Towne Theatre

717 N. Third Street,
Milwaukee, WI 53201

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Additional Info

Previously operated by: Standard Theaters Management Corp.

Firms: Wolff & Ewens

Previous Names: Miller Theatre

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MILLER (TOWNE) Theatre; Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

The Towne theater opened in 1917 as the Miller theatre, a vaudeville house with three seating levels of 1700 seats built by the brewery of that name within and behind their nine story hotel (of red brick trimmed in limestone and stained glass ballroom windows) of the same name formerly at 717 N. 3rd Street.

Architects Wolff and Ewens produced a traditional auditorium using classical ornamentation on the cartouche-peaked, rounded rectangle proscenium frame and also on the pavilion tent-like canopies to the flanking double level box seats.

In 1946, the Standard Theaters Management Corp chain took over and renamed the faded theater the Towne Theatre and spent a lot of money remodeling to compete with the downtown movie palaces of more recent vintage. Other architects were engaged to remodel the auditorium and facade of the first story with the theater entrance (the facade of the hotel being unaffected) using a two-sided aluminum marquee by Milwaukee’s Poblocki sign co. which had altered the marquees of hundreds of theaters throughout the Midwest.

In the auditorium, the boxes were removed and the voids draped over in plain panels of 50% fulness and the house curtain on the stage was replaced with a seven-point suspension contour curtain of a densely striped silver satin. The orchestra pit was also floored over and modernistic chandeliers of concentric glass and aluminum discs replaced the more traditional fixtures in the corners adjacent to the elliptical center dome.

In addition to the hotel’s lobbies and lounges being completely remodeled with lots of glass and laminated blonde wood, the theater’s lobby and vestibule were also completely remodeled from the wood paneled and mosaic tile floor to a new terrazzo-floored ticket lobby in a “pathways” pattern that started out on the sidewalk, with the ticket booth a triple station rectangle with canted corners in plate glass above an engine-turned engraved stainless steel wainscot in a moire pattern. The new plate glass entry with glass doors with clear plastic push bars was in harmony with the new ceiling of squares of mirrors, each centered with a reflector-bowl light bulb.

A longish tunnel promenade with a dense acanthus patterned carpet wound its way through the mass of the hotel building to the auditorium building, which sat at a right angle to the hotel tower. This newly adorned promenade was surfaced with polished marble wall panels and a ceiling of black plaster with recessed illuminated air diffusers as rectangles on a grid pattern. The rear of the main floor promenade adjacent to the new 20-foot-long candy stand, featured a wall of frames of the signatures of notables who had appeared on the Miller’s stage, or the Towne’s screen. One could sit and view such severely simple black metal squares with circular stainless inserts from the faux-leather banquettes against the opposite wall, with equally faux greenery at the back of them.

The basement lounges featured the same carpeting as it abutted stairways with curved blonde wood rails above smooth plaster balustrades, the rails being supported above them with balls of polished blonde wood on two-foot centers. A mural of a giant large-leafed plant adorned one recessed wall with recessed downlights in the soffit above. Traditional overstuffed armchairs and settees of that era were accompanied by simple dark wood end tables and large lamps with drum shades.

All this newness was not enough to gain the first run films that the other downtown theaters possessed as the formerly chain theaters that they were (then held in studio ownership through simple sub-corporations as a thin screen to obscure true ownership). The new owners therefore filed suit in federal court under the Sherman Anti-Trust Act and what was later called the “junior Paramount” case ensued, and was part of the set of decisions which ultimately divested the movie chains of their theatres.

Sadly, this victory was short-lived, as the ‘50s and '60s brought television to the fore and theaters struggled against lost audience and the flight of people to the suburbs where suburban single screens and, later, multiplexes tore the audiences from the downtowns of America.

No downtown theater had any real parking aside from the streets, so it was much easier to pile the kids of the “baby boom” into the station wagon and go to an outdoor or one of the shopping center “screens” with acres of parking. The trolley cars of the downtowns were disappearing and the replacement busses did not go out to most of the suburban show houses, so the downtown theaters struggled along on the dwindling city dwellers without cars. No more spotlight-lit nights of premieres on sidewalks of cheering fans, no more streets blocked by throngs of first-nighters as the cops battled to keep the crowds in order. It was a new day and age of “cool” in the ‘burbs as the bobby-soxers of the Big Band '40s became the sheath-clad matrons of the rock-n-roll '60s, with babes in arms.

The Towne struggled on with less and less suitable screen fare as the first runs moved to the suburban movie houses. It was often dark through the ‘60s and into the seventies when a succession of new owners tried to make a go of it with local community groups on stage and specialty Christian films by a determined but penniless group in the last days.

In 1977 it was announced that the long-planned new Federal office building was to be built on the entire block that housed the Towne as well as the Alhambra (demolished in 1959), the Esquire (former Telenews), the remains of the Magnet (Vaudette), the site of the Whitehouse, the faltering Towne, and the remains of the New Star (Saxe, Orpheum, Gaiety, Empress).

In 1979 an auction was held for the few desireable items and this writer was there to note the keen disappointment of the salvagers at how few attended and how little was sold. The projectors and such plus a little of the stage rigging were sold, but most all else was consigned to the wrecker’s ball as all the remaining buildings on the block fell in 1979/80.

In a sense the end came none too soon, because in 1977 a portion of the cornice and parapet of the hotel, fell to the sidewalk one night. The newspaper articles revealed that the owner, a Chicago attorney, had no intention of repairing the building and had all but abandoned it. The 62 year career of the Miller/Towne had seen many a celebrity trod its stage or appear on its screen, but now only a blue glass office tower stands where so many in so many theatres had laughed or cried only generations ago.

Contributed by James H. (Jim) Rankin

Recent comments (view all 10 comments)

JimRankin on April 13, 2004 at 8:23 am

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

DavidHurlbutt on October 2, 2004 at 10:19 am

When the Towne opened in late 46 it instituted a single feature policiy. All other theaters in Downtown Milwaukee had a double feature policy, an A feature attraction with a B companion film. Most of the films shown at the Towne were United Artist releases, which at the time were often considered B films. During its first year it had two big attractions: Ceasar and Cleopatra and The Macomber Affair.
It also showed Jane Russell in The Outlaw, which only lasted a few days before the film was withdrawn and the theater was shut down. It reopened in two or three days with a double bill: The Bachelor"s Daughter and A Scandal in Paris.
In the early 50s the Towne had many big attractions including ANNIE GET YOUR GUN, QUO VADIS and THE TEN COMMANDMENTS.
Since the Towne was located on a side street, the management used their marquee in advertising films in a most creative way for Milwaukee. Instead of just black and red letters, they often had large flashing neon letters and sometime they would have a large picture/lobby card from the film illuminated on the large marquee.

Hal on March 1, 2006 at 6:34 am

I worked as a projectionist at the Towne for a short while, when 70mm was added they put a new booth on the mezzanine level, some of us referred to it as “the submarine booth” because after you got up there you had to go down some narrow stairs into the sunken booth! Although I never ran 70mm there, it did have Century JJ2’s with Strong carbon arcs, I saw Patton there in 70mm, no D150, just a regular curved screen. When I was there we were running 2nd run films only, and bad ones at that! Nice house in it’s day.

Hal on March 1, 2006 at 6:46 am

After I posted the above info, I started thinking about what I put in it and I’m not postive that the Towne had a curved screen, it may have been a flat one, too many years have passed!! If anyone else remembers please feel free to enlighten us! Most of the garbage I ran there wouldn’t have been made to look any better on a curved one anyway! The management had the booth run the arcs at the lowest amps that we could to save carbon, which caused an annoying flicker on the screen. Showmanship? Who cares!

marxtoynut on May 17, 2007 at 3:54 pm

I worked at the Towne from April 1971 – Aug 1977. The manager was Joe Reynolds and his assistant was Kaye Vasos, both of whom were very nice folks. I remember Joe & his big ole stogey cigar and Kaye’s hair always in a bun. The projectionist/cashier husband & wife team I remeber were Mike and Lucy Tueller with whom I had a strong friendship. After joining the Air Force and getting stationed overseas I lost track of them, Joe, and Kaye. When I started working there they were still running fairly decent movies, but by the time I quit we were running the cut version of “Deep Throat” for the umpteenth time and really crummy kung-fu flicks.

The Towne didn’t have a whole lot of architectural detail but it had wonderful hand painted murals on either side of the small lobby. Outside, on either side of entrance, there used to be hand-painted billboards. I don’t remember the artists name at this point, but I remember seeing examples of his work – a pair of portraits of Rex Harrison & Audrey Hepburn in “My Fair Lady” finery. I also remember having to gather up the letters to change out the marquee every Thursday night. It took two of us to raise the approx 15' ladder and occasionally when I had to change the sign with someone who was scared of heights I would deliberately rock the ladder back & forth. In retrospect, a stupid, immature thing to do – but it was fun at the time!!

During my tenure the popcorn was purchased from our vendor pre-popped and in large bags, but I was told that in the “old days” the popcorn was popped in the basement and fed up through the floor to the popcorn bin. By what mechanism I don’t know.

My sister had worked at the Towne during the late fifties (it was she who got me the job as Joe Reynolds was the manager back then too!), and she related how the ushers used to wear uniforms and showed people to their seats using flashlights. She also said it was common for the well-to-do to drive up in limousines.

My memories are a tad different. There were usually only two or three of us working the floor, one person as the cashier, and one – maybe two, working the counter (the concession stand). Us guys were required to wear suits and the gals had to dress nice. Weekends during the day were a drag – the sailors from the Great Lakes Naval Base would be dropped off in front of either the Towne or Wisconsin’s only high-rise whore house, the Wisconsin Hotel across the street. It wasn’t uncommon to see the pimps standing outside the Hotel waiting to line up businesss courtesy of Uncle Sam. It also wasn’t uncommon to clean up their vomit after a hard day on the town. I woke up more than one sailor from the floor of the men’s room (located downstairs). There’s plenty more I could probably add but this will do for now.

DavidHurlbutt on July 30, 2007 at 2:52 pm

The newly remodeled and renamed Towne opened with the Marx Brothers in A NIGHT IN CASABLANCA.

kencmcintyre on March 24, 2010 at 7:12 pm

Here is a March 1947 Boxoffice article about the Miller/Towne:

rivest266 on October 16, 2010 at 1:10 pm

December 26th, 1946 ad is at View link
(turn to the next page for the ad.)

Matthew Prigge
Matthew Prigge on November 6, 2010 at 11:19 am

In the fall of 1978, it was reported that an out-of-state church had purchased purchased the theatre to use a venue for Christian films. It must not have done real well, as it would razed less than a year later.

Ret. AKC (NAC) CCC Bob Jensen, Manteno, Illinois
Ret. AKC (NAC) CCC Bob Jensen, Manteno, Illinois on July 17, 2013 at 9:26 am

A Barton Theater Pipe Organ, 2/, manual/, keyboards, was shipped 87 miles from the Barton factory in Oshkosh B'kosh, Wisconsin to the Miller Theatre in 1921. Does anyone know how many ranks, sets of pipes it had or what happened to it?

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