Downer Theatre

2589 N. Downer Avenue,
Milwaukee, WI 53211

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Downer Theatre, Milwaukee, WI

The Downer Theatre opened in 1915, and was soon recognized as one of the most modern urban movie houses of the day, and became a model for subsequent neighborhood theatres. Not only did the elegantly Classical style Downer Theatre have its own Weickhardt Pipe Organ, but its own in-house orchestra. It was remodeled in a Streamline Moderne style reopening on October 17, 1937.

Acquired in 1990 by the Landmark chain, it became a twin screen theater, but was given a badly needed renovation that was respectful of its history. Gold leaf was reapplied, the auditorium was repainted, and carpeting that duplicated the orginal 1915 carpeting was laid in the lobby and auditorium floors.

The Downer Theatre is the oldest operating cinema in the city of Milwaukee and specializes in art and foreign films.

Contributed by Bryan Krefft

Recent comments (view all 12 comments)

JimRankin on April 14, 2004 at 8:27 am

The following message was sent to me by the courtesy of Mr. John Dahlman who is connected to the DOWNER, and is most illuminating regarding the new improvements in sound to come to both the ORIENTAL and DOWNER theatres here. As much as many patrons appreciate the new more ‘high fidelity’ sound, I shudder to think what the possible addition of future “ceiling speakers” could mean for the decor of the ORIENTAL. The DOWNER’s ceilings are no longer pristine since the 1990 splitting of that theatre, so one could add such speakers there with a minimum of architectural disruption, but I am not sure that that will be the case in the as yet untouched, ornate ceiling of the East Indian-inspired ORIENTAL. Let us hope for the best!

Great news for all who watch movies at the Oriental and Downer: We now have Dolby Digital in both smaller theatres at the Oriental, and weâ€\ve had it in the main theatre for 6 years, so the Oriental Theatre, Milwaukeeâ€\s last surviving movie palace, is an all digital sound theatre now. Also, the Downer Theatre now has Dolby Digital in itâ€\s main house. The oldest operating movie theatre in Milwaukee, possibly Wisconsin, now has digital sound.

Iâ€\m sure most of you know all of this, but to clarify: there have been 3 competing digital sound formats SDDS (Sony Dynamic Digital Sound), DTS (Digital Theatre Sound) and Dolby Digital, all competing with each other for ~13 years. SDDS seems to have lost the battle, and the other 2 are the prevailing digital sounds. SDDS and Dolby Digital sound information is found on the film itself, while DTS sound info is found on an accompanying CD-type disc, which you cannot play on a normal CD player.

Most films that we show currently, say 95%, are encoded with digital sound info. However, not all films we show will have been made with digital sound information. For example, THE BATTLE OF ALGIERS(1965), which we are currently showing, is in mono sound, much like most titles before ~1965, unless they have been digitally-sound-restored. Mono sound means that the sound emanates from the speakers behind the screen only, so there is only one dimension to the sound. All Hollywood studio films today are encoded for all sound formats, the three digitals and stereo. The older titles, and some foreign language films, and smaller independent films and documentaries may not be encoded to play in digital. It is an expensive luxury to some filmmakers and companies on a tight budget. So a few rare films that we will show in the future will be silent, or in mono, or a few more in stereo, and even more in Dolby SR, but most will now be in Dolby Digital. The smaller theatre at the Downer will continue to play films in stereo, which will be fine.

Stereo sound in movie theatres took off in the ‘60â€\s and ‘70â€\s and in 1977, STAR WARS was the first film issued with Dolby SR sound. SR means surround sound, or a kind of enhanced stereo. Speakers were not just behind the screen anymore but placed in the auditorium on the left and right side, and in the back. With Dolby SR, you can have a different amplifier process sound for the left and right speakers in the auditorium. Also, it is a kind of branding and marketing tool, of course.

THE ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW was released in 1975 in stereo. The Oriental Theatre started showing it as a midnight film in January of 1977. The Oriental did show it as a regular first run feature a year earlier for one week; it didnâ€\t do so well. Several years ago, 20th Century Fox recalled all prints of RHPS, and reissued new prints to theatres with a more defined Dolby SR soundtrack, which is how we present it now. Incidentally, we still have the world record of the longest continuous engagement of a film and we are on our 3rd or 4th print of RHPS.

Digital sound really took off in the 1990â€\s. With digital sound, there is more definition of sound throughout the theatre, especially on the left and right speakers in the auditorium. With digital sound there is more differentiation of sound effects, music, dialogue, etc. emanating from specific speakers. With STAR WARS PHANTOM MENACE, a new sound came in the way of Dolby Digital EX. Iâ€\m not sure what the “EX” specifically stands for, but this whole new phase meant that another amplifier was added, and speakers were added in the back of the auditorium(unless the theatre already had back speakers), so sound can emanate from these speakers themselves. EX is something used predominantly in mainstream theatres for certain blockbuster films. Iâ€\ve heard tell that the next big thing in sound will be to add speakers to the ceilings of auditoriums so there will be yet another dimension of sound.

All of this enhanced sound doesnâ€\t matter too much in a dialogue-driven movie; itâ€\s the story for which everyoneâ€\s looking. But proper use of sound can really enhance the movie. You will notice that the sound will be louder, and that there will be more definition of sound on the left and right sides of the auditorium. The sound presentation will be more in tune with how the filmmaker(s) have created the film. In my experience, some filmmakers are extremely good with using the potential of digital sound, certain films could be improved with better uses of sound, and some filmmakers really need some instructing in how to use sound. Iâ€\m sure weâ€\ve all heard abuses of the sound as well. Weâ€\ve shown low-budget films in stereo that are far superior in sound quality to A-list multi-million dollar blockbusters. But weâ€\ve also shown some great sounding blockbusters, and poor sounding smaller budget films. It all comes down to how well the filmmaker recorded the film, and how much emphasis they have placed in creating the sound environment of the film. Unfortunately, there does not yet exist an amplifier to better process those pesky British, Irish, Scottish, Welsh, Australian, New Zealand, South African, etc. accents. Youâ€\ll just have to play it by ear.

Now, what is THX? THX is not an amplifier, nor a speaker, nor information on film. THX is a term and the concept was developed by George Lucas with projectionists and technicians to create some kind of perfectly balanced auditorium. For an auditorium to be “THX Certified,” technicians must come in and test the sound levels at all locations throughout the auditorium, and try to balance the sound levels so that wherever you sit everything sounds perfectly balanced. So an auditorium is THX certified, not an entire theatre, unless itâ€\s a 1-screen, or all auditoriums are THX certified. One component for a theatre to be THX certified is that there can be no internal or external sound influences heard in the theatre. The Orientalâ€\s main theatre could not be THX certified because we have air conditioners that make a small amount of noise in the auditorium when we use them in the summer. Theatres built today generally have all HVAC machines built on the roof, with long ducts separating the noisy machine from each auditorium. Neither the Oriental or Downer has THX certified auditoriums, but there are some in the area.

To find out what sound formats our films will be played in, refer to our website, the Milwaukee page of, or refer to the daily ad in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. We will also have this info on our recorded message line, which for both theatres is (414) 276-8711.

Sorry to ramble….. perhaps in a year or 2 weâ€\ll have our tutorial on Digital Cinema. I lament the passing of film, but we seem to be heading that way.

Dolby website:



John Dahlman

Milwaukee Marketing Leader for Landmark Theatres

(414) 276-8711, ext. 6

Downer House Manager

(414) 964-2916

DavidHurlbutt on September 6, 2004 at 5:19 pm

The Downer’s past is very interesting. It was one of the few movie houses in Milwaukee not on a streetcar/bus tansfer corner. For years the Downer did poor business. Even in the war years of the 40s when all theaters did well, the Downer struggled. In the late 40s when it was operated by Fox Wisconsin the Downer became an art theater. For years it was the only art theater in the area. It had many long runs. Bitter Rice, Diabolique, and Carry On Nurse played for several weeks. Tales of Hoffmann had a roadshow engagement.
Following the Downer’s success as an art house, other Milwaukee theaters adopted an art theater policy. The Parkway (35th and Lisbon)for a short time showed art picture, the Hollywood (Green Bay Avenue)changed its name to the Coronet and for a few years showed art pictures. The Times (60th and Vliet) became the Times Fine Art and for many years had art films. The Times is still going.

Hal on May 12, 2006 at 11:06 am

When I worked here as a projectionist, it was still a single screen, had OLD Super Simplex projectors I believe (maybe E-7’s, it’s been a long time!). I always got a kick out of telling people I worked at the Downer Theatre, it always got a chuckle out of them! Got alot of lame comments like, gee, it must be a real depressing place to work, and on and on. There really wasn’t anything earth shattering about this place, kind of a nice art house in a trendy neighborhood, got on the arthouse format long before the larger Oriental did, now both are run by the same company, Landmark Theatres. I only ran 2 films here, Annie Hall (which seemed to run forever) and Altman’s
3 Women. It was a fun place to work, great neighborhood, and still is.

LouisRugani on June 11, 2010 at 8:53 pm

(April 19, 1930)
Theatre Deal Goes In Effect At Midnight

Warner Brothers To Take Over Sheboygan Theatre And Other Theatres In Wisconsin

It was unofficially announced today that Warner Bros, one of the leading film companies in the United States, has taken over the Wisconsin branch of the Universal Theatrical Enterprises chain of theatres, and that the concern will assume ownership at 12 o'clock midnight tonight and will start operating these theatres Sunday.
Theatres included are the Sheboygan theatre, which was erected at a cost of $600,000 and which was opened to the public in 1928; Venetian theatre at Racine, Kenosha theatre at Kenosha, and all the Universal theatres in Milwaukee except the Alhambra. Among the Milwaukee theatres are the Lake, State, Downer, Juneau, Nation and Kosciuszko.
The deal, which has been in the course of consummation during the past week, involves millions of dollars in theatre values.
Manager K. G. Wood of the Sheboygan theatre today would not make official comment as to the completion of negotiations, but admitted that he was notified late Friday to take a complete inventory of his theatre, and to check meters at the close of business tonight.
The Sheboygan theatre is one of the most up to date in the state chain. It is equipped with the latest Western electric sound equipment, with new changes and installations made from time to time as improvements are made in the sound facilities. The theatre in Spanish atmospheric design has a seating capacity of 1,600.

TLSLOEWS on September 15, 2010 at 8:50 pm

What a great Name for a theatre.

Ret. AKC (NAC) CCC Bob Jensen, Manteno, Illinois
Ret. AKC (NAC) CCC Bob Jensen, Manteno, Illinois on August 2, 2013 at 10:59 am

That Weickhardt Pipe Organ that was in the theatre when it was first open was made by the Wangerin-Weickhardt Organ Company, 112-124 South Burrell Street, Milwaukee, just 8 miles South from the theatre. They had another factory Southeast around the corner .2 miles, at 117-121 South Austin Street and by World War II had a factory less than 2 miles North at 2330 South Burrell Street. Founded in 1895, they made over 1,000 mostly church organs. During the theater organ boom in the 1920’s the Barton Organ Company of Oshkosh, Wisconsin could not keep up with production demand. This factory stepped in to assist Barton and provided space as a second manufacturing facility during the years. They made wood parts for aeroplanes during World War I and in World War II made things of wood that had been made of metal so metal could be used for defense. Does anyone know what happened to the Weickhardt organ?

The Wondering WurliTizer

A Mighty Wurlitizer Theater Pipe Organ, Opus 1630, 2/7, manual/ranks, keyboards/sets of pipes, was shipped 640 miles from the WurliTizer factory in North Tonawanda, New York, on May 2, 1927. It had a curved console, 511 pipes, 18 notes cathedral chimes, 37 notes xylophone, 30 notes glockenspiel, 49 notes chrysoglott, bass drum, kettle drum, cymbal, crash cymbal, snare drum, tambourine castanets, Chinese block, tom tom, sleigh bells, triangle, horse hoofs, surf, bird, siren, auto horn, fire gong, steamboat whistle, machine gun and door bell.

It was later sold and shipped 307 miles to a Lutheran church in Iona, Michigan.

In June, 1972 it was sold and shipped 242 miles to the Windsor Theater Organ Club in Niagara Falls, Ontario, Canada.

This last location is 14 miles from North Tonawanda, New York, the location where the WurliTizer was born!

Anyone know what’s happened to the organ in the last 41 years since June of 1972?

Trolleyguy on April 8, 2016 at 10:25 am

Updated website link:

dallasmovietheaters on January 26, 2017 at 9:27 pm

October 17, 1937 re-launch as a streamlined deco house in photos.

italianthorganist on September 16, 2019 at 8:43 am

Now the WurliTzer organ (style E opus 1630) is the first and only theatre organ ever sent to Italy. It is in an organ builder’s office in Modena and is in perfect conditions. I’ve played it at the end of August this year and is in great shape. it uses the original motor and blower. The console pneupatics are still the originals and there are the original relays that are not connected yet. It uses an optical fiber system built in the 90s just for it that can play, record and store combinations and pieces. On youtube, searching wurlitzer opus 1630, there is a video of it.

italianthorganist on January 10, 2021 at 6:31 pm

Update on the WurliTzer: now it’s installed in a private home in northern Italy and it still is the only theatre organ in all of Italy.

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