739 N. Third Street,
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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.)
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