Grand Warner Theatre

212 W. Wisconsin Avenue,
Milwaukee, WI 53203

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Grand Theatre

When the memorable Butterfly Theatre of 1911 was demolished in 1930 along with two other buildings, it was to make way for what would become the fanciest theatre in Milwaukee and one of the most beautiful in the nation.

The Warner Brothers chain was looking for a first class opening in the city and spent $2.5 million to build this 2,400 seater which opened May 1, 1931. It is part of a 12-story office building veneered in marble and bronze spandrels and ornamented throughout in monel silver metal in Art Deco style design. The lobby is a three story high dazzler in towering etched mirrors that were framed in deep maroon draperies with fringless tassels (drops) in silver silk and fringe.

An overview from the balcony grande staircase landing originally held a baby grand piano and a duet of violins to entertain the waiting throng on the patterned terrazzo floor below (fully carpeted not long after opening). This almost pure Art Deco style space is illuminated by two giant chandeliers of concentric sheaths of etched glass, with matching five-foot-tall sconces on the marbled piers under the silver-leafed plaster of the geometrically molded ceiling.

On entering the auditorium one sees a vista in Louis XIV garnished with some lines and details from the Art Deco French. This room is not the reserved silver and maroon of the lobby, but an exuberant gold and wine with accents in antique verde and teal. Both side walls have three murals “after Fragonard” with scenes of courtly capers and above each is a gilded sunburst patterned grille back lighted by hidden cove lights above, in three colors.

Carrying the eye downward, the flanking organ screens are unusual in being free-standing arches within an arched bay that is also topped with another lighted grille, and the back of the archway is covered in draped velvets and a glittered scrim adorned with jeweled star shapes in aluminum.

Centering the bottom of the arch is a five-foot tall golden amphora on pedestal with a back lit stained glass mural on its front of the Muses at play. Just as the top rear of the archway is graced with a stylized sunburst (Louis the XIV was the ‘Sun King’ and the sunburst motif was a signature of architects Rapp & Rapp) in gold leafed stylized rays, the chandeliers fronting the screens are also a stylized sunburst with etched glass ‘rays’ bejeweled with stained glass roundels, even though the wall sconces were hybrid designs having etched glass panels fronted by chains of glass beads with pendeloques.

The proscenium arch took up that entire wall, but the rectangular arch was relieved by clever enrichments in a central cartouche flanked by cornucopias and volutes and even a mask or two to break up the gilded lines. Half the arch was filled by the enormous Grand Drapery, a combination of five swags of maroon velour fringed in gold upon a lambrequin of crushed honey velvet, the whole adorned with four, eight-foot-tall pendants of padded silver silk fronted with a pattern of small squares of mirrors set into tiny brass frames, and this in addition to 15, 2-foot-long tassels and 18 similar fringeless drops of three molds each.

When the grilled dome above and the proscenium cove lights turned on with the footlights, this all took on a wonderful glow, as the 3 manual, 28 rank Kimball theatre pipe organ rose upon its lift to begin the overture. With only an 18-foot-deep stage, the theater was not really designed for stage shows, but mostly for film.

The blueprints show that provision was made for a motorized orchestra pit elevator, but along with other amenities, it was omitted as a cost conservation as the Great Depression made itself felt.

They did find money, however, for a display fountain in the basement lounge
as well as on the next three levels above. The foregoing is a description of the former Warner at opening and is not entirely reflective of the state of affairs as of 2002.

The organ is now in Milwaukee’s Oriental Theatre ever since the former Warner Grand Theatre was split in two in 1973 and became the Centre Cinemas 1 & 2, and in 1982 was renamed the Grand Cinemas 1 & 2 (in honor of the Grand Avenue Mall then opening across the street) until it closed in 1995.

We can only hope that the Symphony buys it for their secondary concert hall (their primary venue being the Marcus Performing Arts Center), but what the unfortunate adaptations to their needs might do to this venerable showpiece showplace, we can only wait and see. Let us hope that they and their money backers will like grand theater architecture as much as grand music, for plans have been drawn by the current owner to demolish it if the Symphony declines.

Acoustic tests have declared the undivided theater to be excellent, and the Symphony is encouraged, but the price tag of renovations, and probably some form of parking structure next door could be as much as $50 million, a steep price for a regional orchestra, even though the community did find $100 million to open its art center this year.

In December, 2017, Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra acquired the Grand Warner Theatre for its new performance center to open in the fall of 2020. Having raised $93.5 million of a $120 million campaign to buy, design and renovate the theatre and fund an endowment for the orchestra. Steve & Greg Marcus of the Marcus Corporation donated their ownership of the Grand Warner Theatre to the campaign.

Contributed by Jim Rankin

Recent comments (view all 124 comments)

bbdoll4ever on December 12, 2016 at 2:42 pm

Aaron, this is amazing news! I have shared on Facebook with all my design peers to gain awareness on the project. Let’s resurrect this masterpiece!! :)

LouRugani on May 18, 2017 at 4:21 pm

Visitors must sign a waiver acknowledging that the theatre has been vacant for two decades. There’s a scar on the edge of the balcony, an effort to duplex the auditorium to produce more income in the 1990s, but the Warner is up for rebirth as the home of the Milwaukee Symphony. The stagehouse will have to be extended beyond the current rear wall so it’s large enough to fit the whole orchestra, and its management is leading a bid to renovate the Warner Grand to become the symphony’s new home. The task is to raise $120 million to make the move a reality. So far, the MSO has raised $76 million and says over 50 donors have given substantial gifts to help it move into the Warner Grand to help save an historic gem that likely would be lost otherwise.

The Milwaukee Symphony does about 135 performances per 40-week season and now offers themed performances of music from popular movies like “Harry Potter” and “La La Land” in order to attract new audiences, and its vision with the Warner Grand Theatre is to make going to the symphony an experience from the moment someone walks in the door, the original intent behind going to a movie palace.

The MSO is far from the first orchestra to move into a refurbished movie palace downtown. They’re regularly retrofitted to be symphony halls and the idea of the MSO moving to the Warner Grand had existed for some time. In 2001 the MSO conducted a highly successful acoustical test in the Warner Grand. Being much deeper than it is wide, the “shoebox” shape is better for orchestra acoustics, and the very high balcony is good because the sound doesn’t get trapped under the balcony. The decorations deflect sounds in good ways, though Rapp and Rapp didn’t build any of it for acoustical reasons. But in 2001 there wasn’t an appetite for a move because an addition was being built at the Milwaukee Art Museum, there was too much traffic to expand on North Second Street because it was a major artery, and the MSO’s need wasn’t as great because there were no Broadway shows at its then-home during its season.

Now, with the architecture firm Kahler Slater, the MSO plans to bump the back wall of the L-shaped theater into North Second Street to create a larger stage that can be seen from all areas of the theatre, to extend the east end with an addition replacing replace the building next door, and to enlarge the lobby to hold 1,700 people before and after performances. There’ll be new seating for a 1,750-person capacity, first-floor lavatories and elevators, and a second-floor gathering space for revenue-generating private events.

The City has donated a $750,000 grant and street-reconstruction assistance for moving the rear wall while retaining its historic and structural integrity. Initial approvals are in from the State of Wisconsin and the National Parks Service for historic preservation tax credits which will cover 40 percent of the cost of the historic restoration of the Warner Grand. The project is expected to cost the MSO about $75 million. If fundraising goes as planned, construction will begin in Autumn of 2017 and the MSO will be doing concerts in the born-again Warner Grand Theatre by Autumn of 2019.

bbdoll4ever on May 18, 2017 at 5:50 pm

So excited! The progress with this gem makes my heart all a flutter! 💓 Has anyone heard about plans for the centre building (offices above the current lobby)?

mgriffin189 on May 18, 2017 at 8:00 pm

Long term the symphony intends to renovate the office tower and move their offices there. Again thought that is more down the road.

DavidZornig on May 30, 2017 at 7:42 pm

Current article with photos.

Trolleyguy on May 31, 2017 at 7:06 am

Nice and good news for symphony goers. Still doesn’t bring movies back to downtown Milwaukee. Not even an art theatre.

bbdoll4ever on September 19, 2017 at 9:20 am

So Kahler Slater is the firm working on the restoration and updates of the theatre and they have shared this Virtual Reality Tour of the theatre, it’s awesome!


LouRugani on December 29, 2017 at 7:04 pm

It’s official. Today the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra revealed it has acquired the Warner Grand theatre building for its new performance center to open in fall of 2020, saying it’ll allow “better long-term financial, operational and creative success.” The MSO has raised $93.5 million of a $120 million campaign to buy, design and renovate the theatre and fund an endowment for the orchestra. Steve and Greg Marcus and The Marcus Corporation donated their ownership of the Warner Grand Theatre to the campaign, the State of Wisconsin granted over $8 million in historic tax credits, and it just received conditional approval for federal historic tax credits.

Citing improving attendance and thanking donors, president/executive director of the MSO Mark Niehaus said “Closing on the acquisition of the Warner Grand Theater is a significant step in both our artistic and financial future.” Owning its venue and being able to rent space within is expected to increase annual revenue by as much as 60 percent and allow easier bookings of guest performers and conductors who usually require lengthy advance notice.

Besides restoration, there’ll be community education spaces, parking options, curbside dropoff/pickup options and onsite catering.

Restoring and adapting the Warner Grand Theatre was said to be 50 to 66 percent less expensive than comparable new construction venue projects across the country.

LouRugani on April 30, 2018 at 3:40 pm

The Milwaukee Symphony acquired the GRAND WARNER 13-story building in December to convert it into its new rehearsal and performance space and planning to finance the project in part with $17 million in federal and state tax credits, says a recent Wisconsin Economic Development Corp. report. MSO has also secured $21 million in private contributions with $48.7 million in private contributions pending. So far, $93.5 million has been raised for the $120 million restoration campaign for the project and for an endowment for the symphony. Plans also call for expansion to the north to provide space for dressing rooms, loading docks and other uses. For this, the MSO plans to buy part of 215 W. Wells St. and 735 N. 2nd St. from MVP Milwaukee Wells, LLC, a Nevada-based parking lot operator. That sale has been approved by the Redevelopment Authority and will be considered by the Common Council in May. The grand reopening of the GRAND WARNER (to be called the Milwaukee Symphony Center) is expected for the fall of 2020.

LouRugani on April 11, 2019 at 4:00 pm

This week the Rotary Club of Milwaukee gifted a $50,000 grant to the Warner Grand Theater. Work continues to progress on schedule, with the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra aiming to complete transforming the theatre into the “Milwaukee Symphony Center” along with the building’s 12-story office tower. Initially, a $120 million fundraising target was set, but last year that was increased to $139 million in mid-2018 to accommodate the tower renovation as well as building up the orchestra’s endowment. The Rotary Club grant will name two built-in wall fountains in the theatre. Its president said “Rotary Club of Milwaukee is delighted to support MSO’s Grand Theater project. The project provides a beautiful home and community platform for the symphony, affirms Milwaukee’s commitment to the arts, and brings a grand old building back to life revitalizing downtown.”

The MSO plans to host its first concert there in September 2020, but the Rotary Club is hoping to make the theatre available for the July 13-16 Democratic National Convention activities.

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