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 43 comments)

DavidZornig
DavidZornig on May 27, 2010 at 3:54 pm

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
CSWalczak on May 27, 2010 at 5:55 pm

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

TLSLOEWS
TLSLOEWS on June 12, 2010 at 7:50 pm

Strange photo posted May 5th by Chuck,

MiltonSmith
MiltonSmith on March 4, 2012 at 12:54 am

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
Trolleyguy on March 4, 2012 at 3:13 am

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
MiltonSmith on June 2, 2012 at 2:46 am

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

Torn_Curtain
Torn_Curtain on October 5, 2012 at 5:56 am

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 12:40 pm

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
mgriffin189 on July 15, 2014 at 7:35 am

The Modjeska is scheduled to reopen this fall! I am excited and hope that this is the first step towards a full renovation. http://m.jsonline.com/more/business/reopening-modjeska-theatre-crucial-to-paying-for-restoration-b99265138z1-258726641.html

LouRugani
LouRugani on October 18, 2014 at 2:03 am

Once upon a time, The Modjeska Theater, 1134 W. Mitchell St., was a neighborhood movie palace, the big daddy of Mitchell Street, the second busiest thoroughfare in Milwaukee after Wisconsin Avenue. The street was so bustling and such a magnet for surrounding South Side enclaves that it boasted six theaters in about as many blocks. Among them The Juneau, dressed up in Venetian splendor, was a big draw and so was the Granada, directly across the street from the Modjeska, and the Pearl, further west on 19th Street. The current Modjeska Theater, built in 1924 and designed by Chicago’s C.W. and George Rapp, needs work, but step inside and you’ll still be transported to the era of the grand movie palace. It’s richly detailed, both inside and out, and it was clearly a temple to motion pictures and to Vaudeville, which shared the spotlight here.

Among the theaters Rapp and Rapp designed were the Warner (“The Grand”, still standing) and The Wisconsin and the Uptown Theaters in Milwaukee, both razed.

An earlier Modjeska – named for Polish actress Helena Modjeska (nee Modrzejewska) who had died in 1909 – was built on the site in 1910 by Milwaukee movie moguls, brothers Thomas and John Saxe, who built a companion place Downtown on Third Street, the Princess (demolished in the ‘80s). The old Modjeska was damaged in a fire, but its 900 seats were inadequate to meet demand anyway, and so the old Modjeska was torn down to make way for the 2,000-seat theater that still stands today — though with a somewhat smaller capacity now — wrapped in terra cotta and currently undergoing what supremely knowledgeable theater historian Larry Widen (author of “Milwaukee Movie Palaces,” aka “Silver Screens”) — who had been leading the work before parting ways with the theater’s owners — called, “a really good clean up.”

“This is a Downtown-style movie palace,” he said as we stood at the foot of the stage and gazed up to the ceiling, three stories above. “It had all the trappings. There were five other theaters on this block and this was the most expensive. This was the pricey one. Usually what would happen is the movies would premiere Downtown. I think they played about a week. You know, the big Bogey or Cagy picture or whatever would start out Downtown. Then it would make its way out to the first tier of the suburban theaters and this was one of them. This one, the Uptown, the Oriental, the Tower, the Avalon, The National and from there they would kind of make their way down the street from 35 cents to a quarter, 20 cents, 10 cents to 5 cents.”

The theater has been closed for nearly five years and United Artists stopped running it in 1989. It was still screening films into the 1990s. The Modjeska had, for a period, been the Midwest home office for UA and by the early ‘80s it was a budget cinema, admitting patrons for $1 a head. Later, Stewart and Diane Johnson bought the theater and it became home to the Modjeska Youth Theater Co. and the venue continued to also host concerts and other events on a rental basis. Magician David Seebach often staged events there. In 2007, the youth group and the Mitchell Street Development Opportunity Corporation (MSDOC) partnered to create the Modjeska Theater Project, which purchased the theater, and three years later the youth group folded. Now, the Modjeska is owned by a non-profit trust called the Mitchell Street Development Opportunities Board. Having been vacant for five years, the theater already was in need of some TLC. Then last winter happened. More specifically, a pipe burst in the basement and here were about 900,000 gallons of water down there in February. Though it seems mostly dry and, remarkably, doesn’t smell too musty anymore, there’s a visible high water mark on the walls.

“Right now there is mostly painting and cleaning going on,” says Project Manager Jesus Enrique Nañez, who’s on the theater’s board. “We have several contractors that are volunteering some time for electrical and plumbing work to make sure we are up to code. The heaviest work load is in funding these repairs.” The roof has been redone and a crew of volunteers is helping to repaint and repair parts of the theater’s many surviving details, like gorgeous railings up to the balcony lobby, and scrollwork in the theater. The entry lobby is adorned with plaster motifs and appears to be in fine shape.

The orchestra pit was covered by the youth group when it extended the stage in the 1990s. Two boxes remain, though the organ and the pipes that would’ve been housed in lofts above the boxes are long gone. “As of right now we do not have a projected opening date,” says Nañez. “We have a goal to open some of the theatre space to artistic and community based groups in 2015. However, we will provide public access to the theatre during our participation in the Doors Open Milwaukee event and we encourage people to come over to check out the theater and all of the renovation progress.” The board expects to present a mix of programming in the theater, including a variety of films about 25 percent of the time. Concerts and performances by a range of arts groups interested in the space will round out the schedule.

The Modjeska was built as a stop for regional vaudeville acts and has hosted live music for decades. Marty Robbins played there in ‘61 and in more recent decades the theater has hosted performances by Marilyn Manson, They Might Be Giants (during whose concert the stage famously gave way), Ministry, Cheap Trick, Judas Priest, Gregg Allmann and others. “The stage was built with an orchestra pit with an organ and an organ box and a full stage,” said Widen. “The stage is now 28 feet deep to the back wall and it’s 40 feet from proscenium opening to opening. You can get a pretty good-sized act on the stage.”

Playing to the local crowd is what theaters often did, and the Modjeska screened Polish films in the 1940s to draw on the area’s heavily Polish population. In that spirit, Widen had said the Modjeska planned to spotlight films currently being made in the reinvigorated Mexican movie industry and Nañez suggests that remains the plan survives.

There are panoramic views of the city from the roof, and old offices above the retail shops that are part of the building. On the opaque glass panels in some of the doors you can make out the names of former occupants, which had been painted on. In one former office, the youth group had created a “mini Modjeska,” a tiny theater. Behind the screen you can open the windows and step out on to the marquee. If you lean out you can look straight down Mitchell Street, down to 11th, where the streetcar used to bend the corner around. Up in the projection booth, there’s an open toilet and sink in the corner because projectionists weren’t allowed to leave the booth under any circumstances, so the facilities were demanded by their union. Above the balcony level are two rooms where the films were assembled for projection.

In the basement, newly built wooden racks hold the letters that name the films on the marquee. This is where the dressing rooms for performers are located and the basement is a maze of rooms. Down here it’s dark, but one can see the quirky patterns on the walls left by the water of the winter flood. There are also walls adorned with graffiti left by performers of shows performed on the stage above. It was on the list of buildings for the 2014 Doors Open Milwaukee event, Sept. 20-21.

There’s work to be done, and only a portion of the estimated $150,000 required to complete the work has been raised. Much of the remainder is expected to be generated by revenue once the theater reopens. “This project is being completed by mostly volunteers and donations,” says Nañez. “Painting, cleaning up, creating a good buzz about the theater. Every donation helps us buy vital supplies needed to move the project forward. There will be great opportunities for individuals and companies vested in the area to have naming rights of different sections of the theater. we have launched our first mailer requesting donations and we have had some great results come in already. We are certainly in need of more support and would appreciate donations and volunteers at this time.”

If you are interested in donating time, effort and/or money, please contact Jesus E Nañez at (414) 982-9378 and help restore a vital part of the social history of Milwaukee’s South Side.

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