1125 W. Mitchell Street,
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Milwaukee’s EMPIRE THEATRE becomes its GRANADA THEATRE
At least 76 theatres once bore the name Granada after the province in Spain of that name and to those familiar with theatres, the example in Chicago (until 1990) is the opulent standard by which the others are judged. No, Milwaukee’s GRANADA was nowhere near as ornate as the Chicago buiding, but then neither of them duplicated the famous Alhambra Palace in Granada, Spain from which the inspiration for the theatres arose. The 4,000-seat theatre in Chicago was no inspiration for the architect of the 1,000-seat Granada Theatre in Milwaukee, unfortunately, but just how the one in Milwaukee came to be called by this name rather than ‘EMPIRE’, the name with which it opened, is a story in itself. The Spanish word ‘granada’ means "pomegranate" and comes from the ancient name for the Moorish Kingdom of Granada.
THE EMPIRE VAUDEVILLE THEATRE BECOMES ….
Actually, the theatre started out in 1906 as a property occupied by two small frame buildings, and so they were demolished and a vaudeville theatre was planned by the Kotzhausen Bros. for the then bustling Polish south side. Apparently, they approached the young duo, Lubliner and Trinz, who would go on to make their name in Chicago theatres, to combine funds and expertise to make a theatre come to be. Thus was the Empire Theatre born, a simple facade on the commercial strip of Mitchell Street, the ‘main street’ of the area with the Modjeska Theatre directly across the street since 1910. But in 1906, when the Empire Theatre rose upon that lot, the movies were in their infancy, and neighborhood vaudeville ruled the day. Apparently, the partners found it rough going, since only six years later the building was converted to movies by building a metal projection booth upon the balcony. Grand Opening was Saturday, April 27, 1907.
The Empire Theatre was really more a name than any hope of starting a theatrical empire in the city, for it was a modest 50 by 120-foot brick building with its sloped maple floor set upon hemlock sleepers upon the soil. The auditorium occupied 80 ft. of that length, with the stagehouse end being 26 ft. deep by 46 ft. wide. The 48 feet up to the grid-iron allowed adequate vaudeville presentations especially with six small dressing rooms on galleries in the wings. Local architect Anton Dohmen did not lavish much of his modest $20,000 budget on decor, for the auditorium was a standard pilasters-between-panels arrangement of six bays of plastering with four 750-watt chandeliers furnishing the sole light as they hung from the plain plaster, 19-foot-high ceiling (no box beams in this case). The total of 994 seats comprised 736 on the floor and 258 squeezed into the tiny balcony which was a flat floor above the lobby ceiling. In addition to the steam heat, two, 4-foot-diameter ventilators through ornate grilles in the ceiling kept the atmosphere from becoming too ripe in these days long before cooling plants. A simple proscenium arch of very rounded aspect fronted the room, with a small orchestra pit below. There was no pipe organ.
If the Empire Theatre was not lavish inside, it did sport a handsome pressed metal frontage outside, comprising the entablature, cornice and semicircular pediment above the five elliptical occuli that vented the balcony through the pressed red brick facade. This design was quite in contrast to the photo supposedly of it, held by the State Historical Society in Madison, and the blueprints show that it was instead a three bay configuration with large brick overdoors arching above the doubled doors in the three entry sets, flush with the sidewalk line. Ticket sales were aparently inside the shallow lobby with its cove ceiling and chair rail decor, since no ticket booth is indicated. There must have been a sign of some sort, though no provision for marquee or vertical sign is on the blueprints.
…. THE GRANADA MOVIE PALACE.
Comes 1927 and Lubliner & Trinz have decamped to Chicago, and others now own the Empire Theatre and want it to be competitive in the new market of the movie palaces. A group called “The Oriental Theatre Co.” ** in conjunction with Warner Bros. Pictures, commissions local architects Bakes & Uthus to remodel the structure, but upon the same footprint of the original foundation and to use the same superstructure with select modifications. This time, six steel girders were attached to the facade to provide for a marquee of some 25 feet wide out over the sidewalk. The facade was entirely redesigned, but still held to the three bay concept of the original. The center of the three door sets was converted to a small ticket booth flanked by two brass and plate glass door sets and poster cases, of which none had been built on the Empire. Again, brick made up most of the facade, but instead of pressed metal trim, this time it was terra cotta as in the two end bays being outlined by twisted columnets that rose from the sidewalk up to the coping line which was also of terra cotta in the form of graceful curves topped by twisted cone-shaped finials. The occuli vent openings of the earlier building were bricked over, since rudimentary cooling was installed at this time. The two end bays had paired arched windows fronted by black iron balconets, while five similar windows without balconets completed the center bay above the canopy of the marquee, but these gave only into the new projection room and its private lavatory.
The Spanish Moorish style theme was continued inside the auditorium by recladding the pilasters and panels in new ornamental plaster borders of scrolls terminating in a plaster jabot at the top center points. The same plain pilasters rose now to a new cornice of a line of dentils and a cyma at top, below the coved edge of the same flat ceiling, which cove now contained the concealed lighting. The bays that flanked the stage were now splayed in order to create organ lofts with new exitways below them. The organ screens were gilded plaster affairs done to almost duplicate one of the facade’s end bays with twisted columnets rising to the same twisted cone-shaped finials, from a line of mock balusters at bottom of a screen’s portal, nicely draped, of course. Imitation Caen stone comprised the wainscot here and around the auditorium. On the opposite end of the auditorium, the original balcony had been a few rows on a flat floor above the lobby ceiling, but now it was a whole new, larger sloped affair projecting into the room, of ten rows of seats plus room for the new plaster projection room against the rear (north) wall. Below it, the lobby gained a domed ceiling and a cornice of light fixtures, plus lighted poster cases. The floors were now professionally of concrete, so the new 998 seats were mounted securely. There was a Barton pipe organ, but nothing is known of it.
A 1940’s photo shows the America’s Dairyland pageant taking place on the stage, where a cow is being milked for some reason, while men in suits greet the new beauty queen at house right. This shows that the full stage was not much changed, and remained an occasional source of entertainment aside from the movie screen, for many years.
By 1968, the theatre had grown old, and this writer can testify that there were very few working light bulbs to enjoy what little decor may have remained. The times and the area had changed; TV had drawn away most of the audience along with the flight to the suburbs, and the neighbors were now of mostly Hispanic origin and not of a movie going habit, especially since the Granada Theatre never played anything in Spanish as one might have expected in homage to the name of the theatre. Repair and upkeep costs came to be more than revenues, and so the theatre was closed that year and laid dark for a few years until demolished in the early 1970s. A man has found demolition photos of the scene, and may post them to this site when it can again accept photos. The Granada Theatre may never have been synonymous with ‘grandeur,’ but it was a goodly neighborhood house that deserves to be more than a parking lot today. November 11, 2005
** (The Oriental Theatre Co. apparently had nothing to do with Milwaukee’s Oriental Theatre built in 1927 by the Annenberg family. Just what this name referred to remains to be discovered.) Thanks are given to Hugh W. Swofford III, veteran resercher, for finding the opening date and other details.
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