Uptown Theatre

2323 N. 49th Street,
Milwaukee, WI 53210

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UPTOWN Theatre; Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

Viewing: Photo | Street View

The Uptown Theatre was on Milwaukee’s near north side (hence, uptown of downtown) until the summer of 2001 when the city demolished it to use its large parcel of land and another in front of it for a new district police HQ and a communications center. While it was not the fanciest or largest of the city’s theaters, it was a nice neighborhood job by noted Chicago architects Rapp & Rapp.

When it opened in 1926 it stood on a large lot bordered by streets and alleys, so the clear view of the freestanding building allowed for a more dramatic treatment on the exterior.

Originally, the theater was to have a dance hall and amusement center, but plans were simplified and only the six unusual niches on the parapet wall above the four stores flanking the theater’s entry were retained as gestures to beauty. Each niche was 20 feet long, by 10 feet high, by four feet deep and the openings were centered by four-foot tall limestone urns surrounded by artificial shrubbery and backlit at night. A cascade of lights on the original marquee backed the name sign and the triple windows above it had beautiful draperies visible which hung in a display alcove above the ticket lobby.

A long, narrow lobby with a barrel vaulted ceiling led to the back of the auditorium and in the center of that lobby was a fountain of a boy holding a copper umbrella which spouted water from its apex and the base was a pedestal of glazed tiles in mixed blues. Similar tiles were used to outline the blind panels that made up the walls with poster cases upon them and there were frosted glass Art Deco chandeliers overhead.

The foyer originally had a small candy stand that allowed room for an ornate etched glass mirror hung on silken cords, but by the 1940s the stand had grown to a 15-foot-long counter that extended past the aisle entry doors so that they had to build out new curved walls to form a way to get to the doors. By that time, the mirror was long gone.

The auditorium was graced by pergolas projecting six feet from the walls, three on each side, and contained murals on canvas of Italian landscapes lighted from the balconettes which formed the bottoms. From the tops of the columns the pergolas met the pierced arabesques of a flat cornice behind which were lights in the three house colors: red, blue and yellow. The organ screens were similar pergolas with panels of white fabric covering the swell shades, right in the middle of their murals. Up lights here cast a changing glow of colors. A stenciled ashlar pattern in mixed blues and browns bordered the single rectangular dome in the ceiling, the cove of which furnished the major illumination. In front of the organ screens hung art deco styled chandeliers of frosted glass sheaths with a bottom bowl of crystal strands (these were removed many years ago and used in a farmer’s barn!). The rectangular proscenium arch was cove lighted and had the same ‘in-curved’ corners sometimes called ‘plaque shaped’ that the cove of the dome had. The original Grand Drapery was a line of seven swags in dense pattern separated by six light colored galloons from which tassels were suspended.

Perhaps the most unusual feature was the act curtain used to cover the picture sheet (screen). It was a shiny satin arranged in light and dark colored ‘V’ shapes radiating from the center line of the drapery where they no doubt parted as the footlights bathed the rippling satin in colorful display. The shallow balcony held only ten rows but that made the acoustics easier to plan, all the better to enjoy the three-manual, ten-rank Barton theatre pipe organ, the console of which was in ivory with gilt rococo mountings (it was removed and sold years ago). There were only seven control groups of house lights, but then this was a modest movie palace.

The 23-line stage had several traps and the permanent counterweight system allowed a variety of stage uses, such as the Muscle Man contests held in the theatre’s last days.

When it closed in 1980, it was still in good enough condition to reopen, but a careless maintenance man reportedly turned on the water to a red hot boiler that had been dry and the resulting steam explosion destroyed the boiler and flooded the theater up to the fourth row of seats. Perhaps this was the last straw, for United Artists abandoned the building and it rapidly decayed without the heat vitally needed to keep the plaster from softening in our freeze-thaw-freeze climate.

Small community groups did manage to make sporadic use of the drained auditorium, but their unit heaters plunked on top of the seats with vent stacks bored through the exit doors did not make the place very hospitable. Several citizens nominated the theater for local landmark status in the eleventh hour, but the city’s Historic Preservation Commission meeting on June 15, 1998 declined to grant any designation citing the extensive damage to the fabric of the building and the lack of any real outstanding significance vis-a-vis other extant theatres in the city.

By the time of demolition, pigeons flew freely through the stagehouse’s rotted-out roof and their droppings made a carpet upon the stage. Local theater buffs made a farwell tour as the salvage man removed the chandeliers in the lobby and any other remaining materials of value. For so substantial a building of beige brick and limestone trim, it was disheartening to see the ease with which the new hydraulic ‘jaws’ of a steam shovel-like device could just bite through the heavy steel columns and drop the building upon itself. How sad to watch the destruction that is always so much easier than construction.

Contributed by James H. (Jim) Rankin

Recent comments (view all 12 comments)

PCino
PCino on February 22, 2006 at 3:22 pm

This was the first theatre I worked at as a union projectionist in 1979. At that time, the theatre was charging $1.00 for second run movies along with a midnight show on Friday nights, if I remembered correctly. United Artist was already anticipating closure. There
was virtually no audience, maybe 10 patrons per night and a little busier at the midnight show.

The building was still in pretty good shape. The vending stand had been maintained to its original appeal, however, the auditorium was dimly lit most of the time. The projection booth was equipped with two Simplex XL projectors and two Peerless carbon lamp houses. It got bloody hot in the booth during summertime and I remembered the temperature rising, probably over the 105 degree mark.

I worked there for about a year until I moved to a more “permanent” theatre in Fox Point. I guess when I worked at the Uptown Theatre, I was unappreciative of the stature of working a “movie palace”, but today, I feel privileged that I did :)

moviez
moviez on November 2, 2009 at 7:00 pm

Hi. I wanted to mention an interesting thing about the Uptown. Back in around 1980 or 1981 there were occasional rock concerts at the Uptown. I was working at a different movie theater at the time,but word was out that they needed extra people to be ushers at the concert. Well the concert was Bruce Springsteen and the E-Street Band. The concert was great until they received a bomb threat. It was amazing how we were able to get about 900 people outside while the bomb squad searched the place.

pwstrain
pwstrain on January 22, 2010 at 8:01 pm

The original organ resides in the Fischer Theatre in Danville, IL, awaiting restoration.

Ziggy
Ziggy on April 5, 2010 at 9:36 pm

The introduction to this theatre should be corrected. The second paragraph refers to Rapp and Rapp’s exterior treatment of the Paradise in Chicago, but the Chicago Paradise was designed by John Eberson, not Rapp and Rapp.

rivest266
rivest266 on October 16, 2010 at 9:16 pm

September 1st, 1927 pre opening ad is at View link
September 3rd is missing from the Google archive.

gphill1450
gphill1450 on February 21, 2012 at 2:20 am

As a young boy in Milwaukee, I frequently attended the Uuptown. On December 7, 1941, attending a Sunday matinee, it was there I received the news of the bombing of Pearl Harbor. I’ll never forget the Uptown.

eszpekjr
eszpekjr on February 19, 2013 at 3:47 pm

I was the final theater manager of the Uptown and took over shortly after the infamous Springsteen concert. At the time I took over it no longer was a full time movie theater. Like many movie palaces the overhead costs were high especially heating costs making it economically impossible to make a profit. As a result maintenance suffered and only the absolute minimum repairs were done. For a few years the theater broke even on a part time uses basis of Friday and Saturday late night movies tied with a local radio station WLPX. The venue of films like The Dark Side of the Moon (Pink Floyd), The Kids Are Alright (The Who), The Song Remains the Same (Led Zeppelin), Up In Smoke (Cheech & Chong) and Blazing Saddles brought in large crowds of teens and young adults. I recall we even had horses in the lobby and auditorium for Blazing Saddles as a promotional gimmick! Typically the evening began with an amateur band then a Warner Brothers cartoon, a 3 Stooges short and the main feature. Along with the late shows the theater continued with rock concerts. Patti Smith, The Babies, Devo, The New Barbarians (with Ron Wood of the Stones), Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers and drummer icon Buddy Rich are a few that come to mind. On Sunday afternoons the Uptown was rented for foreign films – Indian, Pakistani, Laotian, Arabic, Greek and even Palestinian (just once and it was a terrorist training film!).
I believe it was 1979 when the Uptown Theater made news when it was raided by an organized Milwaukee PD effort to close down the operation. Neighbors did not like the idea of so many young people gathering in one place so complained to their alderman and eventually caught the ear of Chief Harold Breier. The Uptown used bouncers for crowd control and all patrons were frisked for alcohol and much was taken away on any given evening. Ironically the neighborhood beat cops would stop by to visit and help themselves to the booty taken away from the audience. We had very few problems with crowds of more than 1000 at a late show. I recall we were playing The Song Remains the Same. It was evident the police were active outside busting and roughing up underage drinkers. Just as the movie started squad cars blocked the front doors under the marquee and lined up paddy wagons next to the alley exits. They charged in the theater with officers in riot gear with shields only to find a quiet audience of 900 and the realization they did not bring enough paddy wagons to arrest all. Towing along were city health, plumbing and electrical inspectors – all of whom I knew. No violations were found. The promoter we were in partnership with demanded a search warrant. They replied by smashing him through two sets of doors and working him over in a paddy wagon. The only arrest in the Uptown was a patron who was caught smoking, not pot but a cigarette. The ordinance prohibiting smoking in a theater had not been enforced by police since 1952 we were later informed. He was handcuffed in the lobby and when his girlfriend got emotional he was beaten with a blackjack that the officer dropped. I still have it. The matter ended up in Federal Court and the police were found guilty of an illegal search. Punitive damages of $1 were awarded, a real slap in the face. The young patron who was beaten later settled out of court with MPD and was the first time the department ever paid a judgment of this kind. The officer who beat him received a suspension. The late shows did continue. I even made up “I Survived the Uptown Raid” t-shirts that the staff wore as uniforms. I still have mine. But the raid ultimately ruined the thriving new life of the Uptown as many of the regulars stayed away in fear of other police activity. Ironically when the Uptown was razed a new police precinct was built on the site. The blog post about the boiler exploding is pure Uptown myth. It never happened. I was the one who found the boiler red hot when the low water cutoff failed to shut it down when it ran low on water. I also managed the old Ruby Isle and Mayfair Theaters and would typically check the Uptown after I got done working on my way home. I cut the power and gas off to the boiler but for hours as it cooled it sounded like sledge hammers pounding on the walls of the boiler and header pipes. As a result the boiler walls were distorted in areas as well as the tube sheet. All of this was repaired at great cost and the Uptown was back in operation in a week. Ultimately the inevitable happened and the theater closed for good. (The photo links on the blog show the Uptown boarded up. I put up those boards to protect the glass doors and display cases from vandalism.) United Artist could not find a buyer so made the decision to no longer heat the theater although individual furnaces were installed in the attached stores –a barbershop, beauty shop and lamp shade store. Electric heaters were installed in the basement rooms where the main water feed was located. Yes, the Uptown occasionally had flooded basements, one under the stage and one under the lobby where the boiler room and electrical mains were located. (There was also an electric company substation located in the basement but was removed in the early 1980s.) Flooding was generally due to sump pumps that failed but also due to heavy rains when the municipal sewer system could not handle the water prior to the deep tunnel project. Repairs were always quickly taken care of as well as clean up. Without heat the Uptown’s demise was hastened. After I left UA in 1987 as a district manager the Uptown slipped into much disrepair. It certainly was not checked on enough. I heard of the flooding mentioned in the blog but that was years after the boiler and water were disconnected. This dismantling was done when I was still there. The flooding mentioned was due to sump pump failures. The Uptown was eventually sold by UA and as mentioned the new owner made attempts at temporary heating for limited use of the facility. I have many fond memories of the Uptown and put a lot of work into it keeping it running with absolutely no budget from UA. Even met my wife there. She was a cashier while in high school. I hated to see it knocked down but its location was the main factor of its demise. Had it been located on the East side like the Oriental it might have found new life. I worked for UA from 1975 to 1987 at which time I was also a theater manager at Southgate, Mayfair, Ruby Isle, Paradise, Cinema 1 & 2 downtown (Wisconsin Theater) and the Riverside. Only the Riverside stands and coincidentally I was the final manager of it as well when it ceased as a full time movie theater but continued for rock concerts. Kansas, the J Giles Band, George Clinton and the Bride of Funkenstein, Lou Reed are just a few that come to mind. (The late Ernest Lacey who died in custody of the MPD after being mistaken for someone else was an usher for me at the Riverside. His death eventually brought to an end the Breier police regime.) Fortunately the Riverside was completely restored and appears to be thriving. So many, many stories of those old theaters! Love this website.

bh61
bh61 on May 24, 2013 at 12:31 pm

I am reading Gene Wilder’s autobiographical ‘In Search of Love and Art’, and learned that he went to this theater often! Apparently he lived in the neighborhood (his name then was Jerry Silberman; his mother is buried somewhere in the city).

galateasca
galateasca on July 13, 2013 at 6:27 am

My mother in law went to school with Gene Wilder btw. Anyway, she remembers attending this theater all the time with her sister. It only costs a nickel. That’s where they were when World War II was declared. They stopped the show and everyone went home. She was only 9 at the time and her sister was 11. She thinks the Manager put the radio in front of the public address system because she remembers hearing President Roosevelt speaking. It was a very scary day.

Ret. AKC (NAC) CCC Bob Jensen, Manteno, Illinois
Ret. AKC (NAC) CCC Bob Jensen, Manteno, Illinois on August 16, 2013 at 1:46 pm

“Les” Hoadley was the first to play the Golden Toned Barton Theater Pipe Organ console which was in ivory with gilt rococo mountings. It was a 3/10, manual/rank, keyboards/sets of pipes, shipped from the Barton Organ Company factory in Oshkosh, Wisconsin in 1926. I saw a photo of the console at the Fischer Theatre in Danville, Illinois, but I don’t think it has been installed. Anyone have any further info?

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