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The ANTIOCH Theatre was originally to be called the NEW MAJESTIC Theatre. It began as a co-partnership between Lyman B. Grice of Antioch and William C. Bryant of Bristol, Wisconsin (in neighboring Kenosha County). The theatre, with seats for 400 patrons, had a projected cost of $40,000.
Groundbreaking began on Wednesday, September 26, 1923. Soon after, Grice and Bryant sold a half-interest in the venture to James P. Johnson (a local proprietor of a resort hotel and the father of Oliver G. Johnson, who was managing the MAJESTIC Theatre in Antioch) and Albert L. Fell.
In January 1924, Oliver Johnson announced he was closing the MAJESTIC to move into the new ANTIOCH Theatre under construction and would be ending his lease with Barney Naber on Main Street, where the MAJESTIC had been since April 27, 1919, and that Naber would be leasing the former theatre to William Ross for a restaurant. Oliver G. Johnson brought in his brother Frank Johnson to co-manage the theatre.
The motto of the ANTIOCH Theatre was “The Public is Right.” The first feature presentation was Zane Grey’s “The Wanderer of the Wasteland.”
Fred B. Swanson, who began managing the ANTIOCH by December, 1925, was most associated with the success and improvements of the theatre, and remained as manager until May 21, 1941 when he purchased the building to become sole owner. He also owned other movie houses in the Midwest.
In October 1947, Swanson announced he had completed the remodeling of the ANTIOCH, which gave the theatre an additional 100 seats in the balcony.
On October 31, 1957, Swanson sold the ANTIOCH to William Goeway of Antioch, who took control on November 4. He also owned the nearby LAKES (nee CRYSTAL, now PM&L) Theatre. Goeway announced a new deluxe concession department and extensive remodeling of the theatre.
On May 31, 1962, Goeway sold the ANTIOCH to Henry C. Rhyan of the FAMILY Outdoor Theater in Grayslake and moved to Jacksonville, Florida where he intended to continue in the theatre business.
(Research: Al Westerman.)
The ORPHEUM’s owners since 2013 Gus and Mary Paras plan to do a $200,000 historic replication of its original six-story 63-foot 1926 vertical sign designed by Rapp and Rapp. The current steel face will be replaced with an aluminum replica using energy-efficient point lights in the original configuration. It’s still uncertain whether there will be chasers. In the 1930s the word “NEW” was removed from the top, and then it was “dumbed down” to what’s seen today.
The Paras family has already done restoration on the facade, marquee, ticket booth, roof, plaster, downstairs lavatories, dressing rooms, and HVAC. He said the community excitement was encouraging. Paras got a city facade restoration matching grant of up to $20,000 last year.
This vertical sign was kept lamped and fully operational until its removal in 1981.
Save `The Dupe' …
… and save those memories of Main Street
(July 29, 2005, by John McCarron, who teaches, consults and writes on urban affairs.
Remember the scary sword fight between Sinbad the Sailor and the skeleton man? Or Sinbad’s face-off with the cyclops on the island of Colossa, where he had to go to break the spell cast over his beloved princess Parisa, who had been reduced to the size of a pocket knife by the evil sorcerer Sokurah?
I didn’t think so. Neither did I before I tweaked my memory on the Internet. What I do remember, like it was yesterday, is that sweet feeling of independence, walking down Main Street, Lombard, with my 12-year-old buddies, chores finished, fancy-free on a Saturday afternoon, off to see “The 7th Voyage of Sinbad” at the DuPage Theatre.
As always, the 1959 action movie was only part of the show at “The Dupe.” Some of my older classmates had begun to hang out with (groan) girls, so first we’d cruise the balcony to see who was necking with whom. Next we’d go down to the long, glassy candy counter for an obligatory box of Milk Duds, maybe even a roll of caramel bull’s-eyes—if the lawn-mowing money held up. Then it was time to settle into the red velour seats, under a fake black sky with twinkling stars, and trip away with Sinbad, or Hercules or Jason and the Argonauts. Loved those sandal flicks.
Ah, The Dupe. Say it ain’t so. Say they’re not going to tear her down.
They can’t tear her down. Not after more than a decade of civic efforts to save her. Not after those efforts secured charitable contributions, plus federal and state pledges, worth $5.5 million. Not after one of the nation’s top restoration architects—Daniel P. Coffey, the guy who helped restore the Chicago and the Oriental and the Palace theaters in the North Loop—has drawn up a sensational plan, not just to save the old theater as a performing arts center, but to infuse Lombard’s anemic downtown with a $30 million wrap-around development of luxury condos and lively storefronts.
Most curious of all, how can they knock down The Dupe when powerful DuPage County politicians are pleading with the Lombard Village Board to give preservation one last chance? U.S. Rep. Henry Hyde (R-Ill.), state Sen. Dan Cronin (R-Elmhurst) and former Illinois Senate President James “Pate” Philip (R-Wood Dale)—none previously known as gargoyle-hugging preservationists—are urging the Village Board to reconsider its June vote authorizing demolition.
In some ways you can’t blame the Village Board for losing patience with the project. Ten years ago the volunteer Friends of the DuPage Theatre said a developer was lined up to convert the building into offices and a studio for making educational videos. When that deal fell through the village took title to the 77-year-old theater and its attached offices and storefronts. In 2001 the board appointed a blue-ribbon committee to come up with a plan, but it was slow going.
Seems the “new urbanism” that has inspired towns like Elmhurst, Downers Grove and Arlington Heights to rejuvenate downtowns around restored train stations and theaters has been, well, slow to catch on in the lilac village. It’s still tough to compete there with the big-box discounters on Roosevelt Road and the 18-screen cinema at the Yorktown mall. And public-private partnerships of the kind needed to save The Dupe remain a tough sell politically. It’s still a tax-a-phobic town, even if the John Birch Society long ago closed its anti-communist “library” off St. Charles Road.
Still, there was excitement earlier this year with the unveiling of Coffey’s plan for preservation and redevelopment. His client, developer Richard Curto of RSC & Associates, would restore the theater’s “Spanish courtyard” interior a la the 1928 design by Rapp & Rapp, including those twinkling stars of my youth. In the parking lot south of the theater would rise a five-story condo-over-stores structure of compatible design (this sentence as published has been corrected in this text). Behind the stores, out of sight under the condos, would be two levels of parking for 237 cars, including spaces set aside on weekdays for commuters using the Metra station across the street.
In short, the project would catapult Lombard into the forefront of new urbanism and transit-oriented design. Who knows, the town might even snag a Starbucks. Best of all, contends Coffey, the property and sales taxes from the development, plus the state and federal grants already pledged, would cover the $8.5 million cost of restoring the theater.
But it may not happen. There is bad blood between preservationists and certain members of the Village Board. Deadlines have been missed. Harsh words have been exchanged in public. Other condo developers likely are standing by to pay Lombard serious money for the site—so long as they don’t have to save the theater. Why take a chance on preservation?
“It seems to have come down to plain old personality problems,” said Coffey.
That may be. But for this son of Lombard, this long-ago marcher in the Lilac Parade, it’s also about memories. And the faint hope that some Saturday afternoon in the not too distant future, a 12-year-old and his buddies will be able to walk, not ride, down Main Street, buy some Milk Duds and slip into another world—to the island of Colossa, perhaps—under the stars at the good old Dupe.
ANTIOCH Theatre; April, 2015.
WINDOM, MINN. – For eight months, it sat empty. No blockbusters, no popcorn, no Saturday matinees. In the movie industry’s massive switch from film to digital, it looked like the little State Theater was yet another casualty. But then residents came to its rescue. This month, its classic, red marquee will rise again. People in small cities across Minnesota are rallying around their Main Street movie theaters, helping them pay for the pricey new digital projectors needed as 35-millimeter film is phased out. Sick of seeing businesses shutter their downtown storefronts, they’re writing checks, throwing fundraising galas and convincing city councils to chip in.
The State Theater, now a nonprofit, switched out its whirring projector for a digital behemoth in May. The Historic Comet Theater in Cook, Minn., raised $81,000 for new gear via the Kickstarter fundraising website. This weekend in Luverne, Minn., volunteers hosted a speakeasy-style party, with classic cars and live music, to help pay for the Palace Theatre’s upgrade.
“If people are going to want to move back to small-town, rural Minnesota, there’s gotta be a reason to come back,” said Dianne Ossenfort, president of the Palace’s board. “And a downtown theater is one of the reasons.”
As film gets more difficult to find, movie lovers have worried most about small-town theaters. The expense of buying a new digital projector — plus upping ventilation and retrofitting a booth — often exceeds $60,000. That’s a big figure for a single-screen theater, some of which are open only on weekends. A year ago, industry groups predicted that thousands of theaters would close rather than convert. Some have. But many little theaters are provoking passion. Across the country, residents are helping pay for the digital equipment, via county grants and online fundraising.
“In a lot of cases, it’s the only entertainment for miles around,” said Patrick Corcoran, vice president of the National Association of Theatre Owners.
The movie industry’s conversion has no hard deadline, but film versions of the latest flicks will be tough to procure by the end of the year. So far, about 75 percent of theaters nationwide have made the switch, Corcoran said. Drive-ins are lagging — about half have yet to switch. Many might be waiting until this season’s end, he said.
“It’s an enormous changeover of the industry in a very short period of time,” Corcoran said.
The State Theater’s marquee sits in 19 pieces, dusty and dented, on the floor of a construction shop in Windom. But volunteers hope it will be welded, painted and mounted by late September — just in time for an anniversary party. A year ago, residents in this southwestern city of 4,600 formed a nonprofit, raised $13,000 and bought the State through a contract-for-deed. Then they cleaned. Friends brought brooms, buckets and bleach.
“We scraped up gum that had two coats of paint on it,” said Buckwheat Johnson, president of Windom Theater Inc. “Two different colors!”
Their little theater up and running, the volunteers then began raising money again — this time for a digital projector. Thanks to a couple of big checks, one from a woman who grew up going to the theater, they brought in $20,000. The county contributed a low-interest loan. Then a guy called: He had a used digital projector, much cheaper than new.
“Our theater is looking good and running good,” Jean Fast, secretary of the nonprofit, said with pride.
The movies themselves look better — sharp and clear, showing after showing. They sound better, too, thanks to new so-called surround sound. Plus, now the film doesn’t start on fire, as “Kung Fu Panda” once did. Johnson used to get those calls.
The Civic Theatre in Pretty Prairie closed because of a storm that swept through the community in 2013, but plans are to reopen the theatre soon by cooperating with the school district and allowing local high school students a chance to learn entrepreneurial and business skills, said Darrell Albright, the theater director. He and his wife, Joyce, both in their 70s, will serve as advisers. The Civic Theatre needs a new roof and work done to stabilize the west wall.
The Civic originally opened in June 1936 but was closed by 1955. In 1981, the Albrights reopened the Civic with its original wood-backed seats and showed classic films such as Gary Cooper in “High Noon.”
Albright grew up in a home that didn’t allow dancing, playing cards or going to the movies. Running the Civic “answered a lifelong rebellion,” he said. He’s hopeful about passing his affection for the town’s movie theater on to the next generation. “You never know what you will awaken in a kid as far as an interest in life,” Albright said.
Darrell Albright stands of the stage of the Civic Theatre in Pretty Prairie. The theatre opened in 1936 and had closed by the 1970s. Albright moved there in 1982 and reopened the theater with his wife, Joyce. They showed old movies and had play productions in the building until the summer of 2013 when a storm ripped through Pretty Prairie and high winds tore the roof off the building. The theater hasn’t reopened since the storm, but there is a plan in the works to have the high school students take it on as an entrepreneurial project. (Travis Heying/The Wichita Eagle)
No Wal-Mart at Keno site; Plan Commission denies request to change land plan (Kenosha News, April 14, 2015)
PLEASANT PRAIRIE — The village’s Plan Commission on Monday night voted unanimously to deny alternatives to amend its comprehensive plan, including one that involved a proposal for a “big box” retailer at the site of the Keno Drive-In by property owner Steve Mills of Bear Development to change the comprehensive plan to allow for a 150,000-square-foot Wal-Mart supercenter. T The hearing was preceded by an informal two-hour “open village forum” which drew as many as 100 people, many supporters of keeping the drive-in open. Mills said that while his family enjoyed the drive-in, he acquired the property so it could be developed and said making the drive-in viability would require upgrades that would be “prohibitive financially.” Mills said people who want to support it should put together a non-profit organization, hold fundraisers to prove to donors that it can be viable. “But it’s not the responsibility of me or my family to provide that,” he said. Mills said he would be willing to support the community’s efforts if there was interest.
Eli Shai Riley, who attends LakeView Technology Academy, said he and a group of students have a proposal that would include the Keno Drive-In and want to work with Mills. Riley, Austin Skundberg and Nathan Davis described a plan to have a slightly downsized Keno Drive-In bolstered by restaurants. “We hope to work with Bear Realty to develop the best plan for everyone,” he said.
Joe Mangi, former Kenosha Unified School District superintendent, lauded the village for keeping the community family-oriented, though he said he did not want to see the village without the Keno.
“Why would we give up a 70-year-old jewel … for a big-box store?” he said. “It’s Pleasant Prairie. It isn’t Everywhere USA. Wal-Mart creates blight wherever they go. They’ll knock out the Piggly Wiggly. … They are like an amoeba. We have eight big-box stores in our community already,” he said. “We’ve got only one Keno Drive-In, and that is part of our history.”
(1933) B. and K. Engineers Oust the “Dead Spot”
Balaban & Katz engineers have accomplished an innovation in sound improvements for the Pantages Theater, it is reported, creating, through acoustic achievements, an advance step in talking picture reproduction. Certain “dead” spots in the Pantages proved a difficult handicap in the proper presentation of sound pictures. But after four weeks of extensive acoustical work the engineers have achieved perfect sound, it is said.
Three people were killed at the Proctor’s and twelve others injured on February 23, 1934 in a basement explosion blamed on accumulated gases. The dead included Patrolman Patrick Whalen, Carl Gruber, an electrical engineer, and James Frazier, 31. The blast ripped out the Proctor’s lobby and wrecked a car outside.
(DAILY HERALD, Thursday, May 25, 1950) The new Towne theatre on Grand Ave. in Fox Lake will be opened
Saturday evening, May 27, marking a big step forward in the growth of the community.
The theatre, operated by the Robert Helson Corporation, will offer as its first attraction “The Daughter of Rosie O'Grady” which opened in the Oriental Theatre in Chicago only two weeks ago. The doors will open at 6:30 p. m. and the first performance starts at 7:00 p. m.
The Towne will be under the management of Jonas Fugett, long time employee of the Helson firm, headed by Robert T. Held of Chicago and Robert C. Nelson, well-known Lake
County attorney and school board attorney for the Fox Lake Grade school.
The new theatre is of the most modern design with every facility for patrons' comfort as well as entertainment. More than 600 Kroehler Pushback seats have been installed. This new type of seat makes it unnecessary to stand when someone desires to pass to and from other seats in the aisle. Those who desire hard-of-hearing aids may ask the head usher and they will be provided without charge.
The screen is a Starke custom built Cycloramic screen which is the newest type of screen and the first type of screen with any major improvement for vision from the
sides of the theatre made in the past 20 years. The projection and sound equipment is high intensity Motiograph 35 carbon-arc, the best available equipment on the market. The draperies are beautiful sateen finish
fireproof material. The carpeting is extra thick and is in a beautiful design of four shades of gray.
One large wall surface of the lobby is adorned with a “black-light” mural of the Lake Region painted
by Hans Teichert, the best theatre decorator in the United States.
The refreshment accommodations are complete, popcorn, cakes, candy bars, etc. The building, which is one of the very few completely fireproof theatres in Lake or McHenry counties, is finished in Indiana limestone with three all-glass entrance doors.
Ample free parking facilities have been provided for patrons of the theatre, and the operators have promised that every effort will be made to obtain the latest and best film fare.
The address was 66 Grand Avenue.
This evening’s “Better Call Saul” episode with the twin (prop) pay telephones was set along the outer wall of the El Ray Theatre.
Sunday, February 25, 1934: Chicago Herald and Examiner
The North Adams Transcript, 20 Sep 1951, Thu, Page 22
(Boxoffice Magazine, October 14, 1950) The Blue Mound Drive-In, first outdoor theatre to be opened in Wisconsin, before World War II. It has been modernized and is drawing crowds. It is Boston owned …
The Chicago Tribune of November 30, 1935 gives the opening date of the TOWN Theatre as Friday, November 22, 1935.
The Congress Theatre for the last year has been caught up in a legal battle between developer Michael Moyer and event promoters who claimed to have the right of first refusal to purchase the property after its previous owner Eddie Carranza finally gave up his fight with the city and Alderman Proco “Joe” Moreno and decided to sell the historic building. However WBEZ reports that Moyer is set to close on the Congress Theater sometime in the next 60 to 90 days. In a press release, Alderman Moreno revealed that the redevelopment of the theater will also include a small inn and affordable housing units. According to previous estimates, repairs to the Congress Theater could cost up to $20 million and take years to restore. Moyer, who previously redeveloped the downtown Cadillac Palace, will work with Woodhouse Tinucci Architects and W.E. O'Neil Construction on the Congress Theater project. To kick off the beginning of the Congress' new life, Alderman Moreno and New Congress, LLC will hold an open house at the theater on Saturday, January 24 from 1-4pm.
Cinema operator Lee Barczak already knows what you’re thinking: People are staying home in droves to watch movies on Netflix, as large theater chains counter by adding expensive features and the latest technology, such as 64-foot-wide screens, enhanced sound and stadium-style seating with reclining chairs. So, why reopen a two-screen theater in an 85-year-old building that last showed films 14 years ago? Because this cinema is Bay View’s Avalon Theater, a historic landmark that now includes a full kitchen and bar, along with new seats, screens and digital projection. “I think people are interested in an alternate experience, and not just the same experience over and over again,” Barczak said. And, while there’s no denying the challenge from Netflix, Hulu Plus and other streaming services, Barczak believes a lot of people enjoy being with other movie fans to watch films on a big screen. “I don’t think that ever goes out of style,” he said. At least, that’s what Barczak is hoping.
The Avalon, 2473 S. Kinnickinnic Ave., opened Thursday, with showings of “The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies” and “Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb.” The restored theater’s debut came after 11 months of renovations totaling $2 million. The Avalon now features a sit-down dining service for movie audiences, with a menu featuring pizzas, paninis and appetizers, along with popcorn and other traditional movie snacks. There’s also a bar, which has its own separate entrance on Kinnickinnic Ave., and is open to people who aren’t buying movie tickets.
The Avalon first showed movies in 1929. A city report on its historic designation called the Avalon’s design a distinctive example of the Mediterranean Revival architectural style, and the first Wisconsin theater built for movies with sound. Its remodeled touches include over 1,200 new twinkling lights on the cinema’s ceiling to re-create the Avalon’s atmospheric feel of a starry sky, and a new marquee with a design that pays homage to its 1920s roots. The lobby features Moorish arches, twisting Mediterranean columns, figures that resemble gargoyles and a statue of Athena, a Greek goddess — all from the original building.
The Avalon had a seating capacity of around 2,200 when it opened, Barczak said. With new, wider seats, and a layout designed to make it easier for wait staff to serve food, it now can seat 218 in the main auditorium, and 68 in the side theater, he said. Once the main theater’s balcony reopens (that’s been delayed because of the costs of installing an elevator), there would be room for another 60 to 80 patrons, he said.
While Barczak expects the Avalon to draw a lot of Bay View neighborhood residents, he believes it will provide an unusual moviegoing experience that will attract a lot of patrons from other parts of the Milwaukee area. He said east side and downtown residents, in particular, will likely see the Avalon as an alternative to the Downer and Oriental theaters, both owned by Los Angeles-based Landmark Theatres, the nation’s largest art house cinema chain.
Barczak, whose businesses include Rosebud Cinema, 6823 W. North Ave., Wauwatosa, and Times Cinema, 5906 W. Vliet St., has the advantage of owning the Avalon building, which includes additional retail space and 19 apartments that generate cash. He also operates Morgan Kenwood Advisors LLC, a Greendale financial planning firm, and has experience running dining operations at the Rosebud and at his Sheridan House and Cafe, a boutique hotel and restaurant, 5133 S. Lake Drive, Cudahy.
Barczak is a movie buff, and said there will always be a place for theaters — despite the technological advances that make it easy to watch movies at home, or on the go. “I could watch movies on this,” Barczak said, waving his smartphone. “But there’s nothing like seeing it on the big screen.”
(Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. Tom Daykin covers commercial real estate and development.)
WESTBY Theatre owner Louis V. Bergholt poses at the theatre with his 1941 Oldsmobile.
(Kenosha News, Sunday, November 9, 2014)
Is this the end for Keno Drive-In? On final weekend of season, land owner, manager disagree on theater’s fate
(By Janine Anderson)
Depending on the source, you get a different idea of the future of the Keno Drive-in. Operator Jeffrey Kohlberg isn’t ready to say Sunday is the theater’s official last day, but the landowner says this is pretty much it for the historic attraction. On Friday, Kohlberg, president of the Glenview, Ill.-based Cinema Management Corp., which operates the Keno and another drive-in in Illinois, said he can’t say this is the last weekend. “I don’t want everybody to get down and say it’s all over,” Kohlberg said. “I don’t know when that final decision’s going to be made. It could be in a month; it could be next spring.”
But S.R. Mills of Bear Realty, the company that owns the land, said Saturday it is unlikely the theater will reopen next spring. The land needs too many improvements, he said, and making them isn’t feasible. Kohlberg said the facility also needs costly improvements. He previously told the Kenosha News that proceeds were down about 22 percent this year, and that the lack of digital projection equipment makes it harder and harder to bring in the kind of first-run movies patrons want to see. “I always hope it’s going to be there,” Kohlberg said. “My dad started in the 1950s with drive-ins. We have one in Illinois that’s been here since 1961. I hope no drive-ins disappear. There’s still hope.”
Mills doesn’t see it that way, and his company is in the early stages of planning for some other use on the site. No neighborhood plan exists for that property, or the hundreds of acres around it, he said, and Bear is working with Pleasant Prairie to put one in place. Several plans will eventually be taken to the Plan Commission and Village Board so officials can decide which one to adopt, Mills said. After that, the area could be opened up for development. Mills expects the plan to call for predominantly residential development, with some commercial corners, including the location of the Keno.
He said while he is sure the Keno will not be there next year, like Kohlberg, he’s fond of the theater. “We’ve thought, can you get the economics to work?” he said. “If you do it, if you monetize the food and the beverages, maybe you can make it into something.”
He’s not the only one with that thought. Restaurant chain Johnny Rockets is partnering with Indiana-based USA Drive-ins to bring back the retro-style theaters, part of a nationwide rollout of four new Route 66-type diners. They plan to open 200 drive-in theaters over the next four years. Kohlberg believes investment in the property could make it successful. His organization made a go of it with its other theater, he said, installing a digital projector and other amenities that helped bring in patrons. “If it does continue, there’s a lot of innovations we’ve done down (in Illinois) which we might do up there,” Kohlberg said. “Patio heaters, patios with seating so people – when the weather gets kind of cool – can sit and watch the movie outside in warmth. We put a new playground in. All this can be planned for the Keno, too.”
Those improvements are expensive, too. Kohlberg said his firm has considered investing its own money into the facility improvements, which could likely cost upward of $100,000, but no decisions have been made. “I can’t emphatically say it is or it isn’t,” staying open, Kohlberg said. “We’re in limbo right now.”
While the Keno Drive-in management won’t officially say this is the final weekend forever, it was the last weekend of the season. The horror movies on the big screen attracted some die-hard fans who didn’t mind the cold. Cars started lining up around 6:30 p.m., about a half-hour before the box office officially opened.
Janelle Lopez, of Waukegan, was there with Bri Cotto, of Kenosha. “I thought we would go out and catch it,” Lopez said. “It’s a different way to see a movie, and not have to sit in a theater.” Especially in the summer, they said, it’s nice to sit outside and watch children playing as the movie plays.
Shannon Hicks and Matthew Cullen came up from Illinois, though Cullen actually hails from farther afield. He is from California, but is in the military and stationed in the Chicago area. “I’ve never been to a drive-in,” he said. “They are all closed (in California), and I’ve never seen an operating one.” Hicks has been to the theater before and said she enjoys the whole atmosphere of the drive-in.
Ishi Salazar and his daughter, Rosa, haven’t come too often, but enjoy it when they make it out. Rosa enjoys horror films, and her dad thought this would be a good way to close out the movie season. “I grew up with it in California,” he said. “They’re extinct, just about, now.” Rosa also likes the experience. They get to talk in the car, she said, and no one tells them to be quiet. They also like to bring in their own food. Saturday’s choice was take-out from Wendy’s, though Ishi said he always buys popcorn once inside.
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.