Grand Warner Theatre

212 W. Wisconsin Avenue,
Milwaukee, WI 53203

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Grand Theatre

Viewing: Photo | Street View

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. 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 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.

If it is saved, we hope for a sympathetic treatment for this, probably the finest of Rapp & Rapp’s medium scale works. In 2015, the Grand Warner Theatre Trust is still working out a possible deal with the Milwaukee Symphony and other steps in the restoration process.

Contributed by Jim Rankin

Recent comments (view all 115 comments)

warnergrand on January 24, 2013 at 6:57 am

A Trust has been set up to purchase and restore the Warner Grand. Facebook page is active. Please “like”

blurradial on July 1, 2013 at 6:43 pm

Am I tooting my own horn? I am:

*I’ll also be taping an interview segment on WUWM (Bonnie North, Lake Effect) with the Grand Warner Trust guys tomorrow, will likely air next week.

Ret. AKC (NAC) CCC Bob Jensen, Manteno, Illinois
Ret. AKC (NAC) CCC Bob Jensen, Manteno, Illinois on September 5, 2013 at 12:45 pm

A Kimball Theater Pipe Organ Opus KPO 6944, 6945, 6946, 3/28, manual/rank, keyboards/sets of pipes was installed in the Warner in 1931. It had thousands of pipes in three chambers, two on the left side and one on the right. The console was on the left in the orchestra pit and was on a worm screw lift that could rise to stage level by a push button. In 1973 when the theatre was twined the organ was to be removed. Paul Wesley gave one last concert. A LP recording was made “Midnight At The Center”. The organ was donated to the Milwaukee Trade and Technical High School for installation in the school’s auditorium, but it was decided that it would be impossible to fit such a large instrument into the available space. The Kimball Theatre Organ Society (KTOS) was formed in 1979 for the purpose of saving the organ from eventual sale. After many years of rebuilding and restoration and greatly enlarged, the Kimball again started playing again at the Oriental Theatre in Milwaukee in 1991.


(1828-1904), Maine, William Wallace Kimball born. 1857, Chicago, W.W. Kimball Company was founded. Offices were at 239-253 Wabash Avenue Southwest corner of Jackson Boulevard, Chicago. The factory was at South Rockwell Street and 26th Street, Chicago. 1877, they began assembling Kimball Reed Organs. 1882, they were producing 15,000 organs a year, the world’s largest organ maker! 1900, had 1,500 employees. 1910’s, made 13,000 pianos a year. 1922, stopped making reed organs, they had produced 403,390 reed organs! Late 1800’s to 1930’s, world’s largest piano manufacturer. 1942, pipe organ division closed down 7,326 pipe organs had been built, they had also made portable pipe organs. World War II, William Wallace Kimball Jr. was in charge. They manufactured needed war items for Boeing Aircraft, Douglas Aircraft and Lockheed Aircraft. 1961, they started making the first electronic or rather electric organs. 1960’s & 1970’s, they made 100,000 pianos and organs annually. 1983, stopped making organs. February 1996, the last Kimball grand piano was signed by every worker and company executive, and remains on display at Kimball’s showroom in Jasper, Indiana. Now Kimball International and Kimball Electronics. Makes furniture and electronics gizmos.

mheaton on September 6, 2013 at 4:28 pm

The GRAND-WARNER THEATRE TRUST – was formed and chartered this past year and they have been working with the parties that be to make this happen. As of this writing there is a schedule of meetings with the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra about a possible collaboration (they have been interested in two previous projects over the past 12 years.) This month of Sept. may see some movement.

bbdoll4ever on January 21, 2014 at 4:37 pm

sdowns: Ever think of transferring your copy of Paul Wesley’s last organ concert recorded at the Warner/Grand (“Midnight At The Center”) to a digital file to share with the masses? I’d love to hear it in all its grandeur!

spectrum on September 25, 2014 at 3:34 pm

The website for the Grand Warner Trust is:

The theatre itself has a Facebook page with some recent interior photos at:

The Facebook page has a lot more recent news and postings. Unfortunately the Trust’s webpage doesn’t have much recent news – the trust was formed in 2008 according to their webpage. From the photos at the Facebook site, the interior looks in excellent shape and is quite ornate – looks like it’s the original color scheme!

Aaron Giese
Aaron Giese on February 23, 2016 at 6:22 pm

You can see 40+ pictures of the theatre and tower thanks to Urban Milwaukee.

Mikeoaklandpark on February 26, 2016 at 8:31 am

The marquee is identical to the now demolished Fox and Stanley theaters in Philadelphia.

Aaron Giese
Aaron Giese on December 12, 2016 at 12:56 pm

The time has possibly come for the resurrection of this theater.

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!! :)

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