2893 S. Delaware Avenue,
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Milwaukee’s Lake/Bay Theatre came by its name honestly, being but three blocks from the third largest lake in the world: Lake Michigan, which not everyone outside of the area realizes that one cannot see across, as one would a traditional lake. And because the theatre was in the suburb of Bay View (its own village from the 1860’s until 1897 when it was annexed) it also came by its first name: Lake Theatre quite naturally. It was a neighborhood movie palace by noted Milwaukee theatre architects Urban Peacock and Armin Frank, who also graced the city with such notables as the Egyptian Theater and the Venetian Theatre, and Mr. Peacock did well with the smaller budget for the Paradise Theatre in the suburb of West Allis. They also adorned other cities with such as the Paramount Theatre in Waterloo, and the Capitol/Paramont Theatre in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, this last with a rusticated proscenium clearly inspired by the famous Roxy Theatre once in New York city.
The exterior of the theatre accommodated three store fronts below the apartments above, and still does so to this day. While the ‘Lake’, as its vertical sign read not long after opening, was not the fanciest of theatres, its main facade facing East toward the lake, was nicely rusticated in light brown brick, with its three-story-high portion above the marquee, nicely punctuated by three two-story-high lanceloate windows with handsome grilles of bronze in a British Union-jack pattern. Above these was a standard bronze cornice below the usual brick parapet. This was about as Classic Revival as the muted theme allowed. Four doors flanked the box office at the sidewalk line. The remainder of the 2-story commercial/residential building wrapped around the corner onto Rusk street and featured a mock mansard roofline of shingles, the actual roof of the entire structure being flat.
It may not have been the biggest budget the architects had to work with, but it was still a unique design in the faintly Classic Revival of the interior. Its seating was reported to be anywhere between 923 and 970, but it is certain that they were on two levels with 300 of them in the balcony. They faced a square proscenium arch that was flanked by two unique small stages where the organ screens would have been in most any other movie palace. Instead, the two small stages were really draped and illuminated alcoves upon platforms that were large enough to contain a baby grand piano along with some vocalists, if desired. Further making the place unusual in that day of gilt and glitter was the sober, imitation dark wood work of the trim, which mainly outlined the double, 15-foot-wide wall panels which were a damask fill on the inner fields, with a painted two-foot wide border around that. The top of each of these wall panels was unusual in being crowned by something that looked much like the valance box of curtains to become popular again in the 1940s. Each ‘box’ projected from the wall about 18 inches and contained behind its serpentine outline an array of light bulbs in the theatre’s three dimmable colors: red, blue and white. Separating each such wall panel was a 24-inch-wide panel that rose from the painted wainscot below all panels, to the top of the wall were each of these narrow panels stopped just below a simple pair of consoles appearing to support the ceiling box beam which spanned the room to the identical ornament on the other side. In the balcony there were suspended from between these consoles, a long-stemmed light fixture occupying each such inter-panel, designed to be almost flat to the wall. The balcony face was broken up by five smaller panels similar to the wall panels, but with no lights there. Triple, half-shade sconces occupied the bottoms of each wide wall panel of the auditorium at about 15 feet over the floor; the room would have been dim under the best of circumstances.
The seating was of curved wood backs with leather spring-cushioned seats, arranged in three banks which allowed for the two aisles in the room. The shallow lobby with two regular staircases to the balcony hardly deserves description, but it did have the distinction of a tiled floor. The theatre was renamed Bay Theatre in the early 1940’s. Movies occupied the Bay Theatre up until 1956 when both the advent of TV and the overpassing of the new jet liners approaching the airport three miles south of the theatre, made movie-going passe in that area. A sound studio, a youth club and other non-commercial tenants made small use of the place until 1972 when a local photographer bought the theatre for a commercial studio and boarded over the marquee with the words: ‘Mark Gubin Photography’. By 1986, he was looking for economy as he neared retirement, and so hired the father of local theatres historian, Larry Widen, to redesign the balcony area as his new home, as documented in the "Home Section" of the Milwaukee Journal of Sunday, July 20, 1986. With a few holes bored for windows into the North wall, and a garage built on the only tiny piece of the property left, it became a unique area sans seats but with partitions making up the eight rooms of his home (including the projection room becoming his new office), plus 12 of the balcony’s original seats on the original risers to form his own viewing room with a screen hung on the new wall built up from the balcony rim to the ceiling. He still does some photo sessions with the original lights of the stage serving new duty, and the seating of the main floor allowing larger scenics for larger photo shoots. This may be the way the former movie palace ends its days: as a retirement home which will be bequeathed as a most unusual inheritance to his survivors.
P.S. An oddity of the Bay Theatre’s history is that it almost became a movie house again in 1970. That was the year that Hank Landa, a teacher of engineering, with a minor in film studies, almost bought the Bay. He always wanted to create his own showcase for vintage films, and from his home only a few blocks from the theatre, he envisioned it as his new showcase. Unfortunately, he couldn’t buy the Bay, but that disappointment created the zeal to buy the vacant pharmacy on the corner, across Rusk Street from the Bay Theatre building, and demolish it to build his own tiny Gallery Cinema. For ten years he labored almost alone to build the single story, poured concrete, flat roofed building containing a viewing room with benches seating about 60 (depending upon the size of the derrieres occupying them), a projection room for both 35 and 16mm films, with a nice little lobby with framed movie posters and having glass block windows set into the textured concrete. It was an odd building, set in that 1870’s residential neighborhood, but from about 1980 to 1990 he showed many of Hollywood’s oldest and nicest for low ticket prices, with his own personal prologues prior to most showings, given standing in front of the screen which was on the wall of the stageless room. Thus, in one small way the Bay Theatre lived on vicariously as an inspiration to one of the smallest of small time –but big-hearted– exhibitors. The ‘marquee’ and its attraction board was just a simple freestanding billboard which had as its last word the fitting: “Rosebud”. Today the building is owned by others for other uses.
By James H. (Jim) Rankin, August, 2004
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