Villa Theater

3610 W. Villard Avenue,
Milwaukee, WI 53209

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Joe Vogel
Joe Vogel on July 18, 2017 at 9:16 pm

This weblog post by Matthew J. Prigge describes a business ledger from Michael Brumm’s Ritz Theatre for the month of October, 1935. It’s an interesting glimpse into the operations of a small, independent theater during that period.

clarkw on March 27, 2012 at 10:32 pm

The basic Kilgen organ from the Ritz is in private hands in Columbus, Ohio now.

rivest266 on October 16, 2010 at 2:39 pm

December 22nd, 1962 grand opening ad can be found at
View link

JimRankin on September 21, 2005 at 11:56 am

The RITZ was the sole movie house for the village of North Milwaukee until the village was annexed by Milwaukee. It struggled for years and stopped showing films on a regular basis in 1986 when Marcus theatres abandoned it. In its issue of Oct. 16, 1995, the “Milwaukee Journal” ran this article excerpted here, with a color photo of the auditorium:

“THEATRE SEEKS AN AUDIENCE; Film May Be Salvation For Movie House.
A movie that has succeeded despite the odds may be the salvation of a Milwaukee movie theatre that is struggling agains the odds to succeed.
The movie is "Sankofa,” an award-winning and critically acclaimed flilm playing this week at the Villa Theatre, 3610 W. Villard Ave.

The Villa is one of but a handful of Black-owned movie houses in the country. For more than seven years, its owners — Tanya and Herman Lewis — have tried to keep alive their dream of building the Villa into a cultural resource for the city’s African-American community.

Not without struggle. The Lewises have tried offering second-run movies at budget prices. They’ve tried offering first-run movies at regular prices. They’ve tried to turn the theater into a community center, opening its facilities to theater groups and educational programs. Nothing has caught on.

“The Villa has never, ever, made enough money to pay for itself,” Tanya Lewis said. “We have always had to subsidize it.”

When the theatre opened in 1926, it was called the Ritz. Through the years, its various owners have employed all kinds of tactics to fill the 680 seats. One of the strangest efforts came in the early 1950s, when the theatre implemented something it called “Dignity Nights.” On designated evenings, candy eaters, popcorn munchers and peanut shell snappers were corralled into a special section, protecting the aurally sensitive from the oral cacophony….

The theater had been closed for three years when in 1988, Tanya Lewis drove by and saw “For Sale” on the marquee. She went home and convinced her skeptical husand that they should buy the place. “We thought we were getting a deal of a lifetime,” she said. “A movie theatre for $50,000.” “It took us nine months to get it going. The building was just a shell. It needed everything. It had a projector, but no sound system. Just the platter and rewind table worked.”

The Lewises spent $120,000 on repairs, including $30,000 from the city. Lewis admitted that she and her husband knew little about running a movie house. “We didn’t even know how to pop popcorn,” she said. They learned. Everybody in the Lewis family learned….

In March, the Lewises decided the Villa just wasn’t working out. They closed the theatre and put it up for sale. If their decision had been reduced to a headline, it would have said ‘Villa a big mistake, Tanya, Herman agree.“ ….”

The photo shows the original single ceiling dome remains with its cove lights, but those lights were apparently too expensive and now only side wall up-lights serve. The murals between the pilasters are covered in plain red draperies and the Palladian-arched organ screens are the only ‘Mediterranean’ touch remaining to justify the name ‘Villa’, though the pipe organ disappeared long ago. Uplights hidden in their balconnets remind one of what it must have been like so many years ago. The theater has not appeared in the movie listings for a long time, and the status of it in this decaying area is unknown.

AndrewWillenson on April 19, 2005 at 9:05 pm

A grand attempt at reopening the Villa Theater was made in the early 1990s. At one point the Villa was operating as a single screen FIRST RUN theater. I saw the movie “Trespass” (Ice-T, Ice-Cube) there. The theater was very clean. The auditorium was in good shape, although understandably not in “museum perfection”.

“Trespass” was an exclusive showing at the Villa that night. (Either Friday or Saturday.) There were about 200 people in the theater. Nice, but not for an exclusive showing of a first run movie. Sad.

The Villa soon closed. I doubt if anything more could have been done. I haven’t driven by the building in a while, but I believe it is now a nightclub.

One more thing. Not to puff myself up, but I DID PATRONIZE THIS THEATER. I just feel like mentioning that.


Andrew N. Willenson

Ken Roe
Ken Roe on April 4, 2005 at 4:26 pm

In the Film Daily Yearbook,1943 the Ritz Theater is shown as being operated by the Fox Wisconsin Circuit under a subsidiary Fox City Theatres Corp. A seating capacity of 800. It was equipped with a Kilgen theatre organ. It closed as the Villa Theatre in 1986