Venetian Theatre

3629 West Center Street,
Milwaukee, WI 53210

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Venetian Theatre, Milwaukee, WI in 1927 - Auditorium

Viewing: Photo | Street View

Movie palaces were grandiose theaters usually designed to a theme decor and of two major types: the standard (or ‘hard-top’) which emulated traditional opera house construction, and the Atmospheric style, a novel approach that recalled stars and clouds in an outdoor setting in a less expensive form of construction.

The Venetian Theatre was of the latter type and the "Milwaukee Journal" of March 6, 1927 reproduced the rendering of the theater’s auditorium by Milwaukee architects Urban Peacock and Armin Frank showing a tree-lined parapet high above the seats where the blue plaster sky vault began to soar overhead. The cost exceeded one half million dollars according to an article in the "Exhibitor’s Herald" magazine of April 16, 1927 entitled: "Elaborate New Venetian Theatre, Wisconsin’s First Atmospheric Theatre Is Opened In Milwaukee."

Ironically, the Italian Renaissance theme decor was not quite as ‘Venetian’ as that created in 1911 in the Juneau Theatre on Mitchell Street, but with 1,430 seats, the Venetian Theatre was a lot larger.

The Gala Opening at 6:30pm on March 18, 1927 featured Laura LaPlante in "Butterflies in the Rain" accompanied by the 2-manual, 8-rank Wurlitzer theatre pipe organ (the theatre was soon thereafter wired for sound movies).

The Milwaukee Circuit of the Universal Theatres Chain opened this air-conditioned marvel with antiqued walls, gold, blue and wine velvet hangings, lush tapestries, and hand-blocked velvet stage curtains outlined in patterns of rhinestones.

It was also one of the few theatres to employ the "stadium style" of seating where one could go directly from the auditorium floor, up into the balcony without going into the lobby.

From the balcony the vista of a tree-lined row of building tops interspersed with statuary created a romantic view under the starry sky as projected clouds drifted by.

Like all theaters, the Venetian Theatre suffered with the coming of television and the consequent loss of its audience, and with the decay of the neighborhood, the theater closed permanently in 1954, even though it had a fully rigged stagehouse capable of putting on local talent shows or the like.

It subsequently became a furniture store, which put a suspended ceiling in the auditorium, and then the Venetian Sales Co. which used the auditorium for a warehouse and the once ornate lobby for a liquor store.

When these businesses moved out, it sat abandoned, the utilities disconnected, and awaited the city’s decision to spend the many thousands of dollars to demolish it.

At the least, one could still admire the architect’s classy facade design of brown tapestry brickwork framed by Italianate designs in glazed terra cotta ornament in buff, azure, and lemon yellow. The stepped and reticulate-patterned parapet with its elegant terra cotta urns endured for a while longer.

The Venetian Theatre was demolished in April 2007.

Contributed by James H. (Jim) Rankin

Recent comments (view all 117 comments)

TimothyRuf
TimothyRuf on May 1, 2007 at 7:11 pm

If anyone has information about this theater in any of it’s business forms, please write me. My email address is on my profile, found under my name below.

Thank You!

TimothyRuf
TimothyRuf on June 19, 2007 at 3:05 pm

A correction.. It seems that my email address does not appear in the profile section. If you have any information about this theater, please write me at

Thank You!

senk1198
senk1198 on March 21, 2008 at 5:36 am

As I wrote in this thread nearly a year ago to Timothy St. Thomas:

-o0o-

I thus hope that you, one of your fellow “watchers,” Mr. St. Thomas, or someone else were able to take [more] pictures of [the Venetian] … and might be able to share them with us all—if not on this Web page or one at the Milwaukee Renaissance Web site, somewhere online.

Seeing as much of the proscenium as we’ve now been able to was a fascinating find—might there be any chance we might yet see more?

-o0o-

Now there is more.

I thus hope that you, one of your fellow “watchers,” Mr. St. Thomas, or someone else were able to take pictures of these areas, too, and might be able to share them with us all—if not on this Web page or one at the Milwaukee Renaissance Web site, somewhere online.

Seeing as much of the proscenium as we’ve now been able to was a fascinating find—might there be any chance we might yet see more?

senk1198
senk1198 on March 21, 2008 at 5:38 am

I thus hope that you, one of your fellow “watchers,” Mr. St. Thomas, or someone else were able to take pictures of these areas, too, and might be able to share them with us all—if not on this Web page or one at the Milwaukee Renaissance Web site, somewhere online.

Seeing as much of the proscenium as we’ve now been able to was a fascinating find—might there be any chance we might yet see more?

-o0o-

Now there is more.

“Don’t it always seem to go
That you don’t know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone?
They paved paradise and put up a parking lot… ."
—Joni Mitchell, Big Yellow Taxi

Nearly a year after Milwaukee’s long-neglected Venetian Theatre, its rotting roof open for years to Wisconsin snows and rains, was torn down, I recently took another look at local urban preservation advocate Tim St. Thomas’s excellent Web page on the history of this building whose death seemed to draw it more attention than it ever got over the decades since it closed as a theater, back around 1954.

Mr. St. Thomas has added some fascinating new material, including some pointing out how certain elements of the Venetian were similar to those of Chicago’s landmark Aragon Ballroom, designed by world-famous “atmospheric” theater architect John Eberson, the leading exponent of that once-popular style of theater, which gave patrons the illusion that they were seated in an open courtyard under the night sky.

Mr. St. Thomas wonders openly if Eberson at least had a hand in designing the Venetian, the first of five such theaters to be built in Milwaukee (only one, the Avalon, still exists; after being closed for several years, it’s now being renovated for performing-arts use). While I myself still strongly believe it indeed was designed by the local architects of record, Urban Peacock and Armin Frank, one indeed does at least wonder how much they might have been influenced by Eberson’s work.

For many years, many of us in the Milwaukee area interested in historic buildings and their preservation, most of whom had long ago given up on any hope of saving the Venetian, wondered what, if anything, was left of the interior. Mr. St. Thomas now includes on his Web site two 2006 photographs from the city of Milwaukee’s historic-preservation department that go a long way toward answering that question—two of the most memorable photographs of their kind I’ve ever seen, tragic yet hauntingly beautiful.

They hit me with much the same force as did such famous images as those of the “dean” of Milwaukee movie-palace historians, Larry Widen, of the ruins of Milwaukee’s Egyptian Theatre, Bruce Sharp’s pictures of Chicago’s incredible Granada Theatre, both in its fading glory and in its heartbreaking ruin shortly before its razing (see http://www.mekong.net/random/theatres.htm),,) or the famous photos of Gloria Swanson amid the ruins of New York City’s fabled Roxy Theatre.

If you haven’t yet seen Mr. St. Thomas’s pages on the Venetian lately, or at all, and want to experience one of the best chronicles of the life, mixed times, and all-too-common prolonged decline and death of a classic neighborhood movie palace ever written, take a look at this link:

View link

Thanks, Tim!

I don’t know if the city of Milwaukee has any more photos of the Venetian that haven’t yet been shared online, but I’ve been trying to find out!

Scott Enk

senk1198
senk1198 on March 21, 2008 at 5:46 am

A correction is in order—mea maxima culpa!

The pertinent paragraph is hereby amended to read as follows:

Mr. St. Thomas wonders openly if Eberson at least had a hand in designing the Venetian, the first of five such theaters to be built in Milwaukee (only two, the Avalon and the Zenith, still exist; after being closed for several years, the Avalon is now being restored for performing-arts use; the Zenith has long been a church). While I myself still strongly believe it indeed was designed by the local architects of record, Urban Peacock and Armin Frank, one indeed does at least wonder how much they might have been influenced by Eberson’s work.eater, back around 1954.

Life's Too Short
Life's Too Short on March 21, 2008 at 6:55 pm

That 2006 photo is surprising. There was a lot more left of the auditorium than I would have guessed after seeing those holes in the roof.

Ziggy
Ziggy on March 21, 2008 at 9:07 pm

It’s always fascinating to wonder about the “what ifs”. In this case, “what if Eberson actually did the design for the Venetian?”. The evidence presented for the case is very flimsy though.

Mr. St. Thomas has a wonderful web page about Milwaukee architecture, but the explanation as to why the Venetian Theatre so closely resembles the Aragon Ballroom (an Eberson design) is probably that the architects were familiar with the Aragon, and liked what they saw. Architecture magazines of the 1920’s were full of photos showing all the latest designs of prominent architects, and the Aragon most likely got quite a bit of coverage. It was common for other architects to be inspired by what they saw in these publications, and sometimes to copy them fairly closely.

As far as the terra cotta details being similar between the buildings, none of the motifs on either of the buildings are extraordinary or unique (by the standards of the times), and terra cotta was almost a mass produced product in the 20’s. It’s very easy to think that there were dozens or possibly hundreds of buildings with similar decorations at the time.

Lostnyc
Lostnyc on May 9, 2009 at 12:52 am

. I remember in Detroit that the Lee Plaza Hotel had beautiful terra-cotta lions illegally stolen out, sold to a architectural salvage company,

Happens, most were found, likely still sitting in a police lock-up while the building continues to rot and eventually gets torn down, then the police might just discard them if they haven’t already. Should have secured the building better and this never would have happened

Lostnyc
Lostnyc on May 9, 2009 at 1:06 am

As far as the terra cotta details being similar between the buildings, none of the motifs on either of the buildings are extraordinary or unique (by the standards of the times), and terra cotta was almost a mass produced product in the 20’s.
posted by ziggy"

I totally agree, most of these ornaments in the photos were pretty mundane, pretty as a whole facade, but individually not much to look at, and very mass produced- at least as it was in that era.
By that era they were using templates to shape blocks into various moldings in a way they made plaster ceiling cornices with a running template.

As far as reviving such designs, the plaster molds are long gone, making a mold of an existing piece and making them in clay results in a size loss due to shrinkage of around 10%, that is why new replacements for restoration cant be simply made in terra cotta by molding off originals. However, these flower, geometric and other designs are not rocket science, any decent clay sculptor like myself can easily model any of this stuff from decent photographs, and if need be- made 10% larger to compensate for that size loss as in the case of a restoration need.
Flowers, geometric designs and the like don’t excite me, the ornaments that do- have animal or human faces on them- lions, griffins, Athena etc, getting human faces right and with expression takes a lot more skill than modelling some leaves or geometric designs, it’s at a higher level of quality if done well.

Ret. AKC (NAC) CCC Bob Jensen, Manteno, Illinois
Ret. AKC (NAC) CCC Bob Jensen, Manteno, Illinois on July 31, 2013 at 2:53 pm

A Mighty WurliTizer Theater Pipe Organ, Opus 1572, a 2/8, manual/rank, keyboards/sets of pipes was shipped from the WurliTizer factory on February 5, 1927. In 1950 the organ went to a restaurant in Milwaukee. In April, 1954 the organ was moved ,minus its toy counter (sound effects), to the Holy Family Catholic Church in Bayfield, Wisconsin. In June 2005 the wondering organ moved to a private residence in Apple Valley, Minnesota. Anyone have anymore info, is it playable?

“WurliTizer” on an organ represents the highest term of expression applied to organs.

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