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The Changing Face of the Oriental Theatre
(by David Luhrssen, July 3, 2018, Shepherd Express) —
Although it turns 91 this summer, the Oriental Theatre (2230 N. Farwell Ave.) isn’t Milwaukee’s oldest cinema; the Downer claims that honor. But, with all due respect to the beautiful Avalon, the Oriental was and remains the city’s most spectacular movie palace for its exuberantly Near East-Far East decor. And for several decades, the Oriental has been an anchor of the city’s cinema culture as a repertory house and then as a theater with a consistent lineup of foreign, indie and documentary films.
This month, the venerable Oriental goes dark as its new operators take charge and begin phase one of planned renovations. Milwaukee Film—whose primary project has been the Milwaukee Film Festival—is now the leaseholder, and Jonathan Jackson, MF’s artistic and executive director, has big plans. First off: more ambitious and diverse programming that reflects, and magnifies, the work of the annual festival. “The film community loves the 15-day event, but people have asked us to create more opportunities,” Jackson says.
In 1988, the Oriental caught up with the late 20th century when the Landmark Theatres chain divided its cavernous interior into a three-screen house with great sensitivity to the building’s architectural integrity. To bring it into the 21st century, Jackson has announced an upgrade in sight and sound. The 2K digital projectors will be supplanted by higher-resolution 4K units. And, in a nod to the enduring significance of actual film composed of celluloid (not pixels), MF will also install new 35mm and 70mm projectors. “With those, we expect to secure access to all the leading film archives in the world,” Jackson explains. He has received applications from old-school projectionists—an occupation rendered obsolescent by digital technology—from around the country.
“But first and foremost,” he adds, “I think it’s a great idea that women have a restroom on the first floor!” Since the Oriental Theatre opened, the women’s room has been lodged at the far end of the mezzanine and is inaccessible to the disabled. Women were usually forced into a small chamber, an afterthought added for the handicapped next to the ground floor men’s room. “I was always ashamed to walk to the bathroom during the film festival past a line of women,” Jackson says. “I once saw a gentleman block the men’s room door to allow only women to use it for a given time.”
The new women’s room—carved out of space opened up by annexing a small retail bay abutting the Oriental’s northeast corner—will, like all future alterations, conform to the building’s character. Jackson adds that MF is more than halfway through the process of adding the Oriental to the National Register of Historic Places.
Most Milwaukeeans were surprised last summer when Milwaukee Film announced its acquisition of the Oriental’s lease from the theater’s longtime operator, Landmark Theatres, but the historic cinema had long been on Jackson’s mind. The Oriental was his first job after moving to Milwaukee. He went on to manage the UW-Milwaukee Union Cinema and became, in 2003, programming director for the Milwaukee International Film Festival. (Full disclosure: I was a co-founder of the MIFF and served as its executive director through 2007.) The Oriental had always been one of that festival’s major venues, and its importance only grew after Jackson became the Milwaukee Film Festival’s executive director in 2008.
So, why not continue renting the Oriental for two weeks each year instead of undertaking the year-round responsibility for a historic landmark?
“Our relationship with the Oriental became the critical factor in our success,” Jackson explains. “It was great working with [theater manager] Eric Levin and his staff, but the growth of the festival was inhibited because we had no long-term contract.” Instead, MF worked with the Oriental year by year; according to Jackson, the paperwork for the next fall festival never arrived before late spring. “Anyone in my position would have lost sleep,” he continues. “It was a challenge for long-range planning, to secure sponsors, to sell advance tickets. You can understand the potential instability of that.”
Also, Landmarks Theatre never rented MF more than two of the Oriental’s three screens and never gave Jackson the timeframe he sought. “We always wanted late October-early November, but Landmarks wanted to save their screens for the big fall releases,” he explains. “Historically, our dates overlapped with the New York Film Festival, one of the biggest film festivals with dibs on all content.” As a result, many significant non-Hollywood movies could never be booked at the Milwaukee Film Festival—until this year. “You can only do so much to grow a film culture in 15 days,” Jackson continues. “From now on, Milwaukee Film have an additional 350 days to play.”
Aside from the opportunity to screen every available movie in the world, Jackson’s decision to assume control of Milwaukee’s flagship cinema has a financial dimension. “Non-profit cinemas are healthier than film festivals,” Jackson explains. “Most film festivals operate on 30-40% earned income, mainly ticket sales, and the rest comes from fundraising. Nonprofit cinemas generally run on 60% earned income and 40% philanthropy. We hope to change our metric by running the Oriental.” And what of Landmarks’ remaining Milwaukee venue—the city’s oldest movie theater, the Downer? “Landmarks has a lease on the Downer,” Jackson says. Landmarks Theatres refused to comment.
Milwaukee Film has an 11-year lease plus two 10-year options on the Oriental. “We have a strong, long lease so that we can fundraise long-term to pay for improvements to the structure of the building,” Jackson says. “We are investing in the building even though we don’t own it, but since we’re running it for 30 years, we’re comfortable with that.”
“Aside from, ‘What about the women’s bathroom?’ the thing that everyone says to me is, ‘Don’t touch the popcorn!’” says Jackson on future plans for the Oriental. Phase two of the facelift will include some changes at the concession stand. “We’ll want to feature as many local products as possible,” he says. The original plasterwork of the cinema’s ceiling needs restoration. And down below, the original seats in the balcony have to be replaced. The curtains and tapestries need cleaning or mending. The HVAC (heating, ventilation, air conditioning) system requires updating. “We need to look at the acoustical treatment to insure that the sound is not bouncing within each space or between the theaters,” Jackson says.
He continues: “In the early days of cinema, people might find live programming at a movie theater, a double feature, a newsreel, an organ performance—it was more of a full cultural event, and it’s what film festivals do naturally—to create an experience.” Which leads to the inevitable rebutting of the tired doomsayers who keep forecasting the death of movie theaters. After all, they say, why not stay home with your Plasma screen, your lumpy Barcalounger and your popcorn machine?
“The statistics show that movie attendance is stable,” Jackson replies. “For me, the point is the communal experience. It’s so wonderful and strange, having hundreds of people sitting silently in a room staring at a screen and sharing an experience. It’s an unparalleled opportunity for community engagement. And besides,” he adds, “you cannot beat the experience of seeing a movie on a big screen.”
The Oriental Theatre will reopen on Friday, Aug. 10.
Kenosha News, May 31, 1968) Noted theater manager retires ——– Wallace Konrad, manager of the Orpheum Theater in Kenosha for the past ll years, has announced his retirement after a 25-year career in Wisconsin theaters. Considered a nearly infallible authority on show business and movies, Konrad began his career as a canopy boy at the age of 16 in Sheboygan. In 25 years he managed a variety of theaters throughout the state, including hitching post theaters, prestige theaters, art theaters, and small and big town theaters. He made it a point to know the town in which he worked, and to know what that town’s audiences wanted in their theaters. Taking his work seriously, he would give people the kind of movies they wanted to see, and was known for his efforts in promoting movies. He also made it a point to know as much as he could about his business and the movies he showed. It is said there is no question about the business that he can’t answer. After service in World War II, Konrad returned to Port Washington, where he served as assistant manager of the Ozaukee and Grand Theaters for Fox Wisconsin Amusement Corp., under the late Harold Fitzgerald. For a number of years he managed several theaters for this chain in small towns all over the state. In 1949 he moved to Milwaukee to manage various theaters there, working his way to district manager of the Fox Milwaukee division. It was in Milwaukee that he married the former Elaine Mindick, and started the family which now numbers six. Fox began to liquidate its Wisconsin holdings in 1954, so in 1956 Konrad moved to Kenosha to manage the Orpheum Theater, recently purchased by Towne Realty, and later sold to the Prudential Management Corp. Retiring in March of this year after a short illness, Konrad will continue to make his home in Kenosha with his family.
The Labor Temple was built in 1914 by the Local Miners' Union. The front doors opened onto an attractive lobby with a wide stairway to the second floor on the right and a ticket office centered between two entrances to a large auditorium with a sloping floor, aisles between three sections of seats and a large stage. The theatre had the first air-conditioning system within thirty-five miles of Staunton. From Tuesday through Sunday it was a first-run theatre for years. The musical “Don’t Give Up the Ship” led to the Staunton High School fight song “Don’t Give Up the Fight”. On the first Monday of each month the miners held a union meeting there; other Mondays were available for graduations, dramatic or musical productions by local groups, lectures and so forth. Lavatories were upstairs as were several conference or committee meeting rooms and a large hall where lodges met and dances and receptions were held.
As seen in 1987.
Proposed restoration concept.
(Kenosha News, April 12, 1968) – Kenosha’s Mr. Showman, Bill Exton, will ring down the curtain next Thursday on his 29-year role as owner and manager of the Roosevelt Theater. Exton, whose career in the entertainment industry spans more than four decades, has long endeared himself to Kenoshans by his activities on behalf of youngsters and adults alike at his theater, the Roosevelt Rd. Businessmen’s Association and in other civic activities. At the close of business on Thursday, he will turn over the keys and operation of the theater to Theodore F. Witheril of Racine. “I am not going to retire entirely,“ said Exton. “I’m just not built that way. I will try to get away for two or three weeks, though, just to get my feet on the ground.” Operation of the theater has been a day-and-night job for Exton, who took over the Roosevelt in 1939. Prior to that, he had managed the Kenosha Theater, now closed, and the old Gateway Theater, now known as the Lake, for about 4 years. Exton’s fascination for the entertainment business became apparent at an early age. During his high school years in his native Detroit, Mich., he got his first job as a theater usher and from then on worked at just about anything they would pay him for. WORKED AT CIRCUS – By graduation, it was and one time a monkey ran up apparent to his father and moth- through the audience, er that they had a showman for Life Not Dull “Life wasn’t dull by a long shot,” he remarked. Exton’s career included a stint with Paramount Pictures, who hired him to do promotional work. Part of his job was to escort Paramount stars on personal appearance tours and whip up occasional live variety acts such as those used between reels in the movie houses at that time. After graduation, Exton went to work for a circus as a “pot-walloper,” scrubbing pots and pans and cleaning up around the kitchen. He knew by the end of the season that he would never be able to “shake the sawdust out of his trouser cuffs.” During the winter months, he wolfed in the movie houses, worked part time for the Detroit Free Press and tried his hand at public relations. Then, as now. he liked people and was good at selling his product when the product was entertainment. Summertime meant a return to the circus, and his bulging scrap book attests to his many experiences during his career with the tents. In 1921, Ringling Brothers asked Exton to head their publicity department and he “went into orbit.” The work was hard but never dull, he recalled. There were exciting and dangerous incidents such as the time when an elephant went berserk and knocked over a cage of panthers, scattering the wild cargo over the grounds. Although the panthers were recaptured without incident, the elephant killed its trainer before it was killed itself. On another occasion, a lion got loose inside a sideshow tent, In 1934, as district manager for Standard Theaters, Exton was sent to Kenosha to open the Gateway Theater, and he remained to become one of the most distinguished and well-loved citizens of the city. One of his best known projects is the annual Halloween Parade which he organized about 14 years ago. He recalled that about 200 youngsters took part that first year, but the number has grown to more than 1,400 costumed children who now compete for the coveted Halloween prizes. Exton was instrumental in the formation of the Roosevelt Rd. Businessmen’s Association about 15 years ago and twice served as its president. He is also active in the Lions and Elks Club. He resides at 6521 43rd Ave. TESTIMONIAL DINNER – In 1963, Exton was feted at a testimonial dinner sponsored by the Roosevelt Rd. Businessmen’s Association. Several hundred Kenoshans joined in honoring him for his contributions to the community, and a three hour program was presented in commemoration of his 40 years of service in the entertainment industry. In addition, Exton was named the Showman of the Year in 1964 at a convention of the Allied Theater Owners of Wisconsin held in Milwaukee. He was selected from more than 50 others under consideration for “making his theater a focal point of community campaigning and creating civic good will.” Through the years, Exton has followed a policy of selecting films for his theater which he considered “suitable for the family.” “I never wanted to get off the trend of decent, clean entertainment,” he remarked. Movies are getting better, Exton believes. There may have been a slow-down with the advent of television, but in the movies as well as in his own plans for the future, there are great things in store.
(Kenosha News, April 12, 1968) Bill Exton retiring —— Bill Exton, 2910 Roosevelt Rd., announced today that he will retire at the close of business on Thursday, April 18. The theater will be taken over by Theodore F. Witheril of Racine, who will serve as president of the Roosevelt Theater of Kenosha, Inc. Witheril, 31, has operated the Capitol Theater in Racine since Feb. 1, 1965. He was elected the Racine County coroner in 1966 and formerly served as news director of Radio Station WRAC in Racine. Witheril said that “no major changes of any kind" were planned at the theater and that Exton will serve as a consultant for at least a year. Ken Pias, Racine, vice president and secretary of the corporation, will serve as the theater manager.
(Film Daily, Oct.-Dec. 1940) – Detroit — Edward Hilke, owner of the Perrien Theater, is starting a remodeling program, with stage remodeling being completed now. House is being reseated by International Seating Co. New front will be installed next year. Architect Henry M. Freier is supervising the work.
It was the Perrien Theatre, and was designed by William “Buck” Stratton, who also did the Brodhead Armory.
Restoring The Dream: The gilded interior of Chicago’s Uptown Theatre remains mostly intact, ready for a $75 restoration project that will be the centerpiece of a neighborhood renewal years in the making. Jam Productions bought the building more than 10 years ago and, in partnership with a local developer and the city of Chicago, is on the verge of bringing the landmark back to life.
Jam Productions’ Jerry Mickelson and Arny Granat could be within months of realizing a decades-long dream: breaking ground on a $75 million restoration of Chicago’s ornate, landmark Uptown Theatre, which they purchased 10 years ago for a reported $3.2 million.
They knew it would take a massive injection of financing to bring the building, closed since 1981, back to its gilded, ca. 1925, Spanish Revival glory. And Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel knew he had an as-yet unfulfilled 2011 campaign pledge to create an entertainment district in the Uptown neighborhood.
Mickelson and Emanuel jointly announced June 29 they’ve found a partner in Farpoint Development and a patchwork of funding that, pending city council and regulatory approvals, should enable restoration to begin in fall on a 5,800-capacity Uptown Theatre.
A new partnership entity will be formed as a joint venture between Jam Productions and Farpoint, which is one of the city’s biggest commercial real estate developers. In addition to the Uptown restoration, a comprehensive streetscape plan will help bring together the vision for an entertainment district that will also include the 2,300-capacity Riviera Theatre, also operated by Jam, 4,378-cap Aragon Ballroom, booked by Live Nation, and Green Mill Jazz Club that seats about 100.
The $6 million streetscape project includes improvements to surrounding streets, with a new pedestrian plaza, sculpture and public stage all expected to be completed this summer.
But it’s the Uptown Theatre that is the unquestionable jewel in the city’s crown, and the object of Mickelson’s deep affection as not only a concert promoter but a Chicagoan. The Uptown long ago was granted “landmark” status – from façade to stagehouse – which likely saved it from the wrecking ball fate of so many other movie palaces of its era. “Jam did all the concerts there from Oct. 31, 1975 with The Tubes through Dec. 19 1981 with the J. Geils Band,” Mickelson proudly says. “At that time, the theatre was owned by a small family, not theatre operators, and they weren’t putting any money into the venue. When I walked into the theater on that cold December day, we had to purchase the oil to get the furnaces going to heat the building because they couldn’t afford it. The bathrooms were barely functioning, so I told the owner he had to close it. And he did and gave it back to the people he bought it from. “But the only damage was in the winter of 1982 when some roof pipes burst because the owners didn’t put the heat on. But other than some small, minor plaster damage, everything’s there. It’s not one of those old, decaying, decrepit theaters. It’s a landmark building, inside and out,” Mickelson says.
He might have come to regret telling those owners they had to close it. Twenty five years later, the ownership was subject to a battle for control between Jam, Live Nation, AEG and Madison Square Garden Co. at various times since at least 2006, when AEG and Live Nation last kicked the tires at the old building. Two years later, Live Nation appeared on the brink of making a deal to lease the venue from the city of Chicago until a final bid was scuttled by a dispute over who actually owned the property.
As it turned out, Jam Productions and Joseph Freed & Associates LLC owned a second mortgage on the Uptown property. The holder of the first mortgage, David Husman of investment firm Equibase, refused their offer of $1.3 million to pay off the mortgage. “That doesn’t stop us from doing anything other than what we’ve been trying to do and are in court over, which is trying to pay off the mortgage,” an impassioned Mickelson told Pollstar at the time. “We paid off the first mortgage, but they sent us our money back. We don’t believe that’s legal and that’s what we’re fighting over.”
But a complex scenario was made simple by a court-ordered sale in July 2008. Jam was the sole bidder, and bought the Uptown for $3.2 million. At about the same time, the worst recession in memory struck, making financing for a rehab project all but impossible. “It’s been a long journey over the past 10 years but I can see the finish line is right ahead of us,” Mickelson tells Pollstar. “It’s not easy to restore a theater like this without being a city or municipality, just doing it privately is difficult. But we will get it done.”
Not all of the financing is in place. According to Mickelson, about $49 million of the $75 million is secured – but “we’ll get the rest,” he says.
As for the Uptown itself, plans call for interior improvements including new elevators and concession stations; mechanical, electrical, plumbing and “life safety” systems, and restored decorative finishes, New seats and a reconfigured first floor of the three-story building will reduce the old theatre’s seated capacity from about 4,400 to 4,200 – though some floor seats will be removable, allowing for a total capacity of 5,800.
Exterior work will repair the building’s masonry and terra cotta and improve marquees and related signage, among other improvements, according to a statement from Emanuel’s office.
“The Uptown Theater has been a staple of the Uptown neighborhood’s past, and will be a strong asset for the community’s future,” Emanuel said. “The restored theater will be the centerpiece of the new, revitalized Uptown entertainment district, giving residents and visitors another way to experience world-class culture and entertainment in one of the City’s most storied neighborhoods.”
Mickelson also envisions the restored theater as a catalyst for lifting up Chicago’s Uptown neighborhood, and compares its potential impact on Chicago’s North Side to that of the Fox Theatre in Oakland, Calif. “It’s an economic engine that starts everything else. After the Fox [in Oakland] opened, and the Paramount was already opened, that created some nice synergy that allowed the Uptown part of Oakland to come alive as well,” Mickelson said. “This is more than just about concerts. It’s creating jobs, it’s creating new businesses.”
It’s also about creating education and job opportunities for area youth and, to that end, Mickelson’s vision includes collaborations with organizations like After School Matters, a program of the Chicago public schools, and the nearby Peoples’ Music School that provides free music education to 600 kids. “We are going to provide them the opportunity to be part of the Uptown Theatre, starting from the restoration phase all the way through opening and when we’re presenting events,” Mickelson explained. “I decided to make a program that benefits students and the education they can get that they normally would not have access to. They’re going to be part of this and we’re going to let them use the theatres for fundraisers and rehearsals, things like that.”
Redevelopment agreement details will be finalized this summer and presented this fall to the Commission on Chicago Landmarks, the Community Development Commission and the Chicago City Council for review and approval. Restoration work would start later this year and be completed in 2020.
“Given its past, size and potential impact on the City’s cultural landscape, the Uptown will be one of the most significant restoration projects in the city’s history,” said Department of Planning and Development Commissioner David Reifman. (Pollstar, by Deborah Speer)
The theatre might have been saved had it been added to the National Register of Historic Places. According to a memo from Racine’s Landmarks Preservation Commission (LRC) the building may have been eligible for listing on the National Register of Historic Places, but neither the owner nor the Landmarks Preservation Commission “took action to provide the property with a level of review and protection through a … nomination or local designation.” Property taxes for the years 2008 and 2010-2017 remain unpaid. With special assessments and penalties they add up to more than $123,000. The building and land are currently assessed at $150,000. Marcus Corporation purchased the Capitol Theatre from Carmichael & Associates in 1981 for $50,000. It was renovated and duplexed and renamed the Park Cinemas 1 & 2, mostly showing second-run films. Marcus closed the theatre in September 1987.
From 1928 until the 1980s, the Park Theatre showed movies. Now, the building sits crumbling, cluttered and vacant.
City of Racine Chief Building Inspector Kenneth Plaski ordered the building be razed because “the structure had deteriorated structurally to the point where the building was no longer safe to be inhabited.” Demolition won’t begin for several months likely, because the courts still need to review the order.
Plaski reported that the building’s exterior is in disrepair. At a July 16, 2018 Landmarks Preservation Committee meeting, a photograph was shown depicting visible holes in the roof of the theater. “That didn’t happen overnight,” said Don Schumacher, a member of the committee. “It’s taken a few years to get to this point.” The committee accepted and filed Plaski’s order. It doesn’t have the power to stall or speed along the process.
The building is also rife with plumbing and electrical violations, according to the inspector, and there have also been “related odors emanating from the building at the sidewalk.” This accumulation is the result of a pipe back-up, resulting in 5 inches of raw sewage filling the basement.
There is also “pigeon excrement over the entire theater area,” according to Plaski.
In August 2017, Plaski ordered a list of 24 repairs and inspections needed to make the building habitable again. He reported that none of them had been complied with in the last 11 months. The building’s owner, John Apple, ignored orders to repair the building, according to the city, resulting in the raze order.
Looking through the former theater’s glass doors, piles of antiques can be seen filling the lobby, including two safes, a barber chair, at least 10 cash registers, several lampshades, a trash bin full of aluminum cans, several human figurines and a smashed smoke detector. One of the more-than-two-dozen violations Plaski laid out was a lack of functioning smoke detectors. Apple has until Aug. 3 to contest the raze order. If he doesn’t, the courts can decide the fate of the historic building. If the building is condemned and razed, it will be Apple’s responsibility to pay for it.
On Monday, Plaski told the Landmarks Preservation Committee that Apple owes more than $1.7 million in back forfeitures and tax delinquency, in addition to $57,000 owed to the Department of Revenue and $45,000 to WE Energies. The Park Theatre is valued at only $108,000. In June, Plaski told Apple that the building was no longer suitable for human habitation. However, a tenant of Apple’s claims she was unaware of the issues. Neregin Paynes-Ramsey is the owner of the Regime Hair Studio, located in the same building as the Park Theatre. A wall separates the salon and the cluttered theater lobby. “I really didn’t know this was going on with Mr. Apple,” she said.
Paynes-Ramsey said that she didn’t know there was any risk of the building being condemned until she was ordered to vacate in June. She asked the Landmarks Preservation Committee for an extension on the order to vacate, but the committee is not legally able to fulfill the request. That’s up to the courts.
According to City of Racine Building Department documents, the building is supposed to be vacated by all tenants by Wednesday. The Regime Hair Studio is the only occupant, although there are empty apartments on the second floor above the lobby.
Paynes-Ramsey claimed that more than $4,000 was spent on electrical work to make her salon functional, even though the building as a whole is now condemned. Members of the Landmarks Preservation Committee discussed ways to prevent situations like this. Committee member Pippin Michelli inquired if there were ways to help owners maintain their properties. “Public money is not the answer,” fellow committee member John Monefeldt said. “It (the raze order) probably should’ve been issued some time ago.”
The theater was built in 1928, and Marcus Corporation purchased the building for $50,000 in 1981, after which it was renovated and renamed Park Cinemas 1 & 2, because the theater had two screens. It closed in 1987 and hasn’t shown another movie since. The theatre was sold four times between 1987 and 2006, when it was acquired by Apple. It was once recommended to the National Register for its Mediterranean Revival architecture but was never added. The building is not considered a landmark by any local or national entity.
This isn’t the first time the city has taken a building from Apple. He once owned a building at 410 Main St., which he used to store antiques.
The building was considered blighted and condemned in 2002, for which Apple was compensated $197,000 in 2005. It now houses Not Your Parents Basement Gaming Lounge.
“Minnesota’s most luxurious movie theater” and “a temple for film and cinema,” said Bill DiGaetano, CEO of the Texas-based ALAMO DRAFTHOUSE theatre chain of the new Woodbury, Minnesota complex with features, believed to be unique in the state, including 1., no unaccompanied children under the age of 18;
2., no concession stand; food orders are made from the seats; 3., popcorn in metal bowls, not in bags or tubs to avoid crinkly wrapping; 4., full bar and restaurant menus for all seats in all screens at all times. Guests order off a menu and wait-staff deliver it; 5., no pre-movie commercials but rather a short feature about the movie they came to see; 6., no late seating, even for customers with tickets; 7., a no-talking, no-texting rule. Guests get one warning, then are removed. Patrons are encouraged to complain about others' texting or talking.
Food items include fresh-made pizzas, and film-appropriate meals for example, during a scene of “The Godfather” in which gangsters eat spaghetti, spaghetti would be served in the theater. The 2017 film “The Big Sick” involved a Pakistani immigrant, so Alamo added Pakistani food to the menu for the duration of the screenings. During 2016’s “Ghostbusters” when a "Marshmallow Man” was torched, every table got a S’more featuring toasted marshmallows. Before or after screenings, guests may lounge in the 76-seat restaurant-bar area with two garage-style doors that open in good weather. Thirty-two beers are on tap, all local brews which can be served in the theatres. On Sunday, July 22, 2018 grand-opening tickets were $5. Normal pricing — $8 days and $11 in evenings — began on July 27.
Opened as the AUDITORIUM Theatre with 380 seats. Sound was by Voisophone.
On September 9, 1975, a few months after “Jaws” arrived in theatres, 45-year old Elmer C. Sommerfield attended a screening at Ford City Cinema with his wife Marilyn. Forty-five minutes into the film, Sommerfield collapsed of a heart attack. Sommerfield’s wife alerted the theater manager, Vince Tripodi, of the situation and he called for an ambulance. In the meantime, two doctors in the audience administered CPR for ten minutes until paramedics could arrive. Unfortunately, it wasn’t enough—Sommerfield died on the way to the hospital, and Tripodi told The Chicago Tribune that he had never experienced such an incident in his 27 years working in theatres.
If the walls of the NorShor theater could talk, they wouldn’t know where to begin.
In the past 100 years, the old building on Superior Street in downtown Duluth has served many purposes: a live theater, a movie theater, a strip club. But for almost a decade it sat dormant, the marquee announcing one show: “Restore the NorShor.”
Now, after a grand re-opening earlier this year, it’s a palatial multi-use venue with the help of a massive public restoration effort, a revival that’s part of a trend of historic-theater renovations across America.
Today, the Art Deco-style theater stands tall in the middle of downtown Duluth near the shore of its namesake, the world’s largest freshwater lake — Lake Superior. It’s got a shining marquee, striking murals, and it’s yearning for you to visit, big-time.
A packed summer schedule of concerts, plays, musicals, film screenings, opera and poetry readings means anyone can find something pleasing to the eyes and ears.
Each month, the theater shows a different classic film, including a post-show discussion. The intense 1955 drama, “Rebel Without a Cause,” is on deck for August, for example.
Even former Duluth Mayor Don Ness Jr. gets into the act. He has revived the variety show his father, Don Ness Sr., started in the 1980s. Each installment of “Don Ness Shows Off Duluth” is different, featuring new content, including interviews, musical performances and skits.
A complete listing of events can be found at norshortheatre.com.
The NorShor isn’t the only place in Duluth with an emphasis on culture and the arts, however. It’s only the most recent addition to a burgeoning historic arts and theater district. Within a couple of square miles, downtown Duluth has popular restaurants, a historic train depot, and a quirky public library that’s shaped like the freighters that cruise through the harbor.
There’s also Canal Park, the former warehouse district that’s one of Duluth’s most popular tourist destinations along the lake. Awash with restaurants, hotels and medley of shops, it’s beloved by locals and visitors alike.
The NorShor follows a passion for historic renovation of theaters around the nation.
In St. Paul, 150 miles down the Mississippi River from Duluth, the Palace Theater’s rebirth parallels the Norshor’s.
After sitting unused for more than 30 years, the city purchased the theater and spent more than $16 million on renovations while stadium projects flourished in St. Paul and Minneapolis, drawing visitors from outside the metropolitan area.
“A lot of people are focusing on the sports aspect of it, and those things can also be very attractive, but the arts community? Having a great music scene? I don’t think it can be overstated how important that is,” former St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman said in an interview. “We’ve seen it.”
Minneapolis threatens to have more theaters than it knows what to do with. On Hennepin Avenue, three classic theaters underwent major renovations in the late 1980s — the State, the Orpheum and Pantages. Down the freeway in Chicago, the Congress Theater is undergoing a $65 million reconstruction and is slated to open in 2019.
All these renovations have a lot in common: passionate city leaders trying to boost the economy, expensive renovations and revival in public interest in the arts. They’ve all gone through challenges as well, especially hardships in securing funding.
The NorShor sat crumbling on Superior Street for more than 35 years. Owners and managers changed more than a dozen times, but had given up. It was too big, too old, too expensive to renovate. But people kept trying. Few in Duluth wanted to give up on a theater their parents and grandparents had patronized.
Everyone knew the it had to be saved, but no one knew how.
After decades of transition, the NorShor finally has realized its full potential. The capital letters on the marquee are dusted off and shouting the latest show in town each week. After eight years of work on the theater, almost the entire city of Duluth showed up for the grand re-opening performance of “Mamma Mia” earlier this year. It was a glorious comeback, a scene straight out of the last 10 minutes of a movie where everyone lives happily ever after.
It wasn’t a happy ending for everyone, however. The rebirth of the NorShor didn’t come inexpensively, including legal battles and one death.
In 1910, the Orpheum theater, the NorShor’s original name, was built for $150,000. It hosted Charlie Chaplin and the Marx brothers, among other famous performers. Duluth was booming, allegedly home to more millionaires per capita than any other U.S. city with about 100,000 residents. The rich natural resources of northern Minnesota, combined with a shipping port that linked the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, kept the city going.
In 1941, the Orpheum theater was renovated into a glamorous new movie theater named the NorShor to keep up with advancing entertainment technology.
“The Northwest’s most spectacular theater … features an entirely new style of theater architecture, a style so radical from accepted standards that the NorShor has already earned the distinction of being more sensational than New York’s Radio City,” said an article from the Duluth News Tribune.
The NorShor started running into hardships in the 1980s, however, with a revolving door of owners and managers. The theater waxed and waned with the strain of upkeep. There wasn’t a long-term manager or consistent function for the theater until 2006, when with the support of owner Eric Ringsred, lessee Jim Gradishar turned it into the NorShor Experience, an entertainment center featuring nude dancers.
Ringsred, a local physician and property owner, had long been known for trying to protect historic buildings. He had owned the NorShor for decades before Gradishar came along, and was running out of options to keep it alive.
“The other proposals for the NorShor over the past year have been for a church, for a special events venue, and variations on the bar or nightclub theme. None have come forward with funding or a concrete plan, except for Jim Gradishar’s NorShor Cabaret, which he calls the ‘NorShor Experience,’ apparently modeled after a locality in Las Vegas,” Ringsred said in a post to his personal blog in 2006.
The addition of a strip club to the quiet downtown streets of Duluth did not go over well.
“For a lot of us … the NorShor was such an important place; we felt betrayed by that decision,” former mayor Ness said in an interview. “In downtown’s most visible and prominent building, you had the marquee highlighting the strip club. There was a lot of problems for the downtown that were centered at the NorShor. There was drug dealing and gang activity and prostitution, all being run out of Duluth’s last remaining historic theater.”
In online posts, the public eviscerated Ringsred and Gradishar over their use of the building.
Legal battles over liquor licenses and other elements ensued, and only four years later Jim Gradishar ended the conversation when he shot himself to death. He was 47.
The disintegration of the NorShor Experience strip club meant the city had a choice: allow the NorShor’s fate to remain to chance, or step in. There was a harbinger nearby.
Superior, Wis. sits nearby Duluth. Together, the cities make up the Twin Ports and are separated only by a bridge over the St. Louis River.
Superior’s own Palace Theater opened just seven years after the NorShor, but was closed in 1982 and then briefly used as a church. After sitting vacant for years, the Palace was demolished in 2006.
Ness saw the Palace’s demise as a warning to Duluth.
“To me, it was clear that if the community didn’t act, the NorShor would eventually see that same fate,” he said. “There was water damage that was occurring on a regular basis, the building was not being maintained to a standard that would ensure its viability in the long run. A bold and more aggressive step had to be taken.”
The Duluth Economic Development Authority purchased the NorShor theater from Ringsred in 2010 for $2.6 million. Renovations began six years later, and the theater reopened in 2018 in partnership with the authority, developer George Sherman and the Duluth Playhouse, the city’s largest community theater company.
“There are literally hundreds of people who feel like they have a sense of ownership in the success story and a sense of pride in how it turned out,” Ness said. “That’s been clear every time that I’ve been in that space, people are not only enjoying the space and in awe of the renovation that occurred, but there is a real sense of pride that our community did this together.”
Today, the NorShor is a stately northern Minnesota cultural hub that showcases plays, musicals, concerts and classic film screenings.
When Balaban and Katz acquired this property, which had been used as an outdoor beer garden and dance hall by the Green Mill, they were unable to also purchase the building next to it. Hence, the lobby is positioned perpendicular to the auditorium.
Spanish Baroque and other influences are seen throughout. Theater employees were sent to Europe and Asia to purchase decor for this and other Balaban and Katz properties. The Uptown was decorated with ornate drapery, sculptures of women and cupids, gargoyles, griffins, mythological gods and demons, and bronze chandeliers. Most of these items were sold at auction in the 1960s when the theater ran into financial difficulties.
The theatre has multiple lobbies, which could hold the auditorium’s entire capacity. This allowed the house to be completely turned over in minutes between shows. The lobby includes a giant circular stairway.
Commonly found in theaters designed by Chicago-based Rapp and Rapp, which also designed the Chicago Theatre with two fountains that were later removed. Florists competed to have their designs featured under the fountain’s changing color spotlights.
A nurse was part of the theatre’s staff.
Balaban and Katz theatres offered child-care services to enhance the theatre-going experience of mothers of young children. At the Uptown, the concept developed into a very modern looking indoor playground. The nursery was actually a suite of two rooms. The first, smaller room was a reception area for mothers. The remainder of the space was for the children.
The oval room included Dresden figurines and porcelain flowers. It adjoined a larger powder room that featured vanity tables and chairs.
The band and organ console on a disappearing stage, able to be raised and lowered.
Uptown Theatre will be restored: $75 million plan unveiled for grand palace on North Side.
(Chris Jones, Contact Reporter, Chicago Tribune)
After 35 years of stuttering starts, empty promises, a court-ordered sale and oft-reckless neglect, the 4,381-seat, 46,000-square-foot Uptown Theatre — once the gilded crown jewel of the Balaban & Katz theater chain, and among the most opulent and gorgeous movie palaces ever built in America — is finally to be restored to its 1925 glory.
In other words, what long has seemed impossible to dogged, devoted preservationists, nostalgists and the tireless volunteer group known as the Friends of the Uptown is finally happening on Chicago’s North Side. And an eye-popping $75 million has been pieced together and set aside for the restoration of a dangerously decayed and decrepit theater that was boarded up after a J. Geils Band concert on Dec. 19, 1981, leaving aging Chicagoans only with their memories of once seeing Bruce Springsteen, Bob Marley, Prince or the Grateful Dead inside its historic bones.
This is not just another plan for the 4816 N. Broadway flagship of the Uptown neighborhood, insists Mayor Rahm Emanuel. This time it’s for real. Assuming the plan passes the City Council and other regulatory hurdles, the restoration and redevelopment project is slated to begin this fall. Within two years, the boards should be off the windows, the venue open for business and a curious public careening once again down the grand lobby staircase.
“This is the fulfillment of a promise,” said Emanuel in an interview Thursday. “When I was still mayor-elect, I talked about creating an entertainment district in Uptown. Our investments in culture are one of our best drivers of economic growth and job creation in our neighborhoods.”
The new Uptown will be a joint and equal venture between the Chicago-based promoter Jam Productions (which gained ownership of the landmarked Uptown for $3.2 million in 2008) and Farpoint Development. A new partnership entity will be formed.
Relatively new to the Uptown party, Farpoint Development is led by Scott Goodman, who co-founded Sterling Bay and helped build that firm into one of Chicago’s biggest and best-known commercial real estate developers, with projects including McDonald’s headquarters’ move to the former site of Oprah Winfrey’s Harpo Studios and Google’s Midwest headquarters in a former cold-storage warehouse. Goodman and three other longtime Sterling Bay executives left the company in 2016 to start Farpoint.
“The Uptown is an amazing asset in an amazing neighborhood,” Goodman said. “This was the rare opportunity to do something really cool.”
Goodman said the architect for the project has yet to be selected.
Jam’s specialty is concert promotion, but the plan is for the Uptown to feature a variety of live events.
“Concerts. Comedy. Dance. Special events. A whole multitude of things,” said Arny Granat, the co-founder and co-owner, with Jerry Mickelson, of Jam Productions. “This is a game changer for the city. It’s not just about concerts, it’s about the economic development that now will occur in the Uptown neighborhood”
Granat also said that, for some events, main-floor seats will be removed, allowing for an audience capacity as high as 5,800. Even with all-seated events, the Uptown’s size eclipses all other theaters in the city, including the 3,901-seat Auditorium Theatre and the 3,600-seat Chicago Theatre, both of which are about to experience some formidable new competition.
The mayor’s office said the piecemeal financing for the Uptown Theatre comes from an array of public and private sources: $14 million in financing through the State of Illinois’ Property Assessed Clean Energy Act; $13 million in tax-increment financing; $10 million in Build Illinois bond funding; $8.7 million in federal tax credits; and $3.7 million in the City of Chicago’s Adopt-a-Landmark funds. Jam and Farpoint are kicking in the remaining $26 million in a yet-to-be-determined mix of debt and equity. The restoration scheme also includes $6 million in streetscape improvements to portions of North Broadway, and Lawrence and Wilson avenues and Argyle Street, including a new pedestrian plaza and public stage, located just south of Lawrence and Broadway.
The byzantine road to restoration — and the campaigns to avoid the wrecking ball — have been as melodramatic as one of the movies the Uptown showcased in the 1920s.
Back in 2002, politicians and arts supporters, including Ivar Albert Goodman, held a news conference announcing an impending restoration. But the nonprofit group calling itself the Uptown Theatre and Center for the Arts did not have the money to acquire the building. And Goodman’s $1 million donation quickly was spent with nothing concrete to show. In a civil complaint, the Illinois attorney general’s office alleged the money had been spent on purchases at luxury hotels, restaurants and clothing stores.
“This theater,” said then-Ald. Mary Ann Smith, 48th, to the Tribune, “tends to attract people with stars in their eyes.”
Indeed it did. All kinds of people with all kinds of fantasies.
But as early as 2000, a report by the Urban Land Institute of Washington, D.C., had laid out the essential, irrefutable argument for the Uptown: “Future generations will not forgive those who do not attend to this obligation.”
For Chicago politicians, the Uptown has been a major quandary for decades. Restoration was jaw-droppingly expensive and thus beyond the reach of most private owners, especially since success in the highly competitive entertainment business was far from assured. But what mayor or alderman would want to be associated for life with the demolition of such a treasured and unique beauty?
Designed by the famed team of C.W. and Geo. L. Rapp (known as Rapp and Rapp) and touted on opening as containing “an acre of seats in a magic city” behind its Spanish Baroque facade, the huge six-story lobbies and extra-wide staircases of the Uptown could get 4,300 people out the doors, and another 4,300 inside, all within 16 minutes. In its first five years of operation in the 1920s, more than 20 million Chicagoans went through its portals into a fantastical world apart, one that Rapp and Rapp had wanted to resemble such creations as the Palace of Versailles.
There were floating “clouds,” tiny twinkling lights in the ceiling and even a perfuming system under the seats.
It was a far cry from Al Capone’s Chicago.
Had the Uptown Theatre been in the Loop, it likely would have been restored long ago, alongside the busy, historic theaters now owned or operated by Broadway in Chicago and Madison Square Garden Entertainment. But the Uptown’s massive size — too big for many concerts and most Broadway musicals — and its location in a neighborhood with significant economic challenges presented the dilemma of how to attract suburban and tourist audiences to an address that’s about 8 miles from the corner of State and Madison streets. Especially given the relative lack of parking and the large number of competing venues in the city.
By 2002, the alarmed Friends of the Uptown group was calling reporters with stories of falling plaster and pooling rainwater. Some in the group suspected that the endangered theater was being intentionally allowed to rot and soon would be condemned for good (or, their minds, bad). Others were pushing for the city to acquire the building through eminent domain. By the summer of 2008, there had been a court-ordered foreclosure sale and competing bids, leading to Jam Productions taking control of the building through a spinoff company, UTA II, controlled by Mickelson and Granat.
Jam’s winning bid was widely seen at the time as a defensive move to counter the incursions into the city by such rivals as Live Nation and MSG Entertainment. But taking control and reopening were two very different things. The Uptown could not just be reopened to the public: At the time, Jam argued that no restoration would be possible without public money, which was not then forthcoming. And thus, although Jam invested in and stabilized the Uptown, and averted the building’s worst problems, the theater remained on the endangered lists.
Watch the video for Regina Spektor’s “Black and White.”
A few reporters, documentarians and artists found their way inside. In Chicago’s 2012 Cultural Plan, the Uptown Theatre got a hopeful mention. And in 2017, a music video was made by Regina Spektor inside the ghostly but atmospheric building, revealing to a new, younger generation what was hidden behind the barriers to entry.
But those who have fought for — and reported on — the theater have grown old while the Uptown has languished, its keepers fearing every severe storm.
So what changed? The construction boom in the city has certainly been a factor, as has the revival of urban entertainment venues and the urban economic momentum in general, often coming at the expense of the suburbs.
Farpoint is among the developers looking to capitalize on the nationwide urbanization trend. Its largest initiative is the proposed redevelopment of the 49-acre former Michael Reese Hospital site and other land south of McCormick Place into residential and commercial buildings. The project, called the Burnham Lakefront, was one of five Chicago sites that Amazon visited in March as the e-commerce giant scouted sites for its planned second headquarters.
This isn’t Farpoint’s first foray into cultural development: Goodman recently was involved with an unsuccessful attempt to build a new home for the Northlight Theatre in downtown Evanston. But that was potential new construction with vociferous local opposition. The Uptown is a fulfillment of a neighborhood’s dream.
“This is not unlike asking kids if they want another Christmas, or Chicagoans if they want another World Championship,” said Andy Pierce, the co-founder of the Friends of the Uptown, an organization with a 20-year history of campaigns and agitation, and now with results to show. “You just don’t meet anyone who doesn’t want the Uptown saved.”
Tribune reporter Ryan Ori contributed to this story.
Chris Jones is a Tribune critic.
Congress Theater getting $69.2M renovation, including $9.6M city subsidy (Fran Spielman, Sun-Times)
The Congress Theater, in the 2100 block of North Milwaukee Avenue, has been shuttered since 2013.
Owners of Logan Square’s shuttered but historic Congress Theater got the go-ahead Tuesday for a $69.2 million renovation that will restore live music to a nearly century-old building where Chuck Berry and Jerry Lee Lewis once played.
With help from a $9.6 million city subsidy, developer Michael Moyer hopes to host up to 125 live music shows-a-year at the renovated, 4,900-seat theater.
That would happen after his investment group completes a redevelopment plan at the venue, 2135 N. Milwaukee, that includes a 30-room boutique hotel, 16,000 square-feet of ground floor retail and restoration of 14 now-vacant apartments that will remain affordable after the renovation.
The project also includes a 100-unit residential building adjacent to the Congress Theater with at least 30 percent of the units earmarked for affordable housing.
The plan unanimously approved by the Community Development Commission calls for the long-awaited project to be financed, in part, by a $9.6 million subsidy generated by the surrounding Fullerton-Milwaukee tax-increment-financing (TIF) district. Another $800,000 TIF subsidy will be earmarked for the residential building.
The Congress was built in 1926 — in the Classical Revival and Italian Renaissance style — and originally operated as an ornate movie theater.
Moyer served as managing member of PalMet Venture LLC, which was established to redevelop the $120 million historic mixed-use block adjacent to City Hall that included the renovation of the Cadillac Palace theater and the Hotel Allegro.
Tuesday’s vote marked a major turnaround for the Logan Square theater where Berry and Lewis once strutted their stuff.
Built during the 1920’s, the Congress was designated in 2002 as a Chicago landmark and more recently earned a spot on the National Register of Historic Places.
In April 2013, the city threw the book at the Congress Theater after the latest in a string of failed inspections.
The city’s lengthy motion detailed 26 violations at the theater, including a faulty electrical system, bare electrical cable wires strewn throughout the basement and defective lights.
“Based on the dangerous and hazardous nature of the building code violations, it is clear that the Congress Theater is a public nuisance and the continued operation of the business poses a continued harm to the occupants and the public,” the city’s motion said.
The theater’s ventilation system and a fire curtain tailor-made to prevent a fire from spreading were City Hall’s biggest concerns, but subsequently passed a city inspection.
That prompted a court order reducing occupancy on the theater’s first floor from 4,500 to 3000, and requiring then-owner Eddie Carranza to staff each event with two fire guards to help with overcrowding and guide concertgoers in case of a fire.
Concertgoers were further ordered to remain on the first floor of the theater because the second floor remained closed while staff worked to fix a backup generator.
The theater also agreed to have two fire guards and one stage fire guard at all shows to ensure safety and to guide concertgoers in case of an emergency, according to the order.
Five weeks later, the embattled Congress Theater was stripped of its liquor and business licenses.
It happened after a city hearing officer found the theater violated city codes “because within 12 consecutive months 5 separate incidents occurred on the licensed premises while the establishment was open for business involving acts that violated a state law regulating narcotics or controlled substances.”
In four disciplinary hearings, the city detailed alleged drug-related incidents and other alleged violations at the popular music venue in Logan Square.
They included allegations that staffers failed to call 911 to report a large fight during a Chief Keef rap concert in April 2012 and didn’t cooperate with police when seven underage concertgoers were let into a concert.
Carranza promised to appeal, but told the Chicago Sun-Times in a text message, “I don’t have the resources and money the city has to keep going on with court hearings.”
“We built a very strong music brand and revived a forgotten theater building. There will be plenty of buyers and operators interested in [taking] over our business,” Carranza wrote.
Carranza suggested then that he was being forced to sell. “The liquor commissioner sent a clear message he has some personal issue with me operating my theater,” he wrote.
The theater closed later that year and has been shuttered ever since.
The ALMA Theatre at 121 South Main Street has reopened as the 80-seat BIG RIVER Theatre with cinema and live performances. www.bigrivertheatre.com
(AP) Owners say the future of a central South Dakota movie theater is uncertain after lightning struck the facility.
A digital projector, server and some computer components were damaged last month at the Lyric Theatre in Faulkton.
Owner Dave Huss says he found an electrical surge through the theater equipment in April. He says a technician determined the damage to be the result of a lightning strike sending current through ground wires into the back end of the system.
The community movie theater reopening depends on the outcome of a $45,000 insurance claim.
Huss says the theater is a small operation. He says he’d be forced to close the theater if the damage isn’t covered by insurance. Huss' parents built the Lyric Theatre in 1950.
(Information from Aberdeen American)
This is not the STATE Theatre at left, it’s the RKO MAINSTREET Theatre.
At left is the RKO MAINSTREET Theatre.
Still there in 2018 as the Divino Gelato Café. The balcony is still intact; see photo.