2754 N.Teutonia Avenue,
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Every city of any size deserves a theatre commemorating its name, and Milwaukee has had at least two to carry that honor, the one being considered here being a creation of local architects Dick and Bauer in 1921. The Milwaukee Theatre was a 1,400-seater that opened at the beginning of a new era in movie exhibition, with the nickelodeons of the first decade of the twentieth century giving way to the first purpose-built cinemas of the second decade, the ‘photoplay parlors,’ as they were called. In about 1920, the tide turned to the advent of the movie palace, the acme that movie exhibition would achieve in theatre format. Some prominent developers of this new archetype were just 90 miles south in Chicago, where such nationally know architects as Rapp & Rapp had opened their monumental Chicago Theatre, and Tivoli Theatre with of thousands of seats, and had thus helped bring the movies to their “klieg-lit pinnacle”, as the theatre historian, the late Ben M. Hall put it in his landmark book: “The Best Remaining Seats: The Story of the Golden Age of the Movie Palace”.
Milwaukee architects Gustave Dick and Alex Bauer had the good fortune to start out in the early part of the century and thus to be at the ready when the whole mad construction boom of the ‘roaring Twenties’ got under way, which included thousands of theatres across the country. Mr. Dick was the senior of the partners and had started out in theatres with the LEXINGTON movie house in 1911, a 500-seater that would be no classic, but would show his talent for the genre in the years to come (a photo of the stage of which is on page 595 of Vol. 2 of the late David Junchen’s “Encyclopedia of the American Theatre Organ”). Mr. Bauer joined him around 1920 and first displayed his theatrical talents in designing the MILWAUKEE.
To be at the beginning of an era is to be in the right place at the right time, and dozens of architects around the country saw the opportunity to be released from the tedium of designing the same old office buildings, factories, stores and residences for limited budgets. They vied eagerly for the lucrative contracts that allowed them freedom of artistic expression in themed movie palaces. After 1920, theatres were being built to both show films and often elaborate stage performances, and in increasingly exotic decors of thousands of seats costing millions of dollars. Two theatres in Milwaukee would arise within a year as the harbingers of these things to come, and were thus in some ways ‘transitional theatres,’ the RIVIERA on the south side, and the MILWAUKEE on the north side. The location of the MILWAUKEE on Teutonia Ave. near 27th St. placed it in a then bustling German-Jewish neighborhood, with “Teutonia” meaning “land of the Germans” as the Roman armies, which invaded Germania, called those Teutonic lands.
The RIVIERA had the larger seating capacity with an early style of stadium style seating into a balcony, but for the MILWAUKEE the money was spread over the 85-foot by 221-foot plot which had the shape of a parallelogram, hence no corner was a right angle, meaning a greater challenge for the designers (this occasioned by Teutonia being a northwesterly diagonal street on Milwaukee’s grid plan of streets). The handsome building was basically Georgian or Adam in style with the 1100-seat theatre and three stores on the ground floor, eight offices with four waiting rooms on the second floor, and a bowling alley and barber shop in the basement. There must have been a goodly budget for the building because it was of brown brick with good limestone trim, copper cornices, and terrazzo floors, with marble bases in the theatre. The westerly-facing front had a stone cornice on the flat roofline with a centered pediment, the tympanum of which featured cast stone reliefs of an escutcheon flanked by festoons and fleurons. This was supported by six Corinthian pilasters resting upon a mock balustrade of stone pedestals and panels adorned with festoons and bosses. The 13 multi-paned casement windows on this story illuminated the offices and each window had a semicircular stone window cap with keystone. The full movie palace marquee was not here yet, so only a classic canopy projected from below the stone string course at the level of the second floor, suspended by four ornamental chains. It was of copper with traditional glass scallops backed by eighty light bulbs. Two Ionic columns divided the three archways below the canopy and two large ornate lanterns illuminated the open vestibule in which the tile and copper island ticket booth was centered. A forty foot deep lobby sloped up to meet the Auditorium entrance, and was divided into four bays by means of pilasters and box beams with ornate poster frames centering each side wall panel. Each panel had a mosaic tile wainscot above the marble base and below the framed plaster wall panel. A radiator provided the heat here, but it was forced air in the auditorium. Lobby illumination was by means of fixtures centered in each bay, with ornate lanterns flanking the poster frames.
The auditorium was a rectangle having a gently sloped concrete floor with plaster base and wainscot molded to form the pedestals of the eight Corinthian pilasters which divided the plaster walls into panels that had plaster molds forming frames around the fabric panels. Large ventilator grilles of brass at top and bottom of each panel allowed for the introduction and exhaust of air from the fan room in the basement. Because of the bowling alley in the basement running the length of the auditorium and lobby, there was no plenum for under seat ventilators (often termed ‘mushroom vents’), and all air had to come from attic ducts down to the grilles. The center panel featured another ornate frame within the outer frame and it was topped with a half-round finialed urn and festoons. The back wall was more of these frames with a large, ornate plaster surround for the four entry doors and their transoms also developed as were the doors with glass multi-panes in brass work.
One might think the stage wall would be very ornate, but it was a modest square with the 27-foot-wide stage running from almost floor to ceiling. It was framed in three gilded molds of a water leaf design on the narrow inner and outer molds, but a wider acanthus mold swept from the proscenium wall inward to the intrados of the arch, there being no cove lights here. The arch was flanked by six pilasters dividing the walls flanking the stage into four panels filled with ornate plaster grilles and two arched exit doorways. The grilles were for the 2-manual, 9-rank Wurlitzer/Barton composite theatre pipe organ’s pipe chambers to speak through. The brass orchestra pit railing no doubt added some richness to the room, but nothing is known of the draperies on the stage, or of the color scheme.
The auditorium ceiling was actually a shallow dome, but made up of four flat planes, one from each wall, that met about four feet into the room, and there met to form the flat ceiling plane. This flat center plane or field was relieved by means of moldings, the outer one at the meeting line being a large bead-and-reel. Inward of it was a complex Greek key with ornaments centered in the center of each key. The corners had graceful scroll designs pointing to the center with a string of husk flowers. At center was the only dome, a quadruple level dome of simulated Wedgwood designs. This dome suspended from its center a 6000-watt chandelier. In the four corners of the surrounding field where the scrolls were, there were 1000-watt fixtures with 100-watt emergency circuits within them. The four perimeter planes that sloped down from the center plane or field, were mitered to meet an their corners, but in the center of each plane were other graceful scroll ornaments, addorned and having more husk flowers forming strings along their center lines. Finally, the ‘sounding board’ part of the ceiling in front of the stage was divided into seven panels by means of painted lines, and five of them were centered with 100-watt fixtures. Surrounding the entire ceiling at the top of the wall was a continuous light cove in three colors: white in 150 bulbs, red in 36 and blue in 40, thus having 76 colored bulbs hidden there along with the 150 in white. These could, of course, be dimmed in any combination to create novel color effects. No doubt these along with the ceiling fixtures illuminated the slopes of the ceiling and its ornaments quite nicely. Oddly enough, the blueprints do not indicate any wall fixtures. No doubt there were aisle lights for the seats (then required by the 1912 Fire Code), but there is no indication of them either. The footlights on the stage were also in the three colors, as were no doubt the back stage lights.
The stage was fully rigged, but at only about 15-feet deep, it was not designed for much more than movies. Several dressing rooms were provided for any use of the stage along with rooms for the musicians, who probably only saw a decade of employment there until the theatre would have been wired for sound movies around 1930.
As the years passed, there was a succession of owners who gave the MILWAUKEE a succession of new names: CAPITOL, RITZ, NATIONAL, and APOLLO, the name with which it ended its days of activity in 1975. The move going experience had changed with the coming of television, and the north side of the city changed even faster with rapid White Flight to the suburbs and beyond, especially as the racial riots of the late 60s damaged large portions of that part of town. The name of the street, Teutonia, was hardly appropriate anymore, as the area became by then 98% African-American. By the summer of 1983, the city had to demolish the vacant and vandalized building as a public safety measure, and the land remains idle to this day.
The eponymous honor of carrying the city’s name would be revived in 2003, when the city’s Milwaukee Auditorium Board, a quasi-independent government agency, completed remolding that 1909 building into a 4,500-seat theatre of the most modern features, and christened it: The [new] MILWAUKEE THEATRE. No one may now recall the Milwaukee of 1921, nor its then namesake theatre, but these words will at least be a reminder of the gracefulness of an earlier day when Milwaukeeans could enjoy a quietly ornate theatre at the dawning of a new era.
(by James H. (Jim) Rankin, February, 2004)
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