Oriental Theatre

2230 N. Farwell Avenue,
Milwaukee, WI 53202

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Oriental Theatre, Milwaukee, WI in 1927 - Auditorium and Proscenium arch

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 55 comments)

Matthew Prigge
Matthew Prigge on November 19, 2012 at 7:32 am

As of the summer of 2012, the Oriental is showing most of their films via digital projector. I think The Master was one of the first they ran that way. And to answer a question from two year ago, they do a very good keeping up the Oriental. They even let you sneak up into the balcony to look around.

LeeMatthias on January 5, 2013 at 11:43 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 6, 2013 at 12:59 am

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 on April 13, 2013 at 1:51 pm

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 on April 8, 2016 at 3:33 pm

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

LouRugani on June 19, 2017 at 11:18 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.

LouRugani on April 18, 2018 at 4:28 am

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 on April 24, 2018 at 5:38 am

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 on April 24, 2018 at 12:13 pm

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

LouRugani on August 6, 2018 at 4:29 am

The Changing Face of the Oriental Theatre (by David Luhrssen, July 3, 2018, Shepherd Express) — Although it turns 91 this summer, the Oriental Theatre (2230 N. Farwell Ave.) isn’t Milwaukee’s oldest cinema; the Downer claims that honor. But, with all due respect to the beautiful Avalon, the Oriental was and remains the city’s most spectacular movie palace for its exuberantly Near East-Far East decor. And for several decades, the Oriental has been an anchor of the city’s cinema culture as a repertory house and then as a theater with a consistent lineup of foreign, indie and documentary films.

This month, the venerable Oriental goes dark as its new operators take charge and begin phase one of planned renovations. Milwaukee Film—whose primary project has been the Milwaukee Film Festival—is now the leaseholder, and Jonathan Jackson, MF’s artistic and executive director, has big plans. First off: more ambitious and diverse programming that reflects, and magnifies, the work of the annual festival. “The film community loves the 15-day event, but people have asked us to create more opportunities,” Jackson says.

In 1988, the Oriental caught up with the late 20th century when the Landmark Theatres chain divided its cavernous interior into a three-screen house with great sensitivity to the building’s architectural integrity. To bring it into the 21st century, Jackson has announced an upgrade in sight and sound. The 2K digital projectors will be supplanted by higher-resolution 4K units. And, in a nod to the enduring significance of actual film composed of celluloid (not pixels), MF will also install new 35mm and 70mm projectors. “With those, we expect to secure access to all the leading film archives in the world,” Jackson explains. He has received applications from old-school projectionists—an occupation rendered obsolescent by digital technology—from around the country.

“But first and foremost,” he adds, “I think it’s a great idea that women have a restroom on the first floor!” Since the Oriental Theatre opened, the women’s room has been lodged at the far end of the mezzanine and is inaccessible to the disabled. Women were usually forced into a small chamber, an afterthought added for the handicapped next to the ground floor men’s room. “I was always ashamed to walk to the bathroom during the film festival past a line of women,” Jackson says. “I once saw a gentleman block the men’s room door to allow only women to use it for a given time.”

The new women’s room—carved out of space opened up by annexing a small retail bay abutting the Oriental’s northeast corner—will, like all future alterations, conform to the building’s character. Jackson adds that MF is more than halfway through the process of adding the Oriental to the National Register of Historic Places.

Most Milwaukeeans were surprised last summer when Milwaukee Film announced its acquisition of the Oriental’s lease from the theater’s longtime operator, Landmark Theatres, but the historic cinema had long been on Jackson’s mind. The Oriental was his first job after moving to Milwaukee. He went on to manage the UW-Milwaukee Union Cinema and became, in 2003, programming director for the Milwaukee International Film Festival. (Full disclosure: I was a co-founder of the MIFF and served as its executive director through 2007.) The Oriental had always been one of that festival’s major venues, and its importance only grew after Jackson became the Milwaukee Film Festival’s executive director in 2008.

So, why not continue renting the Oriental for two weeks each year instead of undertaking the year-round responsibility for a historic landmark?

“Our relationship with the Oriental became the critical factor in our success,” Jackson explains. “It was great working with [theater manager] Eric Levin and his staff, but the growth of the festival was inhibited because we had no long-term contract.” Instead, MF worked with the Oriental year by year; according to Jackson, the paperwork for the next fall festival never arrived before late spring. “Anyone in my position would have lost sleep,” he continues. “It was a challenge for long-range planning, to secure sponsors, to sell advance tickets. You can understand the potential instability of that.”

Also, Landmarks Theatre never rented MF more than two of the Oriental’s three screens and never gave Jackson the timeframe he sought. “We always wanted late October-early November, but Landmarks wanted to save their screens for the big fall releases,” he explains. “Historically, our dates overlapped with the New York Film Festival, one of the biggest film festivals with dibs on all content.” As a result, many significant non-Hollywood movies could never be booked at the Milwaukee Film Festival—until this year. “You can only do so much to grow a film culture in 15 days,” Jackson continues. “From now on, Milwaukee Film have an additional 350 days to play.”

Aside from the opportunity to screen every available movie in the world, Jackson’s decision to assume control of Milwaukee’s flagship cinema has a financial dimension. “Non-profit cinemas are healthier than film festivals,” Jackson explains. “Most film festivals operate on 30-40% earned income, mainly ticket sales, and the rest comes from fundraising. Nonprofit cinemas generally run on 60% earned income and 40% philanthropy. We hope to change our metric by running the Oriental.” And what of Landmarks’ remaining Milwaukee venue—the city’s oldest movie theater, the Downer? “Landmarks has a lease on the Downer,” Jackson says. Landmarks Theatres refused to comment.

Milwaukee Film has an 11-year lease plus two 10-year options on the Oriental. “We have a strong, long lease so that we can fundraise long-term to pay for improvements to the structure of the building,” Jackson says. “We are investing in the building even though we don’t own it, but since we’re running it for 30 years, we’re comfortable with that.”

“Aside from, ‘What about the women’s bathroom?’ the thing that everyone says to me is, ‘Don’t touch the popcorn!’” says Jackson on future plans for the Oriental. Phase two of the facelift will include some changes at the concession stand. “We’ll want to feature as many local products as possible,” he says. The original plasterwork of the cinema’s ceiling needs restoration. And down below, the original seats in the balcony have to be replaced. The curtains and tapestries need cleaning or mending. The HVAC (heating, ventilation, air conditioning) system requires updating. “We need to look at the acoustical treatment to insure that the sound is not bouncing within each space or between the theaters,” Jackson says.

He continues: “In the early days of cinema, people might find live programming at a movie theater, a double feature, a newsreel, an organ performance—it was more of a full cultural event, and it’s what film festivals do naturally—to create an experience.” Which leads to the inevitable rebutting of the tired doomsayers who keep forecasting the death of movie theaters. After all, they say, why not stay home with your Plasma screen, your lumpy Barcalounger and your popcorn machine?

“The statistics show that movie attendance is stable,” Jackson replies. “For me, the point is the communal experience. It’s so wonderful and strange, having hundreds of people sitting silently in a room staring at a screen and sharing an experience. It’s an unparalleled opportunity for community engagement. And besides,” he adds, “you cannot beat the experience of seeing a movie on a big screen.”

The Oriental Theatre will reopen on Friday, Aug. 10.

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