2933 N. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Drive,
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When pioneer theaters historian and then editor of “Marquee” magazine of the Theatre Historical Society, B. Andrew Corsini Fowler, printed a photo of the auditorium of the Garfield Theatre in their issue of the First Quarter, 1971, he labeled it “Milwaukee’s most elegant neighborhood theater; a miniature Viennese Opera house.” He was the man in a position to know having seen a number of that city’s theaters during his leaves there during the Korean War. That issue had numerous photos of Milwaukee theaters, and while it showed that the Garfield on the city’s North side was not the largest, few would argue that it was not one of the city’s fanciest.
The Garfield Theatre was named after the nearby city park of that name, and it, of course, was named after the 20th President of this country, James Garfield (1831-1881). He was a remarkable man who was not only a Civil War general, but a member of Congress, a college president and a professor, and was evidently held in high esteem in Milwaukee for in 1883 the arterial seven blocks south of the theater was also named for him. The Garfield Theatre opened on November 19, 1927, when the area was a prosperous German-Jewish neighborhood, and the local Saxe chain of theaters was eager to dominate upper Third Street with this, its 45th theater in Wisconsin.
Saxe Amusement Enterprises had already had a long working relationship with Milwaukee architects Gustave A. Dick and Alex H. Bauer who had designed their TOWER theater and their ultimate achievement, the ORIENTAL, was already open on the East side. Here in the GARFIELD it was not the exotic oriental decor, or Early American nostalgia as in their COLONIAL, but French Louis XIV design as the page “Salutation” in the inaugural programme describes it. This is one of the rare occasions where the opening-day programme survives,* and while it did not have photos, its 32, 8-½ x 11-inch pages do give many insights into the opulence of that night: November 19th, 1927. Crowds thronged upper Third St. that Saturday at 6PM not just to see the silent ‘photoplay’ “Adam and Evil” as part of the 8-part program, but also to see this block-long structure ablaze with light and laughter. Theater openings were becoming commonplace during the ‘roaring twenties,’ but in those days before television such events made the time after one’s workday more memorable than listening to the radio or playing ‘schafkopf’ – as the local Germans knew the card game of sheep’s head. The admission fee then was only 40 cents on Saturday evenings, the highest price they then charged, for a feature film, several short subjects, three acts of vaudeville, plus orchestral and organ accompaniments. One can’t buy even a box of popcorn for that little today!
As one approached the theater in its early days he would have been impressed with the block-long structure having a 50-foot wide theater entry flanked by polished brass showcases on the marble-veneered wall. The remainder of the face of the tan and buff brick building trimmed in polychrome terra cotta displayed eight storefronts on the easterly-facing facade with tripled windows of eight apartments above them. The shallow mansard roof of slates featured eight oculus dormers above them. The auditorium and stagehouse masses rise two stories above and behind this at right angle to the entry. They are ornamented by tapestry-set brick borders in their brick walls. A 40-foot deep stagehouse with full rigging allowed for large shows. Of particular note on the facade was the artistic marquee of French scrolls filled with light bulbs above the attraction boards of milk glass letters. The triple border vertical sign spelled out: “Saxe’s GARFIELD” some five stories high in light bulbs. A pediment with massive cartouche centerpiece, all in glazed terra cotta, capped the entry facade above a window of French curved muntins with ornate draperies behind the glass. Two massive terra cotta urns, encrusted with festoons and finials flanked the pediment.
Passing through the six entry doors, one came into the ticket lobby, a 50-foot square room with walls dividing their height in two by means of a heavy plaster rinceau frieze with faux marble piers below and fluted pilasters above. Centered in the room was the marble and bronze island box office with three windows and the whole long octagon form crowned by a double roofline of bronze cresting in the form of small finialed urns interspersed with small ankroters and fleur-de-lis. Below one’s foot were heavy waffle-pattern rubber mats atop the paneled terrazzo floor. Centered from the ceiling hung an opulent chandelier of hand painted milk glass panels of outward-curving design and below which were reticulated color glass panels forming a tight ‘waist’ above the bowl of glass bead strings pendant from it. The whole ten-foot-tall fixture was draped with crystal chains and orbs.
From here one passed through six brass and ten-light glass doors into the Grande Lobby, a 70-foot deep by 50-foot wide floor covered in a tight floral design Wilton carpet. The opposite (western) end was made up of a right angle white marble carpeted grand staircase to the balcony, but the large lobby was dominated by its three large chandeliers, also the products of Milwaukee’s Charles Polacheck & Bro. Co. (who also did those in the ORIENTAL and other theaters). These delights hung on long stems wrapped in fringed velvet, and the body below was composed of three levels of milk glass, slumped through a filigree of brass ribs and ornaments, and supported six arms of sextuple candoliers – all electrically lit, of course. The bottom tier was a triple concentric ring of long prisms finished at center by a crystal orb.
The white marble fireplace on the left (south) wall was topped by an entire shallow ‘pavilion’ of pilasters and a broken pediment framing a mirror draped in brocade. Similar panels adorned the remainder of the walls with a gilded triple frame of banded reeding, plus acanthus and cabochons. The plaster frames, surmounted and covered with scrolls, enclosed a tightly patterned damask in an anthemion design (replaced in the ‘40s with a large overlapping leaf pattern). Beautiful sofas, settees, and wing chairs covered in a light silk brocade of classical motif accented the large room along with floor lamps and a curiously plain, white china pedestal drinking fountain – or 'bubbler’ as any true Milwaukeean would call it.
Going through any of the five aisle’s double doors into the auditorium, one would enter under a shallow balcony and the first view of the room as the editor saw it. The impression of an opera house within a movie palace was due to the walls being broken up into two levels of a draped colonnade, with balustrades between the pilasters acting as columns, very much the way boxes look in the galleries of European theaters. Eight such mock boxes along a wall and an identical arrangement on the opposite sidewall did create a pleasant rhythm of repetition, and this was echoed by the similar 15 draped arches along the back walls. One would expect obtruding light fixtures on the pilasters acting as piers in traditional opera house form and precedent, but nary a fixture or chandelier is seen. Instead, the entire 1,800-seat auditorium is lit by nine domes surrounded by hidden cove lights, and these in three colors and eight control groups, all dimmed from the Hub brand interlock resistance switchboard backstage. This is another reason the ‘mock boxes’ (which were flush to the wall) were used in the design: lights could be hidden behind their balustrades at bottom and on the ceiling behind the draperies. This allowed for more variety in light as well as illuminating the garden murals which backed the upper ‘boxes.’
With dozens of rectangular panels of gilded frames dividing the auditorium walls, it was only fitting that the proscenium and organ screens were basically rectangular too. The organ screens ran almost to the ceiling, framed by rich, deep gilded coves of acanthus ornament. They were surmounted by a gilded pair of nudes flanking an urn-shaped finial atop the central cartouche. Another gilded cartouche framed by foliated ornament centered the space above the proscenium arch, right upon the lattice panels, which formed a frieze just under the ceiling all around the auditorium.
The proscenium arch was also a rectangle about 40 feet wide by 30 feet high made up of six picture frames of varying profiles and ornaments, some acanthus and some bead-and-reel. The grand drapery at the top of the arch was a series of six swags of a small pattern damask, the gaps between being filled by triangular jabot panels appearing to be fringed silver satin fronted by a single tassel each. Behind the legs of the grand drapery were the legs of a velvet tormentor, and behind this the styles (ornamented) of a rigid tormentor with the house curtain between being 16 roman fold panels of velour terminated in small swags at bottom overlaying the 18-inch deep fringe. The material of the grand drapery and the appliqued border topping it, was repeated atop the organ screens, with the screen cloth itself being appliqued with a giant vase of flowers upon a pedestal of French curves in outline form. The carpeted aisles and seats upholstered in a dense check pattern within gilded frames, completed the view of a French palace in the time of the Louis.
If the eyes were pleased, so were the ears as the house orchestra, the “Saxonians”, appeared complete with tympani, at evening performances. At other times it was the job of the organist to “perfume the air with music” (as famed 1920s organist Gaylord Carter so well put it in the video: “The Movie Palaces” by the Smithsonian Institution in 1988) and accompany the silent movies. The Garfield was well equipped for this with its Barton theatre pipe organ of three manuals and eleven ranks (voices). It rose into view from the orchestra pit upon its four-post Barton lift every time it started the overture.
An oddity of the design was the projection room which took the form of a plain rectangular box seemingly just hung from the rear ceiling as though it were an after thought. This was sometimes done when theaters wanted to bring the seats all the way to the rear wall, thus not allowing a crossover aisle at the top. In Milwaukee’s WARNER (now the GRAND), it was similar to this, but ornamentally integrated into the design. No doubt the architects were running short of funds on this million-dollar project and the projection room was not usually in view anyway.
By the 1940s, things were changing fast for the theaters. Sound pictures and large screen projection eliminated the orchestras and pipe organs as well as the gorgeous draperies on the stage, not to mention the stage crew. Modernism was ‘in’ and theaters had to compete for the modern generation. Sign companies such as Polacheck in Milwaukee exploited this trend and sold prefabricated aluminum marquees with the then new fluorescent lights and covered the outdated marble veneers with their own veneers of architectural porcelain panels and silvery aluminum poster cases. Gone was the light bulb extravaganza marquee and the graciously draped giant window above the marquee (who could see it with the new, larger marquee?) now filled with plain concrete blocks (sold as “no leaks, no maintenance, no drafts”) and no longer did daylight brighten the ticket lobby, apart from what came through the now eight doors once the new sidewalk line ticket booth was installed between them. When movies were not paying the way, the Garfield took special events, such as the photo of a fashion show in the World War II years shows. The man at the organ provided the background music as ladies paraded down a runway temporarily placed above the seats out to the 15th row.
By 1965 the neighborhood had changed drastically (the race riots across the nation would occur in Milwaukee two years later in this very neighborhood) and the theater closed for good. Steel gates and barred windows now fronted the eight store fronts and the marquee was reduced to a canopy with the attraction board above displaying the new name of the owner of the former theatre: The Opportunities Industrialization Center. It became a center for vocational training for disadvantaged youths. The chandeliers in the lobby were bought by a salvager and later sold to the Sanfilippo family for their 1992 mansion’s music room in Barrington, Illinois, at least a better fate than those of Milwaukee’s UPTOWN which reportedly ended up hanging in a barn where only the cows could appreciate them. Theater historian Larry Widen related how he managed to get a look above the new suspended ceiling in the auditorium and saw the original darkened ornamental domes still there. The former Garfield has a new life now, and no more will be heard the laughter of audiences in multi-part shows for 40 cents, and only 25 cents for matinees. Central Milwaukee no longer has any show houses, and we are the poorer for it.
- Courtesy of Larry Widen
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