Riverside Theatre

116 W. Wisconsin Avenue,
Milwaukee, WI 53201

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Riverside Theatre

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The Riverside Theatre is probably the most graceful, if not the most opulent of Milwaukee’s theatres and it comes by its name, honestly, by fighting since opening on April 29, 1928, to keep the adjacent Milwaukee river out of its basement.

When the RKO (Radio-Keith-Orpheum) vaudeville circuit was looking for a larger, fancier venue to replace their 1908 MAJESTIC THEATRE, they bought into the firm demolishing the Empire Hotel and Tavern at the prominent intersection of Grand Avenue (now Wisconsin Ave.) and West Water Street (now Plankinton Ave.) to build the Riverside within the new 12-story Empire office building with an alley and the river forming the other two boundaries (that cramped alley is a vexation to generations of stagehands who have to load in a show, and more than one piece of scenery has found itself in the river by accident).

Vaudeville was on its last legs by that time so the theatre was to be a presentation house with 2,558 seats on the orchestra level plus three boxes on each wall below the organ screens and in a huge balcony reached by a lobby elevator. Local architects Charles Kirchoff and Thomas Rose had done well in designing the famous PALACE THEATRE in New York City, so they were selected to bring about this French baroque vista in colors of ivory and gilt with peacock blue accents.

A mixture of vaudeville and films continued for years until Warner Bros. took over for a while (until their own opulent WARNER (now called the GRAND) was completed in 1931, just two blocks away).

By 1982, United Artists had run the Riverside into the ground for many years. The original 3-manual, 13-rank Wurlitzer theatre pipe organ barely worked as did few of the light bulbs in the five auditorium chandeliers (three of them traditional confections of crystals, but the others are odd but beautiful ‘banjo’ shapes in front of the organ screens).

The ceiling also has a giant central dome with tri-color cove lighting nicely concealed by an ornate rim of cabochon-faced crests. The original Grand Drapery graced the proscenium arch with 20 swags of teal velour with galloons in ochre and tassels in henna red upon a lambrequin of Austrian folds decorated in beige and fringed in henna. Behind and below this the beige teaser curtain hung in swags and jabots while the tormentors were in beige framed in teal galloons and bullion-style fringe.

All this beauty perished in 1966 when a patron tossed a cigarette onto the stage and it all disappeared in the ensuing fire.

Thankfully, the automatic sprinklers back stage saved the structure until the firemen came. A simple panel of 30% fullness dark red duvetyn replaced all this when the estimated cost to replace originals came in at $590,000!

When UA’s lease expired in 1982 they did not renew, and the owner, Towne Realty, had plans already drawn to demolish and make either a shopping mini-mall or a large parking structure, but a downtown revitalization was starting and this writer sat on a committee of volunteers to "Save The Riverside."

Perhaps it was our publicity through a local radio station, but within a few months the owner of Towne Realty, local millionaire Joseph Zilber, agreed to fund the $1-½ million needed to largely restore the grand old lady, the Riverside, at which he had enjoyed many events in his youth.

The theater had a Grand Re-Opening in 1984 which was attended by thousands to enjoy the gorgeous newly lighted, gilded, and re-draped auditorium. The colors became golds and reds, and there were again lesser swags of drapery on the proscenium and about the house, but it was warm and inviting once again.

The basement walls were fixed to keep the river at bay, yet again, and even the Wurlitzer was again heard largely through the self-sacrificing efforts of the Dairyland Theatre Organ Society, which also sponsored a recording of the organ called: "Down By The Riverside."

After that, the theatre became a ‘road house’ to many touring groups and remains in that use today.

Since the projectors were removed in 1983, it will have to struggle on the dwindling number of road shows available. The succession of operators of the theatre since 1984 have had varying degrees of success, but the present operator is having a rough going and now even charges the owners of the Wurlitzer, Dairyland T.O.S., a stiff fee to put on concerts.

This theatre is well documented in "American Theatres of Today."

How long the Riverside Theatre will continue remains to be seen, but it is a well-loved stage among performers and the public alike.

Contributed by James H. (Jim) Rankin

Recent comments (view all 38 comments)

kencmcintyre on November 28, 2008 at 9:21 pm

Here is a 1958 photo from Life Magazine:

Will Dunklin
Will Dunklin on February 5, 2009 at 4:14 pm

Here’s a YouTube performance by Ron Reseigh the Riverside’s III/13 Wurlitzer. Sounds like the old organ got a top to bottom make-over recently!

Astounding technique and humor by a first rate organist!

View link

moviez on October 23, 2009 at 7:34 am

Hi. My name is Mark Zimmermann and I’m writing a book on the history of the Riverside Theater. I was manager there in the mid-70’s when UA was running it. While there I secured several old storage rooms on the second floor from vandalism, and I found two old scrapbooks of newspaper clippings and reviews from approximately 1942-1950. Luckily, the manager back then was wise enough to save this for history. I saved them for all these years, and after the success of Larry Widen’s recent book I decided to research the entire history of the Riverside at the Milwaukee Public Library. It’s amazing how many stars came to Milwaukee to perform for an entire week at the Riverside, from Bob Hope, Frances Gumm and the Gumm Sisters, to Abbott and Costello, Chico Marx, Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz and Laurel and Hardy. The one thing I’m in need of is personal stories from people who went to the Riverside to see the Stage and Screen performances in person. I’ve interviewed 3 people who attended the Riverside regularly back in the 1950s. If there is anybody out there who attended shows from the 1940’s to the 1970’s and would like to share their stories please contact me at Thanks.

BobFurmanek on May 24, 2010 at 4:38 pm

Here’s amazing rare footage of Laurel and Hardy on stage, circa 1940! http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ti5EK_c5-Iw

Mike Rogers
Mike Rogers on August 20, 2010 at 9:49 pm

FAntastic 1970 ad.

TLSLOEWS on August 20, 2010 at 10:05 pm

Love that youtube clip Bob.

rivest266 on October 14, 2010 at 7:41 pm

Even better,
an ad for Milwaukee’s Proudest Possession, the grand opening ad can be seen at View link

Preopening ads is at
View link
View link

gill on March 2, 2013 at 1:13 pm

There’s a great 1928 photo of the Riverside on the Historic-Memphis.com website’s Theatre page. Here’s a link to the page.

Ret. AKC (NAC) CCC Bob Jensen, Manteno, Illinois
Ret. AKC (NAC) CCC Bob Jensen, Manteno, Illinois on September 2, 2013 at 8:12 am


A Mighty WuliTizer Theater Pipe Organ, Opus 1865, 3/13, manual/rank, keyboards/sets of pipes, was shipped from WurliTizer in North Tonawanda, New York, to the Riverside on March 24, 1928. 2 more ranks have been added which would now make it a 3/15. It has a curved console, over 1000 pipes, 49 note marimba, 25 note cathedral chime, 37 note xylophone, 37 note glockenspiel, 25 note sleigh bells, 49 note chrysoglott, bass drum, kettle drum, crash cymbal, cymbal, harp, snare drum, tambourine, castanets, Chinese block, tom tom, sand block, triangle, surf, auto horn, and door bell.

This Mighty WurliTizer was first played when the Riverside opened by “Winkel” the Whiteman, and was regularly used into the 1950’s. The theatre donated the organ to the Dairyland Theatre Organ Society and they began a restoration of the organ in 1980, repairing much water damage from a leaky roof, and ordinary wear and tear. Much to everyones chagrin the organ is rarely played!

More info, comments, corrections, and photos of the ORGAN are always welcome!

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