Airway Theatre

4001 S. Howell Avenue,
Milwaukee, WI 53221

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AIRWAY Theatre in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, about 1950 (LIFE Magazine photo)

Viewing: Photo | Street View

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.

Contributed by James H. (Jim) Rankin

Recent comments (view all 7 comments)

JimRankin
JimRankin on January 31, 2003 at 9:12 am

A woman working at the Bay View library related to me that she had attended the AIRWAY many times in her youth both for movies and also on Sunday mornings when it served for years as a church. Whether or not this was the Goderski’s congregation, or whether or not such services produced rent for the AIRWAY is unknown.

JimRankin
JimRankin on April 13, 2004 at 8:02 am

Please let me know if you learn anything more about this theatre. Thank You. Jim Rankin =

Ken Roe
Ken Roe on November 19, 2004 at 1:42 pm

According to Larry Widen and Judi Anderson’s book ‘Milwaukee Movie Palaces’ (1986) the architects of the Airway Theatre were Peacock & Belognia. It operated from 1949 until 1967 and seated 550.

JimRankin
JimRankin on November 20, 2004 at 12:04 am

The architects “Peacock and Belongia” occur on the 1946 Application for Building permit, but nothing came of that permit for some reason, and the 1948 Application and Permit list only Belongia who had left association with Peacock in the interim. The difference in seating total is due to the difference in “proposed” seats listed on the Application, and the actual count of 600. The 50 seats in the upper balcony were not always included in the count total. It was recessed next to the projection room and was discontinued as public seating after not many years.

kencmcintyre
kencmcintyre on December 1, 2006 at 2:31 pm

Here is a photo from Getty Images:
http://tinyurl.com/sf823

Joe Vogel
Joe Vogel on February 7, 2010 at 5:06 am

The architect field at top currently misspells Belongia.

Boxoffice of May 7, 1949, provides a page about the Airway, with photos. The house opened on January 18, 1949.

Myles Belongia had been a pioneer in using quonset huts for theaters, and had designed the Middleton Theatre at Middleton, Wisconsin, the first such theater in the state. It was opened in 1946.

The Poblocki Sign Company erected a number of pre-fabricated quonset hut theaters throughout the region in the late 1940s, and advertised its services as a design-build company in Boxoffice for several years. Architect Belongia’s relationship with the Poblocki company went back at least as far as 1937. In that year he was one of the partners founding a company called Porcelain Fronts, Inc., which specialized in theater modernization. Bernard Poblocki was another of the partners, according to the item about the company in Boxoffice of September 4, 1937.

Here is an ad for Poblocki and Sons in Boxoffice of May 24, 1947. It attributes the design of its prefabricated quonset hut theaters to the firm of Peacock & Belongia. The Peacock in the firm was, of course, Urban F. Peacock. I’m not sure how long the partnership existed, but it’s only ever mentioned in Boxoffice in the year 1947.

Joe Vogel
Joe Vogel on October 19, 2012 at 10:21 am

Linkrot repair. These are the new locations of the Boxoffice items in my previous comment:

Airway Theatre article, May 7, 1949.

Poblocki and Sons ad, May 24, 1947.

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