Varsity Theater

1326 W. Wisconsin Avenue,
Milwaukee, WI 53233

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Varsity Theatre, Milwaukee, WI

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Didn’t every city have a VARSITY theatre somewhere near a local college or university? It would seem so if one consults any major listing of theatres, and Milwaukee was no exception. In this case, it was notable enough to generate an entire article with photos in the magazine: “Architectural Record” of September 1938, Vol. 84 #3, pages 51-54, unusual for a theatre in those days. The article about the place is brief: “MILWAUKEE: THREE-WAY AIR CONDITIONING IN TRIPLE USE STRUCTURE — Grassold and Johnson, Architects — Complete Air Conditioning of the Varsity Theater Building in Milwaukee, Wis., makes windows unnecessary; thus the function of the vertical glass-block panels is simply to admit daylight. Housed in this windowless structure are 5 stores and a 1,400-seat theater on the ground floor, and offices on the 3 upper floors. Because of the diversity of uses for which the building was designed, the heating and air-conditioning systems are laid out on an individual basis, but distribution of conditioned air is from a central point on the second floor. Eight rows of coils are used in the theater’s system and a continuous 3-in. grille in the ceiling cornice below the light troughs [white neon-lit coves] acts as a means of distribution. The stores are heated and cooled by individual units installed in the basement. The office portion of the building is divided into four zones and is supplied with conditioned air from the equipment room on the second floor. The building is steel-framed, with concrete floors and special ceiling arrangement in the office portion to accommodate duct work and piping [referring to the first generation of suspended plaster ceilings holding ducts and conduits for offices]. Exterior is of granite base construction with stone and face brick veneer.”

It is, however, the seven photos and two floor plans that really tell the story: the glass block mentioned is not merely flat to the surface, but is canted outward slightly so that the continuous two planes of each second floor to near-roofline panel is joined vertically by means of a bronze ornamental ‘rib’ mould rising from a double-tier, semicircular balconnete at the base, up to a tiny finial above the crowning accolade done in a flat, peaked curvilinear design. Each balconnete had up-lights hidden inside, which delineated the facade at night. About four feet above this was the parapet having a would-be cornice made up of a row of half-bullet shaped billets spaced below the slightly extended coping tiles. All 12 bays of the southerly facing facade were above the granite first floor having five large show windows for the stores, with narrow cornices of stainless steel blind grillework above them. Similar bands of stainless were used to trim the rounded corners of the entrances to the building and stores, with like stainless accolade ornaments as surdoors. Above the island box office at the sidewalk line, was a typical Poblocki Sign Co. “Alumilighted” triple level marquee, with skeleton neon channel letters at top spelling VARSITY, three levels of recessed fluorescent back-lit attraction boards, and a soffit of a continuous grille supporting milk white plastic panels above which were more fluorescent lamps, there being no incandescent bulbs in this then oh-so-modern building. The marquee saw its letters changed from the inside via a hidden door from the second floor corridor of the office bldg., not from the outside as was traditional — and unpleasant and dangerous in the icy winters.

The box office vestibule was paneled in fluted stainless upon which were mounted the poster frames, and communicated with the Ticket Lobby via four plate glass doors in heavy, plain wooden frames, duplicating the similar sets of doors from this small lobby into the Inner Lobby, a 40-foot-deep ramp up to the balcony staircase and on to the Foyer which was behind the four aisles indicated on the rear auditorium wall to the right. The carpeting in this outer area was a maze of concentric circles adjoined in an Art Deco motif, with a stainless baseboard and chair rail framing a dark color wainscot, with a metalized plaster wall moving in curves above that which curves were mirrored in the curves of the ceiling soffit along the wall containing the white neon cove light and vaunted air conditioning grille line, the main mass of the ceiling being without fixtures or other interruption, in that it was entirely an expanse of metalized ribbing.

Turning right and going east through one of the four sets of auditorium doors, one came upon a large rectangular room with the same carpeting as the Foyer, but with 1,400 dark fabric seats outlined in aluminum coping with simple, illuminated double flute end standards of curved-edge metal. The vast, unornamented ceiling was divided side-to-side by means of blind seams into panels of satin surfaced plaster having only four, 4-foot-diameter glass bowl fixtures at the sides. The real lighting here was as in the Inner Lobby and Foyer: continuous white neon tubing hidden inside coves forming the inner edge of the dropped plaster soffits on either side of the room, with these reducing to curved ends as they butted with the splays of the walls near the stage. The walls were divided vertically by means of simple 6-inch stainless strips into ten-foot-wide panels of whitish plaster, adorned each with four, 3-D horizontal stainless stars spaced equally, above the dark wainscot to the ceiling. The balcony fascia was three such stainless panels running the length, with a similar pipe railing atop. The soffit under the balcony had a dozen small circular glass bowl lights mounted flush. The stage was about a 30-feet-wide rectangle , but only about ten deep, with only a few lines of rigging behind the motorized curtain: a simple, unornamented velour of a light color with a darker satin valance, and a matching satin stripe maybe a foot deep near the bottom. The VARSITY was never intended to be more than a cinema, as the simple projection room at the top of the balcony made clear, and therefore it had no pipe organ, or even dressing rooms for the stage. The room to stage right did not even have a door to the stage, but only an outside one on the back wall, apparently for lawn maintenance or the like. It was the stage left side that had the ante room, outside door, and a basement entry. A streamlined-moderne Ladies room was off the lobby, and a Gent’s was in the basement below the lobby.

The VARSITY had always been only a block or two away from some of the buildings of Marquette University, a Jesuit college from the 1880s, with some 11,000 students today. Like all urban schools, it has always sought to dominate and exclude from its ‘territory’ any buildings not in harmony with its idea of ‘campus’ ethos and security. To this end, they bought the building and after it was last open to the public in 1976, formalized this purchase by renaming the building Holthusen Hall in 1983, after wangling a bequest on the death bed of a woman who was a member of the Salvation Army religious organization, according to her admittedly Catholic Jesuit attorney in a lengthy write-up in the “Milwaukee Journal” of Sunday, February 3rd, 1985, page 1 (and page 8), part 1, titled: “MU woos, gets big bequest”. The 2.1 million dollar estate bequest was “unrestricted” according to a priest named Raynor, then president of the school. Another priest by the name of Biever, then a funds-raiser for the school, said that Raynor visited Violet Holthusen frequently at her nursing home death bed and declared: “‘It has come to Father Raynor’s attention that there was a couple [including her husband, Henry, shortly to be deceased before his wife] who were potential donors to the university.’ Biever recalled. ‘In university philanthropy, as in any philanthropy, you are always on the lookout for anyone who might be able to help your operation’”. While the widow Holthusen may not have entirely dreamed of leaving anything to the Catholic school (her first registered will left the bulk of her estate to relatives, the Optimists Club, the Humane Society, and the Salvation Army, which omissions in the subsequent will caused protests and probate), it may have been the saving grace for the former VARSITY, for it was thereafter renamed Holthusen Hall with the auditorium serving for student lectures, as well as a private films program over the years; the offices becoming school offices. The school promptly converted the small first floor stores into their school book store, but later covered the plate glass windows with slabs of pre-cast brown aggregate-faced concrete, later pierced with new narrow windows. Likewise, the classic glass block panels on the floors above were eventually removed and replaced with solar glass sheets in brown aluminum frames, now openable to the breeze. Of course, the marquee was shorn from the building, the scar of which was covered by a flat, milk glass-like frame with two rows of letters acting as the new age Announcement/Attraction board. The box office was removed, and a new line of aluminum doors in a silver color were placed at the sidewalk line. There is no decorative lighting anymore, but at least they have done little to modify the theatre, and so the VARSITY in its new incarnation is still with us to this day.

By James H. (Jim) Rankin, , June 2004

Contributed by Jim Rankin

Recent comments (view all 14 comments)

JimRankin
JimRankin on August 11, 2006 at 10:48 am

Since State St. is an East/West street, I am going to think that you meant East of 27th St., and therefore what you probably saw was the former STATE, once a 900-seater on one level from 1915 through 1955, according to Larry Widen’s “Milwaukee Movie Palaces” (to be reissued, enlarged, as “Silver Screens” next year). It is unusual that you recognized it since it never had a stagehouse, and inside, virtually no decor to speak of. It was designed by local man Frank Andree and once had a small Kimball pipe organ of unknown specs. It would have been on your right (the north side of the street) as you drove west. It is at 2616 W. State St. Feel free to add it if you like.

DavidHurlbutt
DavidHurlbutt on August 11, 2006 at 11:56 am

Re: THE STATE THEATER
In the 1920s' silent movie days Hildegarde Sell who went on to be THE INCOMPARABLE HILDEGARDE played the piano at the State. Hildegarde who was billed as the ultimate chanteuse had a popular national radio program THE RALIEGH ROOM in the 1940s and because of her affected mannerism was the butt of many jokes. She also wrote the best seller Over 50 So What?

JimRankin
JimRankin on August 12, 2006 at 8:49 am

Re: STATE THEATRE: Guess my memory is failing me, since I had completely forgotten that the STATE has been listed here at: /theaters/10874/

With DavidH’s permission, I will copy his Comment over there.

DavidHurlbutt
DavidHurlbutt on August 12, 2006 at 10:43 am

I was not aware that Milwaukee’s State Theatre had a listing. Please move Hildegarde and the State to the correct location.
On a hot summer afternoon in 1959 I looked out of a classroom window at Marquette University and saw a hundred or more nuns in full habit entering the Varsity Theater to see a preview of THE NUN’S STORY. The Nun’s Story opened the next week at the WARNER THEATER. I did see that beautiful film at the Warner. Seeing Audrey Hepburn canoe down the Congo on that giant screen in the comfortable Warner was wonderful. I stayed for a second viewing of the film.

kencmcintyre
kencmcintyre on November 30, 2008 at 6:28 pm

Is this the Varsity in Milwaukee? Photo is dated 1951.
http://tinyurl.com/5t7a2z

Joe Vogel
Joe Vogel on July 10, 2010 at 7:00 am

The photo ken mc linked to is not the Milwaukee Varsity. A photo of the Varsity was featured in an article in the signage industry trade journal Signs of the Times, issue of August, 2007. The article was about Poblocki & Sons, the Milwaukee-based company which provided the marquee for the theater. A pdf of the article is provided by the Poblocki Sign Company web site.

A few photos of other theaters for which Poblocki provided signage, including both old houses and new multiplexes, can be seen in the company’s Entertainment Portfolio.

mdmjcc2
mdmjcc2 on July 24, 2010 at 11:56 pm

Sorry to members to post to one member, but Joe Vogel – – I have subscribed to Boxoffice for twenty-five plus years. I cannot access there “The Vault” for the time frames prior to 1980’s. Do you have a way do do so?

Joe Vogel
Joe Vogel on July 30, 2010 at 12:55 am

mdmjcc: I was viewing the older back issues of Boxoffice on the web site issuu.com, but the magazine has removed its archive from that free site (and all the links to it I’ve posted here have gone dead.)

They are in the process of posting the archive to the vault on their own site, where it will be available only to subscribers. I don’t know how long it will take them to get the entire archive posted. I’m not a subscriber myself (its beyond the means of my very limited budget), so I haven’t been keeping track of their progress.

Mike Rogers
Mike Rogers on July 30, 2010 at 3:02 am

Why does everyone have to Charge to see archives.my local paper wants some crazy amount to see the old newspaper ads on our old theatres.I guess i could go to the Library for free and access,but what a pain everyone has to make a buck.History should be free.

Joe Vogel
Joe Vogel on February 17, 2012 at 2:12 pm

For anyone coming across my earlier comment, Boxoffice decided not to limit access to its archives to subscribers only after all. Anyone can see the scans of nearly 3000 back issues at The Vault.

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