235 W. Wisconsin Avenue,
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Firms: Kirchoff & Rose
Previous Names: Schlitz Palm Garden, Nessreel, Little Theatre
Unlike the many other theatres named Garden, the one in Milwaukee did not reflect any nearby bed of flowers, but instead the potted palms of the Schlitz Palm Garden, as in Beer Gardens in Germany which preceded it. The three major breweries among the dozens that once called the city ‘home’ followed the German precedent of building their own chain of ‘saloons’ all over a city so as to have outlets for their brew, and they certainly dotted Milwaukee with hundreds of outlets having daily deliveries in those pre-refrigeration days. When it came to downtown, the largest beer hall was built and that was the famous Schlitz Palm Garden on Third Street just south of Wisconsin Avenue. Designed by noted Milwaukee architects Kirchoff and Rose, it was a large 50x150-ft. tavern able to seat 900 at tables and bars, with dozens of the namesake palms reaching up to the top of the 60-foot ceiling made up of light bulb-studded arches that sprang from smaller windows and display panels on one side, and soared across to the same on the other, with skylights between some of the center arches. It was a happy place to meet and “down a few” what with orchestrions and oftentimes a band playing towards the rear, but all that “Gemutlichkeit” (‘ge-MEEWT-lich-kyt’ = good will and cozy fellowship) ended with the arrival of Prohibition in 1919.
What to do? Well, the Schlitz brewery, famous for the slogan “The Beer That Made Milwaukee Famous”, did not let its prime property sit idle. It engaged the architects who had built it to convert it to what was then all the rage: a movie house, and the Garden Theatre opened on April 22, 1922. It already had a soaring ceiling and that allowed for a balcony of 500 seats at the rear, and the total seating became 1410, later reduced to 1200. Gone were the palms, but in came the silver leather seats, and ornamentation in the manner of Louis Sullivan (which the exterior of the building had sported since 1896) along an equilateral proscenium arch that mirrored the arches carried over from the previous incarnation. The old decorative scheme of brown and gold was replaced with bright yellow, ivory and green and this enhanced with new coves having concealed lights in four colors: red, yellow, blue and green. Deep swags of velvet stage draperies in amethyst purple and “Persian orange” complemented the new hand painted murals that covered the walls. Though the orchestrions and band were gone, there was no lack of music as the new “Hope-Jones unit orchestra” (said by some to have been a 2-manual, 5-rank Wurlitzer theatre organ) was installed within new chambers constructed in splays on either side of the arch. Elegance was the new theme to replace the ‘Hale-fellow-well-met’ ethos of the Beer Hall, so the chambers likewise had two story high arches that were heavily draped and centered with a crystal chandelier with a baby grand piano fronting it on a platform slightly lower than the stage.
As movies came and went, there were changes in the populace as the 1950s dawned and people moved out to the suburbs and found their movie houses there and that meant that the Garden was struggling while the land value to others was growing. Schlitz closed the then faded place and in 1963 it was demolished to be replaced by the parking lot of a new bank on the corner. Then car horns blared where the gaiety of music and even pipe organ had thrilled the masses. The only ‘garden’ then was a few pitiful pots of straggly flowers hanging on light poles among the cars, and even they disappeared in 1980 when the Grand Avenue Mall (now the Shops At Grand Avenue) replaced so much of that side of Wisconsin Avenue which had at one time been known as Grand Avenue, partially in reference to its theatres, now but a memory.
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