4001 S. Howell Avenue,
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Every American city had scores of theaters by the time the craze for building them ended with the Great Depression, but Milwaukee was unusually gifted for a city its size to have the caliber of such as the Pabst, Warner, Egyptian, and Oriental.
For that city, however, at least one more theatre would rise to lend a unique note of distinction: the Airway Theatre.
By 1949 when the Airway Theatre opened, most returning servicemen were interested in things other than theatres, but not the son of an owner of a remodeled photoplay ‘parlor’ of 1910 (the Aragon), Eugene Goderski. He envisioned a movie house far different from what anyone had seen before: a ‘Quonset hut’-shaped building (semicylindrical).
Perhaps he had sat in such a temporary sheet metal cinema while overseas, but his design for the Airway Theatre included some 600 seats on one floor under a curving walls-ceiling expanse of sky blue gypsum tiles on a conventional superstructure. The walls were painted with images of aircraft through the years, done in a ghostly phosphorescent white, but they stood out when seen in the glow of the blue neon tubing bordering a central soffit which continued the ductwork. Reportedly, this blue glow was wonderful during the movies, but during the intermissions a white light came from small wall fixtures.
The name ‘Airway’ and the entire world-of-flight theme was no accident since Mr. Goderski had grown up just blocks from Milwaukee’s airport and his fascination with flight (he was an airman in the South Pacific theatre of war) led to his later hanging painted plastic model aircraft from the lobby’s coved ceiling.
An entire wall of the lobby featured a floor-to-ceiling mural of a WWII aviator greeting one from the dawn of the age who was depicted in coveralls, goggles, and a white silk scarf around his leather helmet. There was no stage since it was never intended to be anything but a cinema, and the long curving roofline did little to announce the location of a cinema on its location only a mile from the airport.
To make its purpose clear on the brick, limestone, and stainless steel exterior, Poblocki sign company of Milw. (‘till then the re-facer of many theaters in Wisconsin and the Mid-West) built the first of their modern "modular" signs with the attraction board, and the name sign of different masses upon a perforated pylon of dark blue porcelain coated steel, and all outlined and filled with blue neon, as was the stainless steel of the canopy below.
An outline of chaser bulbs was added sometime later to increase the visibility to young couples going south on the busy street to find new homes in new suburbs, since the ‘baby boom’ was then beginning.
Opening night attracted SRO crowds to witness the Chairman of the Town of Lake (a southern suburb of Milwaukee later to be annexed) give the dedicatory speech along with architect Myles Belongia who also did the Majestic in the suburb of Cudahy and many theater alterations in this part of the state, as well as many churches.
The cinema struggled being fourth-run on the distributor’s list until the Goderskis saw ‘the handwriting on the wall’ in 1966 when its parking lot was often empty of cars, and sold the building and land to a local bank which demolished it for its branch office which stands there to this day.
The complete story of this unique theater can be read in the 4th Quarter, 1995 issue of "Marquee" magazine of the Theatre Historical Society of America (www.HistoricTheatres.org): "The Airway Theatre: One Man’s Fancy of Flight" by James H. Rankin.
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