6229 W. Greenfield Avenue,
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Paradise is originally a Biblical concept, and now is different things to different people, but for the makers of movie palaces in the ‘Roaring Twenties,’ such theatres were to take on an aspect of fantasy or pleasure that was to connote Paradise to any moviegoer. The most notable PARADISES to be built were no doubt the ones in Chicago and the Bronx, NY. These super palaces would set the tone for many smaller theatres to follow them, and the name was therefore encouraged to spread to much lesser structures across the land. That is the case for the PARADISE Theater considered here in West Allis, Wisconsin, a suburb of Milwaukee. Theater names were often exploited to connote a concept of pleasure to lure the patron from his daily worries, hence such kindred names as the: ‘Frolic’, ‘Happy Hour’, or the name of an exotic locale, e.g. ‘Egyptian’, ‘Chinese’, ‘Oriental’, etc. were used to carry the thought of pleasure.
As the decade of the ‘Twenties was drawing to its end, the building of new movie houses was reaching its peak and with the advent of sound movies to replace the 'silents,’ those built after 1927 often had the added cachet of promoting themselves as "built for sound," even though that usually meant that they merely added speakers back stage. The PARADISE in West Allis was one of these, but here it was in the downtown of a small suburb, so the stature of the theater was more of a neighborhood quality due to such a theatre getting second run after the downtown houses in Milwaukee. The PARADISE here, however, was benefited in having an architect of proven ability in creating theatres of great imagination. When Urban F. Peacock (1891-1965) left his partnership with Armin Frank in 1928, they left behind them a string of quality medium scale theatres in several states, among them being the EGYPTIAN and VENETIAN in Milwaukee, and the PARAMOUNTS in Waterloo and Cedar Rapids, Iowa. This background may have been what led to Mr. Peacock getting the commission to spend some $200,000 on a theatre and commercial property on a triangular plot of land at the intersection of three streets. He completed the drawings in 1928 for a 1929 opening.
The PARADISE’S 1,300 some seats were not to be in as fantastic or exotic a design as the EGYPTIAN, for the smaller budget was to be spread over the seven storefronts on the first floor flanking the theatre’s entry, and the second floor of sixteen offices, as well as the theatre. Hence, architect Urban Peacock, a graduate of Columbia University, could only add the minimum of architectural decoration. The exterior of the brown brick building was adorned with fluted terra cotta pilasters in a mottled tan glaze and an ornamental copper tiled dome at the acute point of the triangular building and was said to be the largest commercial structure in the suburb at the time. His design for the auditorium was characterized as being "an adaptation of the French Renaissance style of architecture," as printed in the Inaugural Programme, in the typical ballyhoo so typical of that class of writing. The writer was somewhat generous in such a description, for the theatre has no one style of design, a commonplace attainment in the world of movie palaces where the goal was opulence, not style.
The auditorium was marked with a giant central dome of rectangular proportions, and the proscenium had a similar dome in a long ellipse, both being fitted with three colors of cove lights. These coves were the only major illuminants in the room, there being no chandeliers. To show how difficult cost constraints often were in such buildings, the architect did place a wide proscenium cove around the arch, but then evidently had no money for the cove lights to be put into it! The gold and leaf green color scheme had few ornaments to enliven it, the fruit and flowers festoons along the lines of the walls and ceiling were the principal ones. The side walls were divided into six equilateral blind arches, the four rearmost of which were draped with a golden crepe and overdraped with a fringed swag and swaged legs in a dark velour. The pendentives topping the arches contained stencil work in an acanthus pattern. The organ screens, behind which were the pipes for the Barton theatre pipe organ, were fronted with similar draperies but fore fronted with balconettes cantilevered (not having supporting brackets or columns) as mere platforms without parapet to support a single vase of flowers behind which were the up-lights cast upon the scrim cloth of the screen itself. This odd design having a fascia of five facets of rectangular frames, had led some to believe these were originally seating boxes, but the fact that there was no access to them nor seats on them belies that notion.
By the 1950’s, the organ was to be removed and these balconettes were removed to allow that and the installation of freon air conditioning units, a common practice in that era when the outmoded air cooling and washing machines in the basements were in disrepair. The proscenium arch is a rounded rectangle originally with dark velour grand drapery, teaser and tormentors all now removed to allow the large picture sheet (screen) of later years. The sixteen line stage had a complement of dressing and auxiliary rooms and therefore was adequate for local vaudeville, and the three colors of house lighting were controlled from the "Hub" brand interlock resistance switchboard. In the balcony the brass railings were draped but not wrapped, and the projection room had the usual dual projectors plus follow spots.
The auditorium was preceded by the rectangular Grand Lobby, having a barrel vaulted ceiling suspended from which were two crystal chandeliers of a French design, probably the only French items in the theatre (since replaced with cheaper designs). Contrasting with this were the figures of dolphins cast in the painted concrete balustrade of the grand staircase finished with tubular newels in a helical stripe upon bulnose bases. With the exception of two escutcheons with fleurons, the room has little in the way of ornament above the rusticated ashlar-surfaced plaster walls. The ticket lobby fronting it does feature a nicely set ceramic tile floor.
The wooden island box office and replacement marquee are no longer used since the theatre became a church after 1996, but new owners are seeking to make some use of the backstage area as for a music studio. An oddity of the theatre’s life is that in 1995 a woman in architecture school made drawings proposing altering and redecorating the PARADISE with motifs she thought more appropriate to its name: angels and butterflies. The idea of fantasy may have then been more fully achieved! During this period, two men formed the Cream City (an old nickname for Milwaukee) Theatres Corp. and planned on forming a small circuit. The bitter realities of maintaining a profitable cinema in today’s market led them to allow volunteers to take over some of the theatre’s operation and to help in the hesitant restoration steps then undertaken, such as replacing some drapery swags in the Grand Lobby’s archways, and the repainting and gilding to the assumed former color scheme of browns and golds. They even gave out small picture cards of the theatre and its staff as a modern day premium recalling those of the ‘bank nights’ of years past. These men, bowed but not broken, returned the building to the Greek immigrant owner, and he has sold it to a group of professional men who utilize the offices on the second floor while leasing the theatre to the church group. These new owners, Creative Community Solutions, is trying to restore the decor, but is finding the task more expensive than they may have imagined. If it is ever to be "Paradise Regained", it will have to find a new use in a world far different from the "ain’t we got fun" days of eighty years ago.
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