Modjeska Theatre

1134 Historic W. Mitchell Street,
Milwaukee, WI 53204

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Modjeska Theatre, Milwaukee, WI

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The name Modjeska would need no explanation to patrons of turn-of-the-twentieth-century American legitimate stage, but for those born too late, let this theatre memorialize one who was called "The greatest celebrity left to the English-speaking stage." Madame Helena Modjeska, born in Poland in 1844 as Helena Opido, anglicized her husband’s name and emigrated to California for her health in 1876 and thereafter triumphed both in the States and England until her death in 1909.

The first Modjeska Theatre was a brick structure in 1910 of 840 seats about which little is known aside from the fact that it sported an ornate wooden facade identical to Milwaukee’s Princess Theater then under construction downtown, also by architect Henry G. Lotter, who thus enjoyed a great economy of construction to the same facade plans. The Modjeska Theatre was intended no doubt as an eponymous and posthumous honor by the then heavily Polish south side of Milwaukee.

In 1924, the local Saxe Theatres chain bought and demolished the first theater to build a neighborhood movie palace of 2,000 seats on an enlarged lot at the same address. They retained the name and engaged noted theater architects C.W. and George Rapp of Chicago to design the first of that firm’s four theaters in the city (others: Wisconsin, 1924; Uptown, 1926; Warner, 1931).

The watchword was also ‘economy’ for Rapp & Rapp who gave us one of their more modest designs with scant ornamentation, and that in several Classical motifs. Though the budget had to be spread over five stores and second floor offices, they still managed a full stagehouse and the provisions for vaudeville use were quite adequate what with some 20 traps in the stage floor, a full orchestra pit (in the signature curve of Rapp & Rapp, of course!) and two of the most unusual alphabetic light bulb matrix annunciators in any theatre (‘A’ through ‘L’ only, actuated by a row of long T-handle switches in the stage right wall next to the dimmer board, now removed).

Such annunciators would signify only 12 acts of Vaudeville by keying to the letter designation of an act as written in the programmes. With movies accompanied at the time by the Barton pipe organ (long ago removed) it is doubtful it ever had 12 acts to appear behind its drapery-painted asbestos fire curtain (the current owner overpainted the word ASBESTOS on it with the word MODJESKA for obvious reasons!) and velour draperies.

The decade of the 1950’s saw the eviction of the pipes from the organ chambers in order to install freon air conditioning units. When United Artists removed their local offices from the surrounding building in 1987, it was thought the end was near, but local businessman Stewart Johnson, owner of Creative Services International, purchased the theatre in 1991 and has done remodelings and restorations for what is now mostly a local live acts venue. Two dozen front rows were removed to create a dance/events floor and a unique doorway now joins the balcony foyer to a new screening room in the office building’s second floor where Mr. Johnson’s businesses now reside.

In 1993, he was awarded a Certificate of Appreciation by the Milw. Historic Preservation Commission for his revitalization and historic preservation of the Modjeska Theatre. Now reduced to about 1,700 seats, it is doubted that the projectors will ever see use again, but the $30,000 annual heating bill is partly relieved by a one-time grant from the city of $150,000 in 1991.

An oddity of the Rapps' design are overview portals (now boarded up) in the balcony foyer walls to look down upon the orchestra seats below, this feature in only one other Milw. theatre, the Wisconsin, which was demolished in 1986. The portals were no doubt to help continue the program for anyone who had to be out in the foyer promenade, but with today’s noisy patrons and their pleasure in throwing things down upon the audience, the management could hardly let them remain open, though glazing them would be the best solution.

Though most original fabrics have been removed, the Modjeska Theatre retains its truncated Grand Drapery at the top of the proscenium in red velour, fringed and tasseled in gold rayon. There never were any chandeliers, the major illumination being the cove of a single enormous dome. Now, suspended warehouse lights descend from the ceiling to above the area of removed seats. The walls are defined by blind arches once covered in damask, now by perforated board in maroon, spray painted with a white stenciling in a diaper pattern.

The box office and facade have been largely restored even if the 1940’s fluorescent marquee still presides. It still gives some nighttime excitement to this now largely Mexican neighborhood. It was closed in May 2010.

Contributed by James H. (Jim) Rankin

Recent comments (view all 42 comments)

CSWalczak on May 3, 2010 at 1:30 pm

This theater has hit a bump in the road financially as the youth theater that was its principal tenant has folded. Community leaders are rallying to preserve the theater’s future; story here: View link

DavidZornig on May 27, 2010 at 7:54 am

There was a recent (early May) story in the Milwaukee Sentinel that the Modjeska is now closed. The youth group that had been operating it at a deficit had to close it’s doors. Maybe someone can post the link.

CSWalczak on May 27, 2010 at 9:55 am

I posted someting along those lines on May 3 – see above.

TLSLOEWS on June 12, 2010 at 11:50 am

Strange photo posted May 5th by Chuck,

MiltonSmith on March 3, 2012 at 4:54 pm

I believe this theater is closed now. The link to the official website seems to come up with a bunch of characters that look like Chinese letters. Anyone know for sure?

Trolleyguy on March 3, 2012 at 7:13 pm

The theater is closed. Some friends of mine had been doing volunteer work last year on the electrical systems but finally gave up because of lack of financial support.

MiltonSmith on June 1, 2012 at 6:46 pm

Sounds like this theater’s days are numbered, sadly.

Torn_Curtain on October 4, 2012 at 9:56 pm

A few photos from September 2012 are here: link

There is still a notice in the window on how to contribute to its restoration. Hopefully it will be preserved.

Ret. AKC (NAC) CCC Bob Jensen, Manteno, Illinois
Ret. AKC (NAC) CCC Bob Jensen, Manteno, Illinois on August 27, 2013 at 4:40 am

A Golden Voiced Barton Theater Pipe Organ, 3/10, manual/rank, keyboards/sets of pipes, was shipped from the Barton organ factory in Oshkosh, Wisconsin in 1924. In the 1950’s the organ was removed and the pipe organ chambers were used to install the air conditioning units. Know what happened to the organ?

mgriffin189 on July 14, 2014 at 11:35 pm

The Modjeska is scheduled to reopen this fall! I am excited and hope that this is the first step towards a full renovation.

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