717 N. Third Street,
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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 new owners renamed the faded theater the Towne 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.
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