Egyptian Theater

3719 N. Teutonia Avenue,
Milwaukee, WI 53206

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Milwaukee’s Egyptian Theater (1927) was admittedly inspired by the original Egyptian theme theatre: Grauman’s Egyptian Theatre on Hollywood Boulevard. (1922), but it did have distinct innovations not seen elsewhere to give it its own claim to fame. It was a mid-size Atmospheric style of 1,856 seats (of red and black leather with ebony armrests and illuminated iron end standards in Egyptian motif) with a 176-seat "shelf balcony" at rear. Being a neighborhood house, no great notice was taken by the press when it opened, but the Inaugural Programme still survives as do the city’s microfilmed blueprints, and these with an owner’s memories, reveal that theatre-chain-latecomer, Warner Bros., spent nearly a million dollars to attract north side Milwaukeeans away from the other chains' theatres. With such opulent neighborhood movie palaces as the Venetian, Oriental, and Garfield not far away, Warner Bros. was forced to build a much more lavish neighborhood site than they may have wished.

THE COLOSSI

In addition to the rich gold, ruby red, teal blue and Nile green highlight color scheme depicting scarabs, winged sun discs, lotus buds and other things Egyptian, this movie palace sported six, 18-foot-tall figures of men in period loin cloths and head dresses. These were on pedestals in shallow niches, three on each side wall. They were in solid gold leaf and lit from flood lights below and hidden spotlights from above. It must have been extremely dramatic, even a startling sight, for a latter day occupant paid to have each one covered head to toe by plaster walls painted with giant lotus flowers. No reason can be found for covering these "Pharaohs" as Larry Widen pictures them in his "Milwaukee Movie Palaces", but one can surmise that the "Creative Center" in the theatre, serving underprivileged youths, may have thought that the "figures" (the architects called them this and said they were inspired by the "colossi of Osiris in the Temple of Luxor, Egypt circa 1516 BC") were too frightening for children in an auditorium were few of the sixty original spotlights and 3,000 light bulbs worked any more (this was around 1970).

LIGHTS EXTRAORDINAIRE

Why were there some sixty spotlights in an auditorium, apart from the stage? Well, the high drama of the design called for them since the innovative use of a "sub-ceiling" projecting into the auditorium provided many points from which to create many varied highlights under the starry sky nightscape. This sub-ceiling was about ten feet below the plaster sky vault, and projected some 25 feet out over the seats. Patrons could look up through the eight elaborate portals in this sand finished plaster and see the stars twinkling and clouds drifting far above. The sub-ceiling ran from each side of the proscenium all around the 84 foot long by 88 foot wide room, and provided an ideal position for the thousands of blue "horizon lights", as they are called. Being so far out, hidden on the edge of the sub-ceiling, the blue light coverage was far more uniform and convincing than most other atmospheric style theatres. The architects, Peacock & Frank of Milwaukee, were determined to provide a palette of colors in light with a dozen house control circuits in four colors. The other three colors here and elsewhere (yellow, red and green) were motorized to provide a color change sunset/sunrise from one end of the room progressively to the other.

FLAMING URNS

Another lighting innovation was the use of two, 6-foot-8-inch-high urns, 45 inches in diameter flanking the balcony. These were ornate, footed, double-handled amphorae and each was illuminated from within by red and yellow lights shining up to the wide mouth from which jagged pieces of flame shaped and colored fabrics were blown upward by a blower, so that they danced like flames (during Intermission only; they were on the General House Fixtures circuit). The exitway arches below the organ grilles had recessed rectangular one foot by four foot panels of light bulbs behind frosted glass inside the intrados (jambs plus soffit) of the arches. These served to illuminate the teal satin portieres which were patterned in reeds and papyrus designs; they also served to illuminate anyone standing in that archway, almost like a side stage. The architects further emphasized their illumination artistry with the lotus-blossom-topped, three story high vertical sign above the marquee on Teutonia Ave. ("Teutonia" means "Land of the Germans"), but especially marked this by putting a ten foot high revolving beacon or searchlight atop the stagehouse with the smoke vents styled to resemble blind, double-hung windows in the tower below it. It was claimed that the high land there allowed the 50,000 candle power beam to be seen for many miles!

Milwaukee’s Egyptian Theater shared with Hollywood’s the four papyriform columns flanking the stage, but Milwaukee’s differed in placing an ornate organ screen between each set. Made of pierced, galvanized iron painted in silver and leafed in gold, it had an elaborate circle of the sun within the arch at the top with rays pointing down to the base which was a railing of rearing cobras, affronted left and right. Behind this a silver net curtain concealed the swell shutters of the organ (a 2-manual, 9-rank Barton [now installed in a residence]) and reflected some of the five groups of lights in various colors cast upon it.
The proscenium arch was a rectangle with a simple border but surrounded by an elaborate continuation of the sub-ceiling surmounted by a winged sundisc fronted by a scarab and flanked by six rearing cobras, three to a side. The Grand Drapery and House Curtain were of a teal color satin without pattern and sported tassels in the shape of ankhs, the Egyptian symbol of life. One the end panels of the side walls, flabellums (ornamented staffs topped with ostrich plumes used to fan the Pharaohs) were mounted to the wall. The ventilator grilles were in black iron in the lotus form and lighted from the rear in yellow at bottom and blue at top. Papyriform up-lights centered atop the grilles reflected off convex Egyptian mirror forms adding some glitter against the sand color and finish of the basic rusticated walls of simulated stone.

SILHOUETTE LIGHTS

One of these groups was the Silhouette Lights, a unique feature of two groups of lights hidden behind the border of the organ screen so as to illuminate the silver net curtain causing the grille in front of it to be seen in silhouette when its flood lights were turned off. This was accomplished by cross fading the front groups' dimmers to zero, while the interlocked dimmers of the Silhouette Lights went from zero brightness to full up. The Silhouette Lights themselves were not only in four colors, but also in two control sub-groups: (1) Top plus Bottom, and (2) Sides. These could also be interlocked with the Exitway Arch lights described above, as well as with the Silhouette Lights behind the colossi.

Imagine the drama as the Sistrums sound and the hidden white and yellow cove lights and house fixtures dim so that only the brilliant spotlights highlight the glittering gold and the silver of the organ screens and the six colossi. At this moment the voice of a hidden announcer speaks through the colossi’s rear speakers: "GIVE HEED TO THE PHARAOH IN THIS HIS TEMPLE COURT AND NOW BEHOLD THE VISIONS OF RA!" At this point the spotlights were extinguished leaving only the blue horizon lights and Silhouette lights on as the stars were seen to twinkle through the misty clouds in the "sky" above. Now the projectors were seen to be starting the picture upon the rippling silk satin house curtain as the pipe organ began the overture. Along comes an intermission and the house fixtures group of brass cobras with illuminated green eyes gazed anew upon the audience, as their lights brightened – as next described.

COBRAS WITH GLOWING GREEN EYES

In order to continue their high quality of authentic Egyptian motifs, the architects designed each lighting fixture especially for the theatre and had them built by the foremost fixtures firm in the city, Chas. Polacheck & Bro. Co., which had supplied theatres throughout the Midwest, including Milwaukee’s ORIENTAL with its exotic chandeliers, and the GARFIELD’S French designs. Specially noted among these were the wall brackets in the shape of snakes: Cobras with their hoods flared, modeled in hammered brass with green glass eyes lit from behind by the light bulbs inside a sun disc reflector at the back. Light also came through a small hole in the reflector at the back of the cobras' open mouths, illuminating the brilliant red enamel interior and the black painted forked tongue hanging out of the mouth. The cobra as the Uraeus was also a god of the ancients, so its use was as fitting as the lotus bud, lily flower and date palm motifs. All such designs were in the red, blue, green and gold palette of the theatre including the deep red carpeting and the custom built, Egyptian-styled furniture of the 90 foot by 16-foot Foyer. Even the island ticket booth centered in the Ticket Lobby was a colorful vista of hand painted hieroglyphics baked into ceramic tiles. As if these glittering spectacles were not enough, the sheet metal contractor came up with a truly unique feature: The Giant Sistrums.

THE GIANT SISTRUMS

The Giant Sistrums were eight foot tall by two foot wide by two inch deep iron gilded frames containing 45 silver painted metal pendants in three vertical rows of 15. They were suspended directly below the lower plaster volutes of the organ screens. These four frames (one on each flank of the organ screens) were designed to act as heralds of something about to happen and had the Oriental sound of many cymbals on tambourines as each frame was pulled up about two inches and then dropped down in unison causing the seven-inch-high, diamond-shaped pendants to ‘clang’ against each other. The rhythm was a three second rendition of: "Bam – – Bam – – Bam,Bam,Bam" as controlled by a lifting cam motor in the attic. One can imagine the combination of resonant THUD-and-JINGLING as all four of these hundred pound frames moved up and down at the push of a switch back stage. There were light bulbs behind them timed to flash with the "Bams" as each spring-mounted frame seated itself. No doubt the audience paid attention and swelled with anticipation as though hearing a Pharaoh being announced with an ancient fanfare. The lights cast upon the six colossi also changed automatically to flash in time with the Sistrums as the white up-lights turned ‘off’ and the red spotlights flashed ‘on’.

SIC TRANSIT GLORIA

When the Egyptian Theater at 3719 N. Teutonia opened on Saturday, Dec. 24th, 1927 it attracted capacity crowds who well patronized the showplace for years to come. Its 20-lines-of-rigging stage saw many neighborhood events. There was no way to tell from the 3-story Art Deco brown brick and limestone exterior that such mystic beauty awaited the public inside. Had they known, perhaps more people would have visited the Egyptian during the later years of White Flight to the suburbs. By 1965 it was obvious to Warner Bros. that this property was no longer going to make money, what with the declining neighborhood and the audience lost to television. Even the four stores and eight apartments did not help enough to meet expenses, so it was sold to a local realtor for $34,500. He leased it to a small time exhibitor who found after two years that the people now in that area could no longer support the theatre. It was then sold to three African-American women who had formed a well-intentioned support facility for underprivileged youths called the Creative Center, Inc., under a $5,500.00 land contract. They occupied one of the storefronts and made occasional small use of the theatre, but were unable to make mortgage payments or comply with dozens of building code violation orders (regular upkeep had ended with the loss of audience in the 1950’s). The realtor sued in October of 1972 to foreclose the land contract. With his home and office in a "gentleman farmers" community 20 miles away, the realtor kept little watch on the property and eventually stopped paying taxes on it ($7,000 land; $10,000 building). The utilities were disconnected after the few apartment and store occupants left and after that, frequent entrance was made by vandals and transients.

For the next ten years it rained through the rotting roof and eventually much of the plaster softened and fell as the basement filled to the ceiling with rain/snow water destroying the Musicians', Organist’s and utility rooms along with four dressing rooms and the mechanical rooms with their air washing and cooling equipment. The city condemned the 596,000 cu. ft. building as a nuisance in November of 1983 and paid $64,000 to have it demolished two months later. It is vacant land to this day where no Giant Sistrums are heard announcing an Inaugural Program of seven units for thousands of happy people so many years ago.

Imagine how it must have been in those days as the audience sat entranced by films such as "The Egyptian", or "Land Of The Pharaohs" while sitting in a Pharaoh’s temple courtyard; and, had history worked out, they could then have gone a few miles to the Arabia Theater which was designed to carry one to the sands of the desert where one could have seen "The Desert Song", or "Son Of The Sheik" while sitting in a sultan’s palace near an oasis under mystic moonlight. Oh, to have a time machine to visit these fantasy lands of yesteryear!

Contributed by James H. (Jim) Rankin

Recent comments (view all 13 comments)

Joe Vogel
Joe Vogel on February 20, 2005 at 4:35 am

Here is another theater that one could wish might at least have been saved by being converted to a church. But then perhaps the modest religious folk would have found the ornate, pagan-inspired decoration too lavish and strange a setting for their services- not to mention too costly to maintain.

But the description of this exotic architectural fantasy brings me astonishment, knowing that it was a mere neighborhood theater. There were certainly no theaters this splendid in the suburban Los Angeles neighborhood in which I grew up, despite the fact that several of our local houses were of the same era as the Egyptian. Suddenly, I feel retroactively deprived.

JimRankin
JimRankin on February 20, 2005 at 9:13 pm

Joe, thank you for those kind words; it is always rewarding to know that my efforts at description/history do bring alive one of our lost ‘treasures’ to others. I feel as you do that it was a tragic loss indeed, and you are right that no religious group would have been able to make use of such decor, even if they had the funds to restore and maintain it, and without any parking, its fate was sealed in that area of White Flight to the suburbs, something that occurred faster and more thoroughly in Milwaukee than in most cities.
Unfortunately, the architects never again got the opportunity to invest such imagination in a theatre.

janbal
janbal on July 15, 2008 at 6:01 am

As a child, I was in awe of the beauty in the Egyptian Theatre. I wonder what happened to the decorations?

Janlett
Janlett on August 9, 2008 at 5:49 pm

Thank you Jim Rankin for your beautiful description of the Egyptian Theatre on Teutonia in Milwaukee. I was a small child (1954-55) when I regularly went to movies there (every Saturday for sure). What a beautiful theatre and I absolutely loved it. Thanks for the memories. I also went to the Oriental Theatre when we lived on Stowell Avenue in 1953-54; also a fabulous theater.

Janet Sturtivant

godzilla1
godzilla1 on April 12, 2010 at 11:19 am

hello people i just bought 1 of the 5 foot scarob beatles from
the egyptian theater milwaukee,where can i find pics of this theater
thanks for the help dan

rivest266
rivest266 on October 10, 2010 at 2:17 pm

Grand opening ad:
Open the microfilm box at
View link
and load it into the machine.
When you are done, kindly rewind.

senk1198
senk1198 on June 17, 2011 at 6:10 pm

Another of the great scarab beetles is now restored and presides over the refreshment counter at Milwaukee’s Times Theatre. The Times, if I’m correct, is now owned by Larry Widen, whose famous, haunting photographs of the Egyptian’s interior in its last days alone make his and Judi Anderson’s books Milwaukee Movie Palaces and its update, Silver Screens, worth their price. Mr. Widen and his colleagues continue to do great work for the cause of theater preservation in Milwaukee, having hosted a panel discussion on the topic in early 2011. —Scott Enk

senk1198
senk1198 on June 17, 2011 at 6:19 pm

Does anyone know whatever became of the large “flaming urns” (as the late, great, and irreplaceable Jim Rankin so well described them above) that once graced the Egyptian’s balcony? These urns, which used brightly colored fabric and internal air blowers to simulate fire decades before this technique again became popular with similar home and business decorations, were once on the “wish list” of my high-school classmate and longtime friend John Pintar when he managed Milwaukee’s Oriental Theatre, back in the early 1980s (shortly before the Egyptian was razed), for restoration and installation in the Oriental. Were the urns among the artifacts from the Egyptian that ended up going to the City of Milwaukee for storage and possible use elsewhere? Or were they bought by private collectors or other parties, or just discarded or lost? —Scott Enk

wws3
wws3 on March 15, 2012 at 11:00 pm

I grew up right across the street from the Egyptian Theatre, I remember going to the movies as a little kid and for 25 cents you could watch monster movies all Saturday Afternoon. Later on when I was 15 I worked at the theatre cleaning up, and also learned how to run the arch projectors, I still look for the marks on the screen when I am watch old films; the marks were given in the upper right hand corner on when to switch reels. I have great memories of that theatre, when no one was in the show house and we were cleaning up, some of us would go up on the cat walk at the very top of the show house and have light bulb fights with the burnt out bulbs. In the late 60’s the Egyptian had stage shows on Saturday nights, Ike and Tina Turner, Red Fox all of them played there before they were famous. I also played the drums with some musical groups between acts. It was a sad day when it was torn down.

Ret. AKC (NAC) CCC Bob Jensen, Manteno, Illinois
Ret. AKC (NAC) CCC Bob Jensen, Manteno, Illinois on August 4, 2013 at 2:08 am

Harley Cross was the first to play the Brilliantone Barton Theater Pipe Organ, a 2/9, manual/rank, keyboard/sets of pipes. It was shipped from the Barton factory in Oshkosh, Wisconsin in 1927. The late Jim Rankin mentions above, that the organ ended up in a residence, anyone have any further info?

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