Oriental Theatre

2230 N. Farwell Avenue,
Milwaukee, WI 53202

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ORIENTAL Theatre; Milwaukee, Wisconsin, 12/19/2012.

Viewing: Photo | Street View

When the Oriental Theatre opened in 1927, it was among the most exotic and ornate movie palaces to have opened in Milwaukee with its Middle Eastern-meets-Far Eastern decor.

Although the large auditorium was divided into three smaller auditoriums in the late-1980’s, the decor was largely kept intact, miraculously, and the theater has managed to retain its 1920’s appearance to the present.

Its Kimball Organ, played each Saturay before each 7 p.m. show, is the largest of its kind remaining in the US. The Oriental Theatre is known for holding the record for a continuous midnight screening of “The Rocky Horror Picture Show”, which it has been performing since January, 1978.

In April 2018 it was taken over by Milwaukee Film, and renovations began July 1, 2018.

Contributed by Bryan Krefft

Recent comments (view all 56 comments)

LeeMatthias
LeeMatthias on January 5, 2013 at 3:43 pm

I worked at the Oriental from 1978-1990, first as a relief projectionist, then as the main projectionist, and finally as the manager/projectionist. I showed ROCKY HORROR so many times I am amazed I am still functional. And I was present during the transformation to 3 screens.

I have fond memories from those years. Many a night after work I went out with two others on staff, Chris and Jerry, to one of the bars—Von Trier, Landmark Lanes, or Vituccis, mostly. We became the Farwell-North Society, and the members each possessed a Portuguese coin that I had brought back from a trip to Portugal with Tony Bronson (Charles’s son) on a film shoot. The member had to produce his coin on demand or he would have to buy the next round. I was there the night Century Hall burned to the ground and we all just watched in disbelief. I had performed there years earlier as a cast member of Krystal Set a live radio-comedy improv group.

I’m also a writer (thelastreveal.blogspot.com), with several books out and screenplays looking for production. My favorite memory of the Oriental is the long hot summer (1984) when I wrote THE JUPE, kind of THE SHINING in a movie palace. Many a night I scared myself so bad I had trouble leaving through that dark balcony and upper foyer as the last one at the end of the night. After a table reading of THE JUPE, one of the audience members, a theater owner, told me he thought he’d have a hard time closing his theater late at night after that. The Jupiter Theater in the story is the Oriental down to the last detail, including the sub-basements, false ceiling and attic, and ghosts.

Lee Matthias

Bruce C.
Bruce C. on January 5, 2013 at 4:59 pm

Hey Lee. I was one of the RHPS regulars back in the mid-1980s (along with Betzi and the Celluloid Jam). I enjoyed your comment and would love to read your script some day. The best part about being in the cast was getting to hang out in the Oriental every weekend. It’s such an amazing theater.

AESoBe
AESoBe on April 13, 2013 at 5:51 am

I am a student at MATC studying tv/video production.. I;m currently doing a project called Milwaukee’s entertainment history and am looking for someone to interview who is knowledgable about the Oriental’s history.. If you have any questions feel free to email @ .com THanks a bunch

Trolleyguy
Trolleyguy on April 8, 2016 at 7:33 am

Updated website link: https://www.landmarktheatres.com/milwaukee/oriental-theatre

LouRugani
LouRugani on June 19, 2017 at 3:18 pm

Milwaukee Film to operate Oriental Theatre; Fundraising $10 million to revitalize 90-year-old facility (by Lauren Anderson, BizTimes, June 19, 2017)

Milwaukee Film, the organizer of the city’s annual film festival, has entered into a 31-year lease to operate the Oriental Theatre and announced plans to make upgrades to the historic facility. The nonprofit organization is fundraising $10 million to revitalize the 1927 theater with the goal of “creating a superior customer experience and making the Oriental Theatre a state of the art historic cinema,” according to a Milwaukee Film news release.

The Oriental Theatre, located on Milwaukee’s east side, opened in 1927. The theater, located on Milwaukee’s East Side at 2230 N. Farwell Ave., is currently operated by Los Angeles-based Landmark Theatres. When it assumes operation of the theater in July 2018, Milwaukee Film plans to run a year-round, nonprofit cinema.

“The Oriental Theatre is a treasure. I have visited hundreds of cinemas worldwide and the Oriental Theatre is my favorite. It is magical to see 1,000 of our members fill the main house at our monthly screenings,” said Jonathan Jackson, artistic and executive director of Milwaukee Film. “Our nine-year-old organization securing long-term control of this cinema is a momentous occasion. We have cemented our permanence in Milwaukee and intend to greatly expand our cultural, economic, and educational impact on our community.”

The organization has secured $3 million of its $10 million fundraising goal. Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele, who co-founded Milwaukee Film, made a personal contribution of $2 million.

“From day one, every person involved in Milwaukee Film – from staff, to volunteers, to the board, to our dedicated 3,600 members – has been driven by the goal of not simply creating a film festival, but creating one of the best and biggest film festivals in the world,” Abele said. “This announcement brings us closer to that goal. It isn’t the culmination or an end point, it’s the start of the next chapter.”

The Herzfeld Foundation has also committed $1 million to the initiative.

Designs haven’t yet been completed, but the organization is “committed to maintaining the existing aesthetics and character of this iconic Milwaukee building,” according to the release.

Khnemu
Khnemu on June 26, 2017 at 7:42 pm

More on Milwaukee Film’s upcoming operation of the Oriental:

https://onmilwaukee.com/movies/articles/mke-film-oriental-theatre-interview.html

LouRugani
LouRugani on April 17, 2018 at 8:28 pm

The popular Kimball theatre organ played its final show in the iconic Milwaukee movie palace last weekend. The Kimball Theatre Organ Society owned and maintained the organ since 1979 and moved it into the Oriental in 1991, but last year the KTOS unanimously decided it would transfer ownership of the Kimball organ into new hands. Months later a new owner took over and in July 2017, the KTOS has been removing the Kimball organ from the Oriental Theatre for safe storage while the new, unnamed owner determines its next destination. Simon Gledhill is a UK-based representative for the new owner and was a KTOS member himself and a semi-professional organist who performed three times over the years on the Oriental’s Kimball organ.

The Kimball was first installed in the former Warner Grand Theatre for the venue’s opening in 1931. In 1973, when the Warner was twinned, the Kimball was donated to the Milwaukee Trade & Technical High School (now Bradley Tech) Auditorium but was too large for the space, so KTOS was formed to protect and restore the instrument. After its installation within the Oriental, it almost doubled in size with vintage Kimball parts in a sensitive manner to which the manufacturer would not have objected.

Sources say the new owner is searching for a new organ to take the Kimball’s place. When the Oriental first opened in 1927, it used a Barton organ, which was removed in 1959. (Milwaukee theatres once had more Barton organs than any other make.)

LouRugani
LouRugani on April 23, 2018 at 9:38 pm

The ORIENTAL Theatre will close for about three weeks this summer as part of a $10 million re-do between July 1 and July 23, reopening for private screenings on July 23 and to the public in August. In June of 2017, Milwaukee Film, organizers of the city’s annual film festival, signed a 31-year lease to operate and revitalize the theatre, currently operated by Los Angeles-based Landmark Theatres. IFM Farwell LLC is the fully-owned subsidiary of Milwaukee Film that will run the theater and will assume operations on July 1. Dave Cowen is director of cinema and technology for Milwaukee Film. During phase one of the project, a women’s bathroom suite will be added to the first floor to provide more amenities than the single unisex bathroom currently offered on the first floor. Cowen said many women prefer to use the second floor bathroom, but with the addition “No one will have to travel upstairs.” Digital projection equipment will be installed in all three auditoriums, but film projection will remain in the main auditorium. There’ll be new popcorn makers, and Cowen said Milwaukee Film is working with local breweries to eventually serve a selection of craft beer at the ORIENTAL. A full rehab of the main auditorium will likely start in 2019, funded by Milwaukee Film’s fundraising efforts and a capital campaign.

HowardBHaas
HowardBHaas on April 24, 2018 at 4:13 am

From Landmark’s website so this info won’t disappear-  INFO: 3 Screens DLP Digital Projection and Sound. Built in 1927. Operated by Landmark since 1976. The Oriental Theatre is located a mile north of downtown, a mile south of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, and 5 blocks west of Lake Michigan, in the heart of Milwaukee’s Eastside. On November 13, 2009 the theatre opened its own bar at the concession stand. In addition to a wide selection of gourmet concession items, theatre patrons are now able to enjoy cocktails, wine by the bottle or glass and beer from Milwaukee and the world. Patrons are welcome to bring their drinks into the auditorium, so they may enjoy them prior, during and after their movie-going experience.   The Oriental is Milwaukee’s only operating movie palaces, certainly the most beautiful and ornate one that has shown movies for 90 years solid. When the Oriental opened on July 2, 1927, it featured 2 minaret towers, three stained glass chandeliers, 6 larger-than-life Buddhas, several hand drawn murals, 8 porcelain lions, dozens of original draperies, and hundreds of elephants. This is how the papers described the Oriental when it opened and this is how it could be described today! The Oriental Theatre was the crown jewel among the 45 theatres in the Saxe Brothers' chain. The motif is not what first comes to mind today as being ‘oriental.’ Designed by Gustave A. Dick and Alex Bauer, the themes of the decor are East Indian, with no traces of Chinese or Japanese artwork. Milwaukee’s Oriental is said to be the only standard movie palace ever built to incorporate East Indian decor.    Miraculously, the Oriental survived as a movie theatre until 1972, when local electricians the Pritchett Brothers purchased the theatre and graciously obliged the request of Parallax Theatres (now Landmark Theatres) to start running the Oriental in 1976. Landmark developed the programming strategy of repertory films; short runs of classic and cult double features, and the Oriental existed as a popular ‘calendar’ house for many years until video and cable TV again took away the customers.    Landmark then switched programming strategies to foreign and specialty films and now is the largest “art” house circuit in the country. In the ‘70s and '80s, the Oriental was also known for live performances, and was the venue to see such acts as Iggy Pop, Laurie Anderson, INXS, Supertramp, Jay Leno, Blondie, Devo, REM, Tears for Fears and Milwaukee’s own Bodeans, among others. The Pretenders lost their opening act one fateful day, so they invited three guys who happened to be regular performers on the sidewalk in front of the theatre to take their place. Such was the beginning of the Violent Femmes, whose Greatest Hits compilation pays homage to the Oriental.

After live performances were discontinued, Landmark refocused the Oriental as solely a movie theatre. In 1988, the Oriental was painstakingly and successfully triplexed by adding 2 theatres underneath the balcony without touching any of the original artwork of the main auditorium. A one-of-a-kind vending stand was added, and the two new theatres were sensitively created by architects and artists to match original designs and colors of the theatre.   The Oriental Theatre is the U.S. record holder for a current and continuing film engagement. The Rocky Horror Picture Show has played as a midnight film since January, 1978. Rocky Horror now shows every second Saturday of the month with a live shadow cast.   Best Movie Theatre (2017, 2015-2001) - Shepherd Express

Top 10 Historic Movie Theatre (2015) - USA Today

“Readers' Choice: The 25 Best Movie Theatres in America” (2011) - Flavorwire.com

“One of the 10 Best Movie Theatres in America” (2009) - Moving Pictures Magazine

“One of the 10 Best Movie Theatres in America” (2005) - Entertainment Weekly

One of Travelocity’s 2005 “Local Secrets, Big Finds” in Wisconsin - Travelocity

Best Make-Out Spot (2004) - OnMilwaukee.com

Best Movie Theatre (2001-1993 Reader’s Choice) - Shepherd Express Metro

Favorite Milwaukee Area Movie Theatre (2001 Web Browser Poll) - OnMilwaukee.com

Khnemu
Khnemu on June 24, 2018 at 3:35 pm

Landmark Theatres last day of operation was June 22nd. The Oriental will close until around August 1st when it is planned to be reopened by its new operator, Milwaukee Film.

https://www.jsonline.com/story/entertainment/movies/2018/06/20/landmark-theatres-closing-oriental-theatre-milwaukee-film-reopen-early-august-film-festival/712516002/

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