2473 South Kinnickinnic Avenue,
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THE AVALON THEATRE: AN ARCHITECTURAL TOUR
By James H. Rankin
“Welcome to the Avalon Theatre, a typical American movie palace of the Roaring Twenties. It is rather small as movie palaces go, but it has as fascinating a legal and genealogical history as any theater.
The exteriors of movie houses were deliberately designed to attract attention, of course, in order to lure patrons with the implied promise of an exotic experience of pleasure. Certainly the Avalon Theater originally did just that with the soaring arch flanked by twisted concrete columns toped with ornate cast finials.
The flanking massive piers once toped with terra cotta urns, nicely framed this center bay which also sported a handsome vertical name sign some three stories high as well as a “Paramount” style marquee over the sidewalk with chasing lights and milk glass letters on the attraction boards.
Time takes its toll of all things as it did when a lightning storm reportedly destroyed the facade’s arch, and the dazzlingly illuminated signs were removed many years ago to be replaced by the 1940s vogue of the then new fluorescent back lighting tubes which survives with a simple neon name sign to this day. (Fortunately, several documents and photos survive to show us the theatre’s glory at its opening on May 1, 1929.)
The ornamentation of the front facade is primarily Moorish and Byzantine in feeling as evidenced by the rayonant foliation of the capitals, entablature and abaci as well as the corbel and pierced urn over the marquee.
The quoins, cartouche hey stones, and molded rinceau frieze are among those ornaments of European extraction, however. The mixing of architectural styles was common in movie palaces, but the Avalon’S design had good precedent: the conquering of European Spain by the Moors who brought much of an oriental and Islamic flavor in architecture.
The rayonant or geometrically stylized forms of ornament were characteristic of the Islamic Byzantine designs, due to the Koran forbidding the depiction of human or animal forms or devices reminiscent of them; it will be seen that there is a gradual transition from the Byzantine or Moorish details on the facade to the more purely European Spanish in the auditorium.
It is likely that the central pierced urn was illuminated from within, originally, and the top of the marquee no doubt once had floodlights to delineate this dramatic facade.
[contrary to David Naylor’s comments about the Avalon in his “Great American Movie Theatres” it is the sole survivor of Milwaukee’s SIX (not three) ‘atmospherics’ and three of them still stand, but not as theaters. And there is nothing remotely “Egyptian Revival” about the facade, and had he come to Milwaukee, he likely would have seen that rather than judging from small photos at the Theatre Historical Society offices. The ornament is stylized in the Art Deco manner, but nothing is Egyptian in this 1,637-seat house.]
Theaters occupied expensive real estate, therefore many of them sought to spread out that expense over several types of revenue makers on the same lot, and the Avalon was no exception. Originally, it was planned to have bowling alleys in the basement and a third floor dance hall, but they economized during construction and added only a second floor with 20 apartments and four first floor shops of 7,000 sq. ft. total.
Since real estate prices diminished the farther back one went from the main street frontage, most theatres were built with long foyers and lobbies connecting the entry to the auditorium, but the peculiar site of the Avalon did not allow for this practice; hence the shallow ticket lobby adjacent to the sidewalk.
When Milwaukee’s Poblocki Sign Co. was contracted to modernize the Avalon’s facade along with many other theaters in the 1940s, they did not stop at removing the original marquee and vertical sign and replacing them with one of their aluminum “Aluminized” versions, but they also redid the box office, poster cases and other areas under the marquee, and no good view remains of how these areas originally looked.
Thankfully they stopped their ministrations at the outer doors and the charming little ticket lobby with its show cases and stucco ceiling and patterned tile floor remain much like it was, except that modern heating costs mandated the economy of a ticket counter in here now, since the island box office is too difficult and expensive to heat or cool.
Passing through the three sets of original wooden and plate glass doors we leave the air lock which the ticket lobby formed to counter Wisconsin’s sometimes difficult climate, and pass into the Grand Lobby: a 5,000 sq. ft. expanse of tiled floor with the sloping plaster and mock wood beamed ceiling overhead directly under the balcony’s sloping floor.
Probably one first notices the wrought iron chandelier with its candle lamps and colored glass jewels, but even larger is the right angle carpeted stairway with wrought iron and wood railing and balustrade up to the balcony level mezzanine; patrons could find there a little black porcelain “Moderne” drinking fountain in the niche in the stair wall.
The twisted plaster columns are painted black, with their gilded Corinthian capitals contrasting sharply with the pinkish cream color of the stucco walls. A pleasant ornamental touch is the four protrusions in the floor line of the mezzanine caused by the little balconnets with iron railings which appear to be supported by corbels fronted with a medieval court jester’s grimacing mask and multi-peaked motley cap tipped with little bells, all in high relief polychromed plaster.
Of course, the 1940’s modern murals now hung along the lobby walls at the back foyer to the auditorium are not original, and neither are the blind panels in the eight arched windows in this wall. They were originally swaged with dark colored draperies and were probably glazed to provide tempting views of the program in progress to the “standees” waiting to enter for the next program.
Since candy stands did not usually start appearing in theaters until the 1940’s, (and this one is obviously a 1960’s re-do) one must now look around to try to imagine the baronial chairs, settees, torcheres and paintings or tapestries which probably adorned this lobby before they became too worn to be saved.
While this neighborhood theater was never lavish, we can rightly assume that it originally had at least a minimal complement of sturdy wood, velour, and iron furnishings to prevent the lobby from looking vacant.
The five foot high arched window in the wall above the staircase is actually a swing-out door which gives into the Manager’s office in the lobby mezzanine. This area is one of the most worn in the theater because it must give access to both lavatories as well as both balcony entrances and two staircases.
Proceeding from the mezzanine into the balcony, visitors ascended eight steps up to the balcony crossover aisle and inside one of the upper of two small pavilions connected by a loggia, the Spanish tiled roof of which is surmounted by two tiled plaster urns beneath the vault of the blue plaster ‘sky.’
The soffit or ceiling of this balcony below is made up of a lovely elliptical cove with a high stucco plaster dome highlighted by cove lighting (in three colors as selected back stage), the rim of which is delightfully trimmed with molded plaster cabochon cresting, a design which is used on our Riverside Theatre’s dome cove, but unfortunately few others.
The roofline fronting the projection room is supported by more ornate consoles. The projection room contained 1980s computer-controlled “platters” with xenon bulb lamp houses, rather than the original carbon arcs. The manager controlled the projector from the lobby; there was no projectionist or stage crew. The manager only had to touch the film when changing the entire program at which time he removed the spliced-together film features and trailers from the revolving platters, and separates them into their original separate reels and returns them to the distributing service which has already shipped to him new reels with the next titles and he must now splice them all together and thread them onto the platters and through the automated projector.
If anything should go wrong with the film, the computer will stop the show, turn on the house lights, and signal the Manager in the lobby. This automated method of projection was the only way that most movie palaces could keep their doors open these days. However, it wasn’t enough to save the Avalon.
The nine and one half thousand square feet of the Avalon’s Spanish style auditorium forms a charming setting for some 1,637 patrons under a starry sky. Such skies were adorned with electric stars and projected clouds and were surrounded with a line of blue “horizon” lighting which was originally concealed by glycerin-preserved shrubbery and foliated arbors along the parapets atop the two flanking arcades over the exit ways.
This “Stars and Clouds” type of theatre decor was called the “Atmospheric Type” to distinguish it from the Standard or “Hard Top” type, and the Avalon is the only one remaining in operation of the six “atmospherics” once operating in Milwaukee. [the others were: the Egyptian at 3719 N. Teutonia (demolished 1983); the National at 2616 W. National Ave. (demolished 1970); the Venetian at 3629 W. Center St. (now abandoned); the Zenith at 2498 N. Hopkins St. (now a church); and the Grand at 2917 N. Holton St. (a conversion from a 1911 ‘hardtop’ to an ‘atmospheric’ in 1928, now a church)].
This Atmospheric type had precedents in theaters as early as the 1890’s, but was perfected as a total illusion with the advent of controllable electric lighting in the early 1920’s at which time the noted theater architect, John Eberson, saw it as an opportunity to provide a new decor at less cost to owners.
Many architects imitated his new style of theatre, as did the architect of the Avalon, Russell Barr Williamson, who was actually better known for using Frank Lloyd Wright’s “Prairie Style” design in other buildings.
Mr. Williamson did another theater-like structure here, the former Eagle’s Club with its stage/auditorium/dance floor hall, but no doubt appreciated the economy of the atmospheric style and he needed every possible economy at his disposal since the Avalon faced difficult financing, even though it claimed to be the first theater in the city purpose-built for sound movies.
The movie palace was rarely a pure style of architecture because the purpose was fantasy and illusion to provide an escape from the patron’s daily cares. For these reasons this playhouse was named after the mythical island of paradise found in Welsh and Arthurian legend and popularized by the 1920 song by Jolson and Rose: “Avalon.”
It hardly matters that no one knows what King Arthur’s Avalon looked like, since the architect used Spanish roof tiles and stepped gables for the two organ screen facades, but supported them and the arcades with twisted Moorish columns and arches, the spandrels of which feature Roman paterae with husk flowers radiating as a painted motif.
The further mix of styles is easily seen in the two statues of the Greek goddess Athena now standing upon the balconnets fronting the organ chamber’s screens (a replacement drapery panel of mesh to allow more organ sounds to emanate.)
Likewise, the gilded cast plaster triptych of panels of a procession of ancient Greeks is suitably eclectic. To round out this melange, they saw fit to buy a dozen, three dimensional glass star shaped lighting fixtures in two sizes in the Art Deco style from the Poly Manufacturing Corp. here in Milw., but these only light in white light.
Much of the auditorium’s charm was lost over the years as the projectors of the moving clouds disappeared as did all the original foliage and the draperies and hangings on the organ screens, the stage, and along the walls. The fabric now concealing the organ’s swell shades [the moveable volume control baffles] on each chamber face, is a simple homemade panel of mesh fabric to permit easy passage of the pipe organ’s air-blown sound.
The original drapery would likely have been a similar open weave panel embroidered with heraldic designs and framed by a fringed velvet lambrequin, if this theater’s was at all similar to others of its style.
Originally, the two gilded plaster statues were apparently mounted inside foliage framed niches which once stood atop each parapet directly above each center ventilator grille in the fascia of the mock parapets. The present cyclopean movie screen (which is properly termed the “picture sheet”) was erected in the 1950’s to take advantage of the then new wide screen projection, but its immovable expanse now obscures the two well proportioned twisted columns and the square proscenium arch (which is topped with a Spanish tile roof line) which fronts the once useable full stage; having no curtain in front of the screen, it creates a cold look to the otherwise charming auditorium.
The area back stage has a once fully rigged fly loft and gridiron operated from a permanent counterweight system to move draperies and scenery up and down.
There are three dressing rooms which were rarely used [one was used as the projection room for the former back stage cinema.] Some two dozen lighting circuits were operated by the stage switchboard, from which the theater’s electrician was once able to gradually dim the horizon lighting and footlights in a way that imitated a sunset and thus gracefully announced the beginning of the movie.
As these lights were “going down” as they say, the theater’s original Wurlitzer pipe organ would accompany this with the conclusion of the overture as it descended on its “lift” into the orchestra pit (now covered by a wooden forestage which supports the giant screen in front of the proscenium).
Movie palaces began installing devices to produce sound effects to accompany silent movies as early as 1910, but the larger theaters found the early piano with sound effects cabinet too limiting as movies became longer and more ambitious in story lines.
Since true orchestras were far too expensive to hire for every performance, the usual movie palace had to settle for the greatest invention of their decade: the theater pipe organ, a cross between a sound effects department and a symphony orchestra. Wurlitzer was only one of many brands of organs, and the Avalon’s originally had only three ‘manuals’ (keyboards) and eight ‘ranks’ (e.g. a single voice, such as a trumpet).
With these basic ranks of this small organ, the skilled organist was able to combine them and the dozen or more sound effects in such a way as to imitate almost any instrument and thus be able to keep in harmony with whatever was being projected on the screen.
These organists were often popular in their own right, and many theaters featured their resident organist in concerts; the “organ interlude” and the “sing along” were standard parts on the typical seven or eight part evening programs – and all this for one thin dime in the cheaper seats such as those on the Avalon’s shelf balcony.
It is ironic that the Avalon Theater, like the Warner Theater, had organs on order only months before the first sound or talking films were to arrive and thereby render the expensive organs almost useless, and unused.
The Avalon Theater’s organ was purchased by businessman and pipe organ expert, Fred Hermes of Racine, in 1970. He maintains it and enlarges it for public concerts by its new owner, the Dairyland Theatre Organ Society, of which he is one of the founding members. Under his care the organ has now grown to over 21 ranks which allows it much greater versatility and concert quality.
This concludes our tour and description of the Bay View neighborhood’s little Spanish courtyard, the Avalon. Won’t you come again?"
James Rankin provides this recent update:
Aside from the current owner putting a back-stage screening room in in the early-1990’s, and masking off the house right exitway to create a separate entrance to that mini-theatre from the lobby, there has been nothing substantial done to it since 1989.
Of course, the theater has been closed since 2001 when its owner, an operator of an ambulance company which uses several bays of the surrounding commercial building for that business, could not persuade the city to grant the theater a liquor license which some other theaters in the city have.
The nearby residents mounted a successful petition to stop the granting of the license [Milwaukee already has the dubious honor of having the highest number of liquor licenses per capita in the nation, I’ve been told] in this old neighborhood in fear of rowdiness late at night after boozed patrons of rock concerts staggered about down the sleepy side streets looking for their cars (and possibly urinating on the lawns), since there is no parking lot anywhere nearby.
There was an organ concert on the much enlarged Wurlitzer in Fall 2001 under the Dairyland Theatre Organ Society, and a Christmas concert, but otherwise it is rarely open.
In early-2012, there were plans proposed to restore and re-open the Avalon Theatre. The main auditorium will have a capacity for 240, and the balcony would be separated from the main auditorium. There will once again be lights in the theatre’s ceiling that gave it the appearance of a starry sky.
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