Whitehouse Theatre

739 N. Third Street,
Milwaukee, WI 53201

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Whitehouse Theatre

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In the world of theatres, ‘novelty’ can be everything as was established by the predecessors of the movie houses: Vaudeville. They had their Novelties to always be ‘new’ and attract the public away from competitors. A Milwaukee showman, Otto Meister, knew the value of novelty when he opened his first "dime museum," a penny arcade of the turn of the nineteenth century, where he was also the sidewalk barker to draw crowds to his assortment of exhibits and novelties including the first ‘flickers’ of the Kinetoscope, by means of which the earliest films were first seen, one person at a time.

Things were changing rapidly in the entertainment world as the "Nickelodeons" of the first decade of the twentieth century spelled the end of the rag-tag dime museums and penny arcades. With the development of hour-long "photo plays" by the ‘teens, the potpourri of images in the 'old’ nickelodeons was surpassed, and newer, larger "photoplay parlors" became the order of the day. These, the first purpose-built movie houses, featured not only an ornate facade to lure the passerby, but also permanent seating, adequate ventilation, good projection of the film and attention to the interior decor.

In 1910 Milwaukee had 64 movie shows operating, and against this competition Mr. Meister was forced to find something different to be noticed at all. Through his Central Amusement Co. he and Milwaukee films pioneer John Freuler contracted with local architect Henry G. Lotter to make a movie house that was truly different, and that was the motto of the place: "The House That’s Different" as was emblazoned on the new Whitehouse Theatre’s letterhead along with a photo of it and a list of its intriguing attributes. These attributes debuted on December 16, 1916.

A REVERSE THEATRE
First and foremost of its attributes, was the fact that it was one of only a few theatres in the nation that was "backwards." This meant that it was a "reverse" theatre where the audience entered from the usual front doors, but found the screen at their backs as they walked down side aisles going towards the rear. Why this arrangement? Well, for some houses it was determined by the topography, as with the little Lincoln Theatre in Limon, Colorado, still showing films to this day. In the case of the Whitehouse, however, it was purely a gimmick to entertain the public in a memorable way.

LIGHTS IN THE FLOOR
In addition to putting its 1300 seats on the first floor and on a conventional balcony, Mr. Meister saw fit to illuminate the auditorium with only lights in the floor! Yes, there were no lights from the ceiling or walls. Instead, some 20, two-foot-square boxes of lights in the floors of the aisles were covered with glass and grilles and projected their light to bounce off the ceiling, no doubt in selected colors. It must have been intense lighting in order to scatter the light to avoid the ‘ghostly’ look on peoples' faces, as when one holds a flashlight pointing up from one’s chin. The questionable effect it may have produced by illuminating the inside of a lady’s skirt is nowhere mentioned.

WHITE GLASS FRONT
While little is known of the exact decor of the interior, the Whitehouse’s exterior was frequently photographed due to its imposing five-story-high front of white architectural milk glass upon which was a lattice pattern of 3,580 light bulbs, hence the name "Whitehouse." The front boasted a three-story-high square recess containing more light bulbs and the square box office. The back of the recess was divided by light bulbs into a series of panels which just happened to be perfect for mounting the local sign painters' displays about the movies in the days before the studios owned every theatre and therefore provided uniform printed posters of their attractions. This was also before the day of the standard marquee and vertical name sign, properties of the movie palaces to come. But with a six-foot-high by thirty-foot-wide lime green panel on the white glass front with the name: "WHITE HOUSE THEATRE" in light bulbs, the need for a vertical wasn’t there. Strangely, the name is spelled as one word on the artistic lime green letterhead, but as two words on the facade!

TIMES WERE CHANGING
People continued to be turned around in this ‘reverse theatre’ (one of only a dozen in the nation) until Mr. Meister’s death in 1944 after which new owners renamed it the Mid-City and sought to alter it in 1948. They asked noted Milwaukee theatre architects Dick & Bauer to redesign it as the proposed "Coney Island," an amusements hall cum movie house that was to hearken back to the very dime museum/nickelodeon that had once stood on the theatre’s site! The new facade was to have a 16-foot-high open mouth of a 5-story-high clown’s face, the mouth to be the new entryway. For some reason, the plans never were executed, although they are preserved at the Wis. Architectural Archive in Milwaukee.

In 1950 it again changed owners and was renamed the Atlantic. The going was tough as movies were falling behind the new television and the birth of suburban movie houses. Downtown was no longer the mecca it once was and so, to cut losses and reduce taxes, they demolished the theatre in 1955. It remained a vacant lot at 739 N. 3rd St. for years until a new federal office building occupied the entire block in 1984, making it the ‘tombstone’ for the six theatres once on that block: the Alhambra (Uihlein), Telenews (Esquire), Miller (Towne), Vaudette (Magnet), Whitehouse (Mid-City, Atlantic), and the New Star (Saxe, Orpheum, Gayety, Empress). With the Princess (Grand), American, and Trocadero theatres on the opposite side of 3rd St. now gone, how sterile the area has become, as would-be downtown revitalizers have recently discovered, much to their (and our) chagrin.

(Much of this information is drawn from "Milwaukee Movie Palaces" by Larry Widen, 1986.)

Contributed by James H. (Jim) Rankin

Recent comments (view all 7 comments)

JimRankin
JimRankin on April 13, 2004 at 10:25 am

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

JimRankin
JimRankin on July 8, 2004 at 8:33 am

REVERSE THEATRE
This is one of the few “Reverse” or ‘backwards’ theatres in the world, of which 9 were in the USA and 2 in England, of those that are known. This unusual format had the audience entering the front as usual, but the screen was at their backs as they entered, and the projection room/booth faced them! In some cases it was a construction demanded by the topography, as when the land at the rear sloped up sharply at the rear of the building (as with the DARRESS ( /theaters/1645/ ) and the little LINCOLN in Limon Colorado), but for others as with the WHITEHOUSE in Milwaukee ( /theaters/2642/ ), it was purely a gimmick to make the place memorable in competition with the dozens of other show houses in most communities in the ‘golden days!’ The known Reverse Theatres are:

Existing in the USA, if not also operating:
1) The SEBASTIAN, Ft. Smith, AR ( /theaters/257/ )
2) The DARRESS, Boonton, NJ ( /theaters/1645/ )
3) The LINCOLN, Limon, CO ( /theaters/7595/ )

No longer existing as a theatre, if still standing at all (USA):
4) The PHIEL, St. Petersburg, FL
5) The METROPOLITAN, 3308 W. Lawrence, Chicago, IL (later TERMINAL, METRO)
6) The E.A.R. (for Earl A. Reisden), Chicago, IL ( /theaters/7597/ )
7) The FAMILY, Quincy, IL
8) The HAPPY HOUR, New Orleans, LA
9) The WHITEHOUSE, Milwaukee, WI ( /theaters/2642/ )

These two are known of in England, but status unknown (courtesy of Louis Barfe):
10) The CINEMA ROYAL, Epsom, Surrey (1910—1938)
11) The CINEMA LUXE, Lake, Isle of Wight (1989—?)

And then there is the FOX Theatre, Taft, CA, ( /theaters/7564/ )where one “entered on the side, the back corner, actually,” to round out our little list of eccentric theatres.

DavidHurlbutt
DavidHurlbutt on July 8, 2004 at 11:50 am

In the 1940s the Whitehouse changed its program daily. Each day it would feature a new double feature. It also opened at 9:30 A.M., being the only theater in Milwaukee to do so. The Princess which was just across the stree opened at 11:00. Both theaters featured a fast action policy showing many westerns. The Whitehouse also had no marquee. It had more posters and pictures on display than any other theaters. It was one of the few theaters that did not advertise in the local newspapers. For me a trip downtown meant going to third street to see what was playing today and would be playing tomorrow at the Whitehouse. Of all the movie theaters in the Milwaukee area, the Whitehouse was Milwaukee most rugged individual.

naomimoan
naomimoan on December 7, 2004 at 10:28 pm

I believe that the Empress/Gayety/Garrick Theater was on Plankinton Ave in the spot that is now the Rock Bottom Brewery parking lot. (at least that’s what the Digital Sanbourn maps indicates)

DavidHurlbutt
DavidHurlbutt on December 8, 2004 at 6:44 am

The Empress Burlesque Theater of the 1940s was located two doors north of the Whitehouse at 755 North 3rd Stree. There had been an earlier Empress on Plankinton Ave, 2 blocks east.
A trip downtown did afford both an opportunity to look at the many lobby cards and pictures outside of the Whitehouse and a more risque peek at the many pictures outside of the Empress Burlesque.

JimRankin
JimRankin on December 8, 2004 at 9:42 am

Naomi is confusing the EMPRESS on Plankinton Ave. with the EMPRESS once on Third St., as DavidH brings out. Of course, they were not both holding the same name at the same time, but at different times. The structure once at 748 N. Plankinton Ave. (which is the parking lot Naomi refers to) actually opened as the CLUB in 1909 and was designed by Lee DeCamp of Chicago according to the “Free Press” newspaper of Dec. 16th, 1909, Page 3. This 1100-seater continued as the EMPRESS and closed as the EMBASSY in 1929 when an office bldg. was built on the site, now demolished. It is shown on page 80 of “Milwaukee Movie Palaces.”

The theatre on the Southwest corner of Third St. at Wells St. was built in 1906 as the NEW STAR, the former STAR vaudeville theatre having been demolished when the former Gimbel’s department store on Wisconsin Ave. at the river expanded westward to Plankinton (then called West Water St.) to the space that is now the courtyard of the new office complex there. There is a photo of the STAR/GARRICK in the “Milwaukee Sentinel” of May 20, 1907, including a story about the NEW STAR, which was designed by noted Milw. architects Kirchoff & Rose. The NEW STAR was built by the Schlitz brewery and had three seating levels with eight box seats, and a five pointed star of light bulbs over its proscenium. The most notable feature of that 1500-seat burlesque theatre, however, was the giant beer bar (serving only Schlitz, of course) located in a mezzanine lobby that one had to pass through to get to the mezzanine or gallery seats, but one concludes that most patrons were happy to visit the bar! It continued with this order of names through the years: NEW STAR, SAXE, ORPHEUM, GAYETY, EMPRESS until it was closed in 1955, but a fragment of the building remained as a Thom McAn shoe store for years, though the Rathskeller that was below it in the basement was also closed. Now, the parking structure of the New Federal Office Bldg. stands where one of our more notorious EMPRESSES reigned so many years ago. See the photo of it on page 97 of Larry Widen’s “Milwaukee Movie Palaces” (which is to be released as a new enlarged edition titled “Silver Screens” in about a year.)

The name GARRICK had been applied at different times to another theatre as well: the BIJOU which once stood where the 2nd St. entrance to the Shops At Grand Avenue now stands on the Western side, south of Wis. Ave.

The theatre on the Southwest corner of Third St. at Wells St. was built in 1906 as the NEW STAR, the former STAR vaudeville theatre having been demolished when the former Gimbel’s department store on Wisconsin Ave. at the river expanded westward to Plankinton (then called West Water St.) to the space that is now the courtyard of the new office complex there. There is a photo of the STAR/GARRICK in the “Milwaukee Sentinel” of May 20, 1907, including a story about the NEW STAR, which was designed by noted Milw. architects Kirchoff & Rose. The NEW STAR was built by the Schlitz brewery and had three seating levels with eight box seats, and a five pointed star of light bulbs over its proscenium. The most notable feature of that 1500-seat burlesque theatre, however, was the giant beer bar (serving only Schlitz, of course) located in a mezzanine lobby that one had to pass through to get to the mezzanine or gallery seats, but one concludes that most patrons were happy to visit the bar! It continued with this order of names through the years: NEW STAR, SAXE, ORPHEUM, GAYETY, EMPRESS until it was closed in 1955, but a fragment of the building remained as a Thom McAn shoe store for years, though the Rathskeller that was below it in the basement was also closed. Now, the parking structure of the New Federal Office Bldg. stands where one of our more notorious EMPRESSES reigned so many years ago. See the photo of it on page 97 of Larry Widen’s “Milwaukee Movie Palaces” (which is to be released as a new enlarged edition titled “Silver Screens” in about a year.)

Gerald A. DeLuca
Gerald A. DeLuca on June 22, 2010 at 1:27 pm

This theatre appeared in a photo on the cover of Boxoffice magazine, January 3, 1953:
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