535 W. Wisconsin Avenue,
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At one time, every city of any size had at least one PALACE theatre, and Milwaukee was no exception. The idea of creating ornate and luxurious ‘palatial’ surroundings for theatre patrons traces its origin to the 18th century opera houses culminating in what most regard as the acme: The Paris Opera, still a grand if not grandiose landmark today. It often acted as a secondary ‘palace’ for the king and his court as one entire side of the immense building was devoted to him and his retinue with a processional entry, vast gilded reception halls and banqueting rooms and even a stable and forty auxiliary rooms for his coaches with horses and entourage. No American theatre ever rose to such extravagance, but many were somewhat large, ornate and gorgeous in like manner.
Recently discovered photos show Milwaukee’s Palace at opening to originally have been a most graceful design by local architects Charles Kirchoff and Thomas Rose who also designed the Palace Theatre in New York City two years later in 1918. This talented duo also graced this Mid-Western city with a number of other theatres: the American, Colonial, Crystal, Garden, Majestic, New Star, Rialto, Riverside, Star, and on his own Charles Krichoff designed our long-lost Alhambra. The Palace was one of their larger creations with 2,437 seats in a main floor and balcony with flanking boxes of 20 seats each, these reached by separate staircases from the main floor within the surrounding alcoves forming the auditorium splays. The unusual thing about these two boxes is that they were not semi-circular, nor bombe, nor even flush to the wall, but were what is called ‘raking’ which means that they sloped sharply downward toward the stage (but did not connect with it, of course) and had a continuous knee wall forming the balustrade of the box containing all five of their seating levels. Such "Bracket boxes" (so known because they were more or less cantilevered (projecting) from the wall as though supported by brackets) were usually Step Boxes, which as their name implies, means that the one farthest from the stage is highest on the wall, and succeeding boxes step down in height as one gets closer to the stage for the sake of sightlines.
Built by the Orpheum vaudeville chain (later to become ‘RKO’) to compete with the Shuberts and others, the Palace was also called the "Orpheum." That name is derived from the mythical Greek musician Orpheus who was said to have so mastered the lyre that he could charm all gods, humans, animals and even rocks!
This name was the largest on the second seven-story tall vertical sign reading "RKO-Palace-Orpheum." But to cover all bases and garner as much press as possible, they hedged their bets by having the stone lintel over the auditorium’s rear exit doors on Sixth St. engraved: "Hippodrome," a name then made famous by that vast ‘pageantorium’ in New York City. The Palace-Orpheum-Hippodrome was really nothing like that New York legendary structure (also long gone, sad to say) but it was a large vaudeville ‘palace’ occupying almost half a city block., and featuring a 3-½ story office and commercial building surrounding the theatre’s entry on Wisconsin Ave. The brown brick building featured large limestone urns filled with one giant stone orb in each, along the stone coping line. The scant ornament of the exterior may have been classically inspired, but the massing of the six-foot-square, double hung windows together with the prismatic glass panels above the show windows, was entirely 20th century commercial style.
THREE ERAS OF THE PALACE THEATER
If not much money was lavished on the surrounding building, a goodly amount was spent on the theatre. One entered an outer vestibule with a patterned terrazzo floor and mosaic tile domes overhead lit by coved light bulbs and followed the same floor to an inner vestibule of bronze showcases illuminated by picture lights on rigid gooseneck brackets mounted upon the dressed stone slabs which rose to a simple cornice at the spring line of the barrel vaulted ceiling. It was embellished with banded festoon mouldings set with stud lights in brass flower petal reflectors along with pendant milk glass orbs in bronze coronet fixtures at the ends of the room. Proceeding through the polished brass and plate glass doors, one entered the promenade-like lobby leading to the auditorium foyer. This space behind the doors held the island box office and served to conduct one through the mass of the commercial building into the theatre building behind it.
The box office was of white marble with gilded bronze wickets on either side and plate glass main and clerestory windows which borrowed light from the pendant milk glass bowl fixtures and similar sconces on the promenade’s ceiling and walls. The patterned terrazzo floor continued a gentle incline up to the foyer with the plaster ceiling divided into bays with lunettes above the wall panels, all defined by intricate cabochon, festoon, and bead-and-reel polychrome mouldings.
At the end of this ‘corridor’ (approximately 30 feet wide by 80 feet long) one passed through an identical set of eight doors as previously seen and enters the foyer at the back of the main (orchestra) floor. Here carpeting covers the concrete floor and white marble constitutes the staircase up to the balcony as well as the knee wall behind the seats (this wall was extended to the ceiling in later years). Cast plaster bowl up-lights depended from each bay of the smooth plaster ceiling which was divided by simple archways which sprang from capitals at the tops of pillars which divided the open space above the knee wall. This wall was punctured at five intervals to reach the aisles. The main walls were covered by a large acanthus-in-frame rococo patterned damask, whereas five panels of dark velvet swags, centered with a panel embroidered in an anthemion with scrolls and hung with four tassels below the jabots, were hanging within each archway above the knee wall. An oddity of this area are the exit signs in their ornate brass frames, lit by a rigid gooseneck mounted shade, since they do not read ‘Exit,’ but: "OUT" (the only building in the area known to have had this wording).
The under balcony area is a graceful space with the same fixtures as the foyer spilling their light to reflect from the smooth plaster ceiling nicely divided into seven shallow vaults divided from each other and centered by festoon mouldings peaked by cartouches. The deep innerspring seats feature dark wooden frames with plain mohair backs.
The auditorium is a graceful vista with a giant central dome illuminated by a single, two-level giant bowl up-light, the whole a series of flutes adorned with cartouches, cabochons, and festoon mouldings. The dome is stenciled about its lower area in a delicate meander of laurel and roses, while water leaf and bead moulds adorn the inner rim. The outer rim of the shallow circular dome is defined by a voluptuous, banded fruit festoon. Similar moulds divide the ceiling and walls and lead one’s eye down toward the archivolt of the proscenium with the flanking alcoves, above and behind the boxes, forming its base. More neoclassical stenciling and moulds mark this space as one beholds the stage. Here a 50-foor-wide expanse is fronted by a rather shallow orchestra pit, but the lavish drapery gives it the class it deserves.
The Grand Drapery, flown on the first line behind the fire curtain, is a complex design of five panels of dark appliques in reticulated and other ornament upon a light colored backing. A color blocked fringe and eight similar 3-foor-long tassels adorn the lower edge, which is in the shape of an ornate serpentine line. Behind this are the teaser and tormentors, also richly appliqued and embroidered, but in a light colored pattern on a dark velvet ground. The act curtain (in the Olio position) behind this is a dark crushed velvet with a 2-foot-wide ornamental band appliqued about three feet above the stage floor from wing to wing. This curtain was divided as a traveler. The draperies at the top of the arches of the alcoves on the splays also featured a lambrequin to match that on the Grand Drapery and velvet swags and legs below it. The equilateral proscenium arch was outlined in the fruit festoon and surmounted by a central cartouche emblazoned with the initial ‘P’ and suspended from it was a gonfalon in plaster embellished with classical motifs floating upon a reticulated panel that constitutes the remainder of the wall down to the Grand Drapery. Other wall panels in the auditorium displayed the same damask surrounded by plaster mouldings as did the lobby and foyer.
Off the balcony foyer were the lounges and connecting rest rooms (lavatories). The men’s lounge was a space of dark, large tile mosaic floor in a grid of squares, and walls of head-high dark wood paneling above which was a blind stucco frieze and mock-beamed ceiling. Heavy, overstuffed wing chairs and benches covered in a Scot’s plaid were featured here with odd, little fabric-covered up-lights hanging from the ceiling. The baronial club room atmosphere was almost overpowering.
The ladies' lounge was a much lighter affair with tripartite divided wall panels painted a light color and adorned by rectangles of framed damask as well as pier glasses with ornate carved surrounds (frames, accolades, and even husk flower ‘epaulets’). Simple sconces with a single fabric shade flanked these, but the real electric light came from a graceful eight-armed central chandelier of eight bare (frosted) globular bulbs, the arms curving up from a gadrooned ‘pot,’ the bottom of which suspended a tassel. Much more light came in during daytime through four casement windows to better see the delicate reproduction Sheraton chairs, table and settees. A custom elliptical Wilton carpet patterned in concentric ellipses and framed by a Greek key border, covered the entire floor.
THE KNICLELBEIN PARADIGM
The Palace may not have been the equal of the London HIPPODROME, but it along with a few other theatres around the nation did benefit from an invention of a Milwaukee man by the name of Gustav E. Knickelbein, (1867 – 1941). Born in Chicago, he was brought to Milwaukee in infancy and grew up around the old Academy of Music where he became acquainted with the stage crew there and learned the craft. After years of experience, he noticed that the hemp rope system of rigging to lift scenery were so cumbersome that it was often dangerous to the flymen and others on the stage crews, so he devised a way to eliminate the sand bag counterweights then common to newer theatres which had supplanted the old ‘sliding slots’ method of scenery movement. This invention garnered him a patent for "Scene Shifting Apparatus," patent No. 1,241,637, dated October 2, 1917, over a year after he applied for it. It consisted of a way of attaching the increasingly popular ‘permanent counterweight systems’ that used steel cables attached to sliding frames (arbors) holding lead weights to counter the weight of the scenery or whatever was on the opposite ends of the steel cables. Such systems enabled the lifting of much more weight faster than the old rope system, but it was a fixed system too rigid for the flexibility of positioning needed in modern stagecraft. Enter ‘Gus’ with his new way of connecting the permanent counterweights to the ropes positioned anywhere on the gridiron, and the resulting patent was issued while he was in charge at the Palace. He earlier perfected his ideas at other Milwaukee theatres such as the Academy, the Bijou, the Majestic, and the Pabst, but his employers, the Orpheum Vaudeville circuit, saw his genius and made him "boss man" in regard to rigging their new theatres in such cities as New York, Chicago, St. Louis, and Winnipeg, but he always loved his home town and returned here where he last worked at the Davidson, which ended its days in 1954. His legacy lives on only at the Pabst, as far as is known, where it provides that National Historic Landmark theater one more claim to fame and history.
The vaudeville facilities were quite adequate, but RKO had to keep up with the times as only a decade passed and movies flourished as vaudeville faded. They installed a projection room at the top of the balcony, removed the original draperies to allow the ‘throw’ of the projector on the newly installed ‘picture sheet’ (screen) and installed a Milwaukee-made Wangerin pipe organ of unknown specifications to accompany the silent films. This was not enough to compete as stage acts disappeared and the house had to meet the newer movie palaces in a new marketplace. So, in 1931 they reseated the house, replaced the bowl up-lights with brass and crystal chandeliers and improved the projection – now with sound!
As the Palace struggled along with every other theatre during the Great Depression, it was not until the War years that things started moving again. They tore off the old vertical sign and marquee and replaced it with one of Poblocki sign company’s "alumilighted" versions of three levels of ‘inside-serviced’ marquee: name sign (Palace), triple row of chasers and lozenge billets, an eight-foot-high, wrap around attraction board in fluorescents, another line of lozenge billets, and a 5-row line of chasers that also wrapped wall-to-wall. Dark architectural glass panels covered the mouldings and the marble and a new box office of stainless steel appeared at the sidewalk line to replace the demolished marble one originally inside the doors. New poster cases with the then new fluorescent lights replaced the graceful bronze originals. The mosaic tiled domes above the entry were covered by porcelain steel sheets which supported the eight ‘waves’ of chaser lights which drew the passerby inward toward the doors.
As television siphoned off the crowds and the baby boomers moved to the suburbs with shopping center cinemas having acres of parking (the Palace had none), days became slow going. The theatre was often dark in the late 50s. In 1960 they brought in Cinerama and its three screens obliterated the proscenium and boxes. The promenade/lobby had its 1931 crystal chandeliers replaced with clusters of quintuple white plastic globes and large green plastic plants in tubs attempted to make the cavernous room look less empty of patrons. By 1963 Cinerama was bust and so was the Palace! An entrepreneur came in the late 60s (long after RKO had left the scene) and briefly returned stage plays, but it was not enough. Milwaukee-based Marcus Theatres then bought the building and when they bought the adjacent hotel, the handwriting was on the wall. When the former Schroeder hotel on the opposite end of the block (then renamed the Marc Plaza) sought a space to build its own parking structure cum health spa, it bought the remaining three properties on the block and demolished them and the auditorium in 1974.
The plan in ‘74 had been to build an addition to the hotel on the Wis. Ave. side of the block, but money for the planned 29-stories was not there. So, the parking structure, etc., were built, but the office bldg. and theatre entry and promenade/lobby were closed off and boarded up to await "imminent" demolition. That "imminent" was to continue until the year 2000 when Marcus Corp. finally demolished the remainder of the old Palace building and built that long wanted addition since they had recently leased the hotel to the Hilton chain which renamed it the Hilton Milw. City Center. Now one hotel occupies the entire block where laughter and comedy had ruled since August 31st, 1916.
P.S. As fate would have it, there was another ‘HIPPODROME’ in Milw., and that Hippodrome Amusement Hall was built in 1906, but retained the name for only four years, after which it was renamed the Dreamland Dance Hall, capacity: 1,000. That 150-foot-square, single story (44-foot-high) structure featured a parquet of seating around a dance floor with a band shell at one end and a ceiling covered in fringed fabric lanterns in various colors. No evidence has been found that films were ever shown there. See Marquee magazine of 4th Qtr. 1993 for article about the various Hippodromes (www.HistoricTheatres.org).
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