramos Rejano died in Seville on October 26, 1922. The factory continued on with a change in the name to Vda. Rejano Ramos and Sons and later as Rejano Ramos Sons until its final closure in1965.
The CAPITOL was originally the CARMODY Theatre.
Note WHITEHOUSE Theatre to the right.
I’m wondering if the Three Stooges festival I attended in March, 1986 was on the last night the Granada was open. It was cold in the Granada although the heat was on, but the large audience remained throughout. In the poster cases outside, there were announcements of new ownership and presentations to come, yet I never read of anything else ever offered at the Granada.
I put together an online memorial to Walter Klein, Jr.
Comments and remembrances are welcome. http://www.findagrave.com/cgi-bin/fg.cgi?page=gr&GRid=103679729
A news article reports that the HOLLYWOOD (nee BUTTERFLY) Theatre is being reborn as “Circa 1880.” Plans announced by the new owners include restoring “some of its past features, with a vision toward creating a special events destination by incorporating details that would awe guests, while keeping the space neutral enough to host wedding ceremonies, receptions and all manner of banquets.” The venue will feature a 9-foot dressing room and lounge area. The auditorium will showcase the original 22-foot tall ceilings and a new grand staircase leading to the balcony, and the owners say “We’re trying to keep the historical integrity of the building. Over the years, a lot of things were taken out.” The Polish Legion of American Veterans will still meet there for free once the occupancy permit is secured, probably in late February or early March.
In these 1957 photos, the BURNS name seems to have been painted out.
STAR Theatre official site: http://www.wvi.com/~starcinema/history.htm
‘’‘Today is the GATEWAY Theatre’s 85th Anniversary.’‘’
(Thursday, June 1, 1939)
Onyx Club Orchestra to Play at Gateway Theater
“Stuff” Smith, composer of “I'se a Muggin” and the leader of the famed Onyx Club orchestra, will be at the Gateway theater in Kenosha next Saturday and Sunday, June 3 and 4, at the matinee and evening performances, to entertain with the swing music which
has made the name of “Stuff” Smith a Broadway and Chicago byword.
When Walter Winchell wrote “Look for the next wallop in swing bands when "Stuff” Smith and his boys open at the Onyx club,“ he was right, for "Stuff” and his boys have made the Onyx Club nationally famous as “The Cradle of Swing.”
This great colored orchestra has recently completed a successful five month engagement at the Blue Fountain room of Chicago’s Hotel La Salle.
Featured with the orchestra are several of the hottest stars of swing, including Jonah Jones, Harlem’s famous
“Gabriel of the Trumpet.”
Regular admission prices will prevail.
Apparently the 1960-era “Smell-O-Vision” gadget that wafted odors to match the action on the screen in “Scent of Mystery” wasn’t so new, according to this article from the Rivoli’s opening:
“Another and in this case an entirely novel feature of The Rivoli will be the introduction of perfume to supplement the appeal made to the other senses.
Several thousand dollars have been expended on a newly devised compressor plant which operates in connection with an intricate system of atomizers and by means of which any delicate odor desired can be wafted instantly to all parts of the house; incense for Oriental scenes, clover and new mown hay when the stage setting reveals a country landscape at dusk, a myriad variety of floral scents if a garden is to be suggested, and any other blending of odors so long as they are aesthetically possible and have a definite suggestive value.”
The rest of the article reads:
“In the way of stage setting and scenic effects Mr. Rothapfel will have far greater scope for his ingenuity than he has had heretofore. For the opening
of the theater the stage setting will be known as "The Conservatory of Jewels.” It will consist of a dome within a dome, each studded with huge crystal gems after the manner of the celebrated Tower of Jewels at the Panama Pacific Exposition. These will flash with kaleidoscopic effect when the light plays upon them from the front and will glow softly in their several colors when another set of lights is brought into play behind them. The base of the inner dome will be incrusted with a fine jeweled mosaic and at the rear of the scene the eye will be led away in perspective down a magnificent avenue of palms. The brightest
jewel of all of course will be the screen and this will be arranged so that it fits in as a component part of the stage picture.
There will be two sets of curtains, a screen curtain and a tableau curtairf, thus adding another innovation
to houses of this character.
Fifty in Orchestra
“So far as music is concerned, interest in the new theater centers largely around the orchestra. Mr. Rothapfel announces that it will consist of approximately fifty musicians, under the general direction of Hugo Riesenfeld, though except on
special occasions Dr. Riesenfeld will continue to conduct at The Rialto. Unusual interest has been stimulated by the announcement that once each week the
orchestras of The Rivoli and The Rialto will be combined in what is to be known as the Rothapfel Symphony Orchestra, of a hundred or more pieces,
which will render a popular symphony concert in the new theater. Members of both orchestras will be liable for duty at either theater and the conductors and
assistant conductors will interchange duties also upon occasion. Just as the conductors at the Metropolitan Opera House are called upon to interpret those
compositions best suited to their special training, so the men handling the batons at The Rialto and The Rivoli will be assigned to whichever program will best
bring out their particular capabilities.
The grand pipe organ at The Rivoli is the largest and most complete ever installed in any theater in the world. It was built by the Austin Organ Company,
of Hartford, Conn., and delivered at the theater on four huge auto trucks, in order to avoid possible delay because of freight tie-ups. It is equipped with
every attachment known to the organ builder’s art and will supply adequate musical atmosphere for those performances at which the orchestra is not present.”
On November 7, 1917 the MADISON SQUARE Theatre opened, seating 2,000 people and owned by the West End Amusement Company, which also controled the Virginia and Crawford Theaters. The West End Amusement Company
was formed by William E. Heaney (vice-president of the Illinois Branch of MPEL of America and manager of the
Virginia and Crawford theaters), his father James B. Heaney, J. D. Murphy, and H. A., Paul A. and John Arm-
strong. There was a $6,000 Wangerin & Weickhardt pipe organ. Admissions were 10 and 15 cents including the war tax.