Lincoln Theater

1104 W. Lincoln Avenue,
Milwaukee, WI 53215

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LINCOLN Theatre and Kantak Brothers; Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

It is usual that those who write about theatres want to write about the large, elaborate ones, but sometimes even the small, early, less elaborate ones survive in some form into our day, and merit mention in history. Such is the case for the LINCOLN theatre, a forerunner in the day of the ‘Photoplay Parlor’ which succeeded the Nickelodeon in the progression of technology and movie exhibition. Milwaukee had many nickelodeon theatres by 1910 when the Lincoln opened with its original 540, later 338 seats, and while most of them were converted storefronts, this was a purpose-built cinema. One of the things distinguishing a cinema from a theatre is the lack of a stage house into which scenery and draperies are raised. The Lincoln, named after the street it is on, never had one, but it did bear many of the marks of structures of its type after the first decade of the 20th Century.

While the Lincoln had most of the accoutrements of the beginning photoplay parlors, (e.g. pressed tin ceilings and wainscoting, a shallow platform stage without wings or flytower, radiator heating, a player piano but no pipe organ, and a comparatively simple facade) it did have one feature which no other theatre had: an L-shaped auditorium with the small leg of the ‘L’ at the right front. Just how the 50 seats in this section out of view from the rear were kept in control by the manager is not known, but you can bet that it was a great corner for kids to goof off! This ‘L’ addition was the result of an expansion a year later by the owners, the Kantak Brothers, who occupied the adjacent seed store and confectionery that served the theater, this in the days long before concession stands.

This cinema’s lighting was a mixture of types with bare ‘stud lights’ in the ceiling forming ellipses through the pressed tin, accompanied by suspended plaster or composition bowls as ‘up-lights’; this was indicative of the transition from the often crude storefront nickelodeons with a few bare bulbs to the greater decor attempted with up-lights, then made possible by brighter tungsten bulbs coming on the scene. The little shelf brackets upon the imitation pilasters along the walls and above the sconces (taking the form of a pair of pendulous frosted glass tubes) are for small electric fans, the absence of which indicates that the only known photo of the interior was taken in a warm month. A fringed, velour house curtain did grace the rectangular proscenium and similar modest portieres framed the doorways until the fire inspector ordered them removed, and stenciled panels between the mock pilasters contributed what little decoration there was. The theatre could boast that they did have a concrete floor as opposed to the creaky wooden ones then common, but the same could not be said for the seats, no padding here!

The Lincoln, one of the earliest of Milwaukee’s photoplay parlors, survives today as one of the earliest examples still standing, but it is now the unmarked warehouse and shop of the Accurate Chimney Co. The proprietress, Miss Donna, expresses no interest whatsoever in the history of her building, and maintains her office elsewhere. Before her reign, the cinema had other incarnations after the projectors fell dark in 1966, notably as a portrait studio for many years. Milwaukee architect Stanley Kadow designed the place (along with the CENTRAL and AVENUE photoplay parlors), but if he were alive today he would recognize only the exterior of the 30-foot wide, by 120-foot deep brick building which never had a balcony. The new incarnation of the RIVIERA THEATRE (as Ben’s Cycle Warehouse) is almost directly across the street, and that house was also an example of transition, but from the photoplay parlor to the movie palace since it rose ten years later in 1920. See its description soon to appear elsewhere here.

Contributed by James H. (Jim) Rankin

Recent comments (view all 6 comments)

DavidHurlbutt on June 26, 2004 at 2:08 am

My step-father’s first job in Milwaukee was tightening the floor screws of the seats to the floor. Twice each week he would tighten by hand the loose seats to the floor.
As a kid in the neighborhood in the 1940s, I remember that next to box office there was a mailslot where you could drop in the title of an old movie you would like to see. At that time they had a we-bring-back-the-big-ones policy. In the 40s the Lincoln closed often for periods of time and would reopen with a new policy.

JimRankin on February 15, 2005 at 4:21 pm

“Lostmemory” (who apparently has quite a good memory) is quite right: both views are of our odd little LINCOLN, and it is odd as DavidH brought out in a message to me, that of all the former theatres about town, this is the only one that retains its metal letters of the original name on the front, as shown in those views. The canopy marquee and vertical sign are gone, but the painted metal letters are still there to this day, but something tells me that the new Mexican ownership will remove them for something in Spanish when money becomes available in the current creeping conversion to a glass front store of some type. The new owner is a Chicago man since 2003, according to the tax assessors' records on-line.

dottz2dottz on July 22, 2010 at 9:47 pm

My great grandfather was one of the Kantak Brothers owners. His widow & my grandmother lived upstairs from theater, where I spent many happy days. My grandmother played organ there for the silent films. I was told the building housing the grain store originally sat on Lincoln between 12th & 13th, & was moved to present location, where the theater was added. Another daughter & her husband ran the theater from 1960. I don’t know when it was sold. I’m glad to see this page preserving it’s place in history. I loved spending time in that building. It was very unique. I would love to see it restored someday.

Matthew Prigge
Matthew Prigge on October 7, 2010 at 4:15 pm

The Lincoln was closed for many years before it reopened in 1966 showing adult films under the named “Lincoln Fine Art Theatre.” The vice squad closed them down that spring when they booked a nudist film. To my knowledge, it never reopened after that.

Ret. AKC (NAC) CCC Bob Jensen, Manteno, Illinois
Ret. AKC (NAC) CCC Bob Jensen, Manteno, Illinois on August 5, 2013 at 2:04 pm

Does anyone know what happened to that Golden Voiced Barton Theater Pipe Organ mentioned above?

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