510 W. Wisconsin Avenue,
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The name Strand was common to theatres ever since the famous archetype of the Strand Theatre opened on Broadway in New York City in 1914 with 3,000 seats as the first of the “super cinemas” according to the Collier’s Encyclopedia article “Motion Pictures”. It in turn, was named after the famous entertainment district along Strand street in London. To emulate the grand palatial features of the New York City prototype was not the aim of the Strand Theatre in Milwaukee, which opened later in 1914 for it was a double-level, flat roofed, commercial building done in buff and cream faince, ornamented in leaf and forest green terra ornament of cartouches above the theatre entrance and on the ends of the corner-of-the-block building, which also sported several stores and apartments. It was a respectable 2,000 seats but of a modest design, the space being originally intended as store fronts, but the owner noted the rapid rise in motion picture acceptance and hastily revised the plans by local architects Wolff and Ewens to include the cinema without a stage.
The original screen was a tiny rectangle without any stage or drapery around it, smack upon the north (back) wall with an orchestra pit sunk into the floor and a small Wangerin pipe organ speaking through small chambers on either side of the screen. The 30-foot-high ceiling allowed them to incorporate two boxes of seats on either side of the screen, but anyone who bought these more ‘exclusive’ and expensive seats in them must have never repeated the mistake, since the sight lines would have been atrocious! This was the Photoplay Parlor era of exhibition after all, so interior decor was scant being only shallow pilasters along the painted plaster wall, seeming to support box beams which crisscrossed the ceiling dividing it into white-painted squares, each centered with a pendant bowl fixture casting its light upward. The concrete floor supported the wooden seats and had a carpet strip running down the middle of the aisle.
In 1921 it was acquired by the local Saxe chain of theatres and they put in a single line ‘stage’ platform (no fly tower; the single draw drapery line was mounted to the ceiling) fronted by a shallow proscenium frame, some ornamental draperies and did other sprucing up of the simple auditorium including new light fixtures and wall coverings and carpets. The original lobby’s box bays with stud light rims were fitted with fixtures of more elaborate design and the mosaic tile floor was carpeted over as the potted palms were removed and new, elegant furniture took their place. The projection was improved and then sound movies came in 1930, after which the pit was floored over to allow more seating.
By 1947, the Strand had new owners and a new need to compete in a new era of exhibition, and they employed architectural firm Brooks Stevens Associates to modernise the building. Its fancy glazed tile front was removed in the area of the theatre entry along with the cast iron French curve and stained glass canopy and marquee. Two-foot-wide vertical aluminum strips were affixed to the brickwork and a new name sign and marquee in the new aluminum was installed by Milwaukee’s Pablocki Sign Co. which had specialized in remodeling the fronts of theatres throughout the Mid-West. The new canopy was merely that: a horizontal triangle cantilevered out over the sidewalk with the only lights being those in its fluorescent soffit to illuminate the sidewalk line where the new box office stood. That island structure was at first a standard six-sided affair, but less than ten years later it was remodeled into a sweeping streamlined design that was almost bullet-shaped, with a wainscot of curved, horizontal, polished stainless steel bands, with a wraparound curved glass enclosure above it. The ‘vertical’ sign was much different too, being a hybrid of the old attraction boards of a traditional marquee with the outward thrust of a double-sided sign, it being one of the first of Poblicki’s new, patented “Inside Service” marquees which were serviced from inside the sign via a door from the building hidden on the back edge of the sign.
Little was done to enhance the auditorium, with only a forestage platform being built to support the new wide-angle screen which wrapped across the proscenium and the old space of the boxes, which had been removed. Tracks for ornamental drapery were attached to the ceiling and added some glamour to the spare auditorium, but they did little to conceal the fact that the Strand was never designed as a movie palace as had been other theatres nearby. It was a first run house for many years, not withstanding its secondary architectural nature, and the lack of a balcony. It rose to perhaps its finest hour when it was the long-run home of “The Sound Of Music” in 1965-1967, but by 1978 it was closed to movies and only occasionally open for special events. In 1980, the entire block was cleared by the neighboring insurance company which itself was bought by another firm and the site was declared surplus, but it and the next block were later bought by the city to house the new Mid-West Airlines Convention Center, and thus the era of one of the city’s earliest “Super cinemas” came to an end.
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