Astor Theater
Astor Theater History
Memories of Attending the Astor
Architectural Restoration
Times Theater Changing Hands
Area Theaters
Silver Screens
Milwaukee's Theaters
Historical Theater Photos
Restoration
Books

Theater History
Training of Ushers

The History of the Astor Theater by James Searles

Original Photo-Play Theater Format Predated Movies

There are a number of theaters in the world named Astor, but whether they all hearken to the namesake of John Jacob Astor, as does the one in Milwaukee, is unknown. It is known that this neighborhood Vaudeville and “photo-play” theater was named for the side street on which it is fronted, and that the street itself was named in 1835 after the famous international furrier of the 19th century. 
        The Astor Theater opened its doors the night of Saturday, January 30, 1915, with a showing of “The Pit in Five Acts” plus a Keystone comedy, both silent movies, and likely some live, small stage performances. The opening was featured in the newspaper Evening Wisconsin, which emphasized the theater’s good ventilation and that it even had a ladies room! Tickets were ten cents. Children paid just five cents. “Stop to see a Charlie Chan, Tom Mix or a Blondie movie.” This was a true neighborhood theater, with live Vaudeville acts and silent movies, called “photo plays.”
        When local architect Hugo V. Miller was asked in 1910 to devise a theater for the Astor Street site (the only theater he ever did), he did not envision a movie palace, because that format would not occur for many years in Milwaukee. But he did make a progressive arrangement of the “photo-play parlor” of some 950 seats in a single-level auditorium, of a typical box-beams-and-pilasters décor. He arranged for better ventilation than that found in many smaller theaters of the era (air conditioning was still far in the future). A relatively large stage allowed for greater neighborhood Vaudeville acts than did other venues. Miller designed a substantial building of brown brick, but also appreciated the need for a handsome façade to lure the nighttime crowds, and so studded the three bays of the front with staff ornaments and light bulbs including the parapet featuring a center panel reading THE ASTOR, flanked by panels reading VAUDEVILLE and PHOTO-PLAYS. The lot was deep enough to allow Miller to recess the island box office from the sidewalk line, into a tiled vestibule, the ceiling of which was blanketed in incandescent bulbs to give the entry a welcoming glow. The final cost of the building was $50,000, a fortune at that time.

Theaters Were a Vital Part of Neighborhood Life

        Sally grew up on Lyon and Jackson until her parents opened a grocery store at the corner of Astor and Land Place. She started working at the Astor Theater selling popcorn. She did a great job and was promoted to the ticket office. She also worked at the Jackson Theater and the Ogden Theater. Both of those theaters eventually were torn down to make room for a freeway that was never completed.
        Another former resident of the neighborhood told Jim Searles that she used to dance at the Astor Theater as a young girl: “Don’t ask my age!” Phyllis said that sometimes, they would stop the picture just as Tom Mix was jumping off a cliff. The lights would come on. Around went the ushers to take up a collection for the Red Cross. “Of course, we, as kids, did not have much money. We were lucky to get eleven cents to go to the movies.” Double-feature shows were a real treat. After a first run downtown, one of the next stops was the Astor. At the theater, the game of kids versus ushers never ended. Joe, a friend of Phyllis, bought a ticket and ran back to the fire door. In bolted his buddies. Quick, hide under a coat – the usher is after us! Phyllis once went to the front ticket window and told the ticket-taker that she had to go inside to look for her little brother, who was very sick. Amazing – she sat through TWO entire shows and never found her little brother!
        In the theater’s heyday, it had an “A” and a “B” movie, a news reel and cartoons. In the very beginning, three to five live acts of Vaudeville were intermixed with the films, which weren’t of the best quality. The Vaudeville acts were bigger draws than the movies. But by the 1920s, that changed, with audiences demanding more realism in films.
        Some nights, the stub of a lucky theater-goer was drawn and a bag of groceries awarded to the winner. Other nights were “dish nights,” when everyone in attendance got a dish. If you didn’t bring the dish home, you really heard it from Mom. If a dish was dropped and broke on the floor during a movie, everyone applauded. These Depression-era dishes now are quite valuable and prized by collectors.

From Live Performances to Films to Film Renter

        John Radke was the original owner of the Astor Theater. He later sold out to Jack Silliman’s Milwaukee Theatre Circuit. In 1927, Silliman had double-level box seats added to the splays flanking the stage at the Astor, and put damask panels between the pilasters of the auditorium. A portal drapery set was placed on the stage and light bulbs within plaster rosettes now graced the intrados of the proscenium arch. There was no practical way to turn the space designed primarily for live theater into a movie palace, but the Milwaukee Theatre Circuit did what it could to freshen the old show house into a suitable environment for showing films.
        Times changed. Old was out. The decade of the 1930s saw the end of Vaudeville. Live acts, with costumes and live orchestras, had become too expensive. Come 1939, new Astor owner Harry Perlewitz had local architect Myles Belongia completely redo the Astor façade into an Art Deco-Streamlined style so popular at that time. On the first story he placed horizontal bands of architectural porcelain steel panels divided horizontally by stainless steel strips, this echoing the new canopy without attraction boards that wrapped completely around the building from its Astor St. facade to its side facade on the arterial of Brady St. It was still the Astor, as the skeleton neon letters on the outward curve of the corner of the canopy made clear, but it was an entirely new look. Just what changes were made to the interior are not known, but no doubt they included a new, much larger screen with removal of all the old Vaudeville appointments, and new, better projection equipment, with no more band in the “orchestra” pit, since by then all films were in sound, unlike the silent films with which the place opened.
        In the middle of the 20th century, neighborhood theaters everywhere met their demise due to a strange box popping up in living rooms throughout the country, captivating the masses. The Astor struggled along with many others after the advent of TV in the 1940s and consequent loss of audience, until 1952, when the Astor Theater showed its last movie. The building then sat idle for a few years, when it was transformed into Roa’s Films, a renter and producer of 16mm films to schools, institutions and some citizens. This ironic transformation from a shower of film to a renter of them resulted in the gutting of the theater, and the installation of a second floor, which contained residences for Frank Birch and his wife, Roa, the proprietors. They made only minor alterations to the exterior, such as replacing the name of the theater with their name in the same Art Deco-type neon letters, and adding new windows for the upstairs apartments. The company prospered and in 1959, began producing its own filmstrips for distribution in the Catholic religious education market. Roa’s Films’ first production was “The Good News of Christ.”
        In 1963, Roa’s Films purchased the lot to the south of the building and built an addition to allow for more storage. The Milwaukee Journal company bought Roa’s Films in 1970 and soon moved the operation away from Astor Street. In 1979, the building hit hard times and was boarded up. Brady Street, too, had hit hard times.

Hard Work Brings New Life to a Classic

        In 1983, Jim and Barb Searles found themselves looking for a new location for their pharmacy and coffee shop. The business had been housed for many years in the Knickerbocker Hotel, at 1028 E. Juneau. Jim and Barb stood up for the many elderly residents of the Knickerbocker when it was bought by Oliver Plunkett. Plunkett wanted to evict the renters and turn the building into condos. When the skirmish started, plenty of folks told Jim he was crazy. Plunkett had money and influence. One of Plunkett’s general partners was Bob Kasten. But Jim and Barb persisted. They made their point, but by then Plunkett had swindled millions and Jim and Barb had lost their lease. They looked in the same general neighborhood for a suitable spot to relocate their business. They found the boarded-up ROA Films building. The windows were smashed. The frames rotten. The roof leaked. The wiring was shot, AC rusted out and the plumbing useless. But, it was a place to move to. 
        Three different banks turned them down for a loan. At the Bank of Commerce, they were told: “You don’t understand. It’s over. Brady Street is finished.” At the fourth bank where Jim and Barb asked for help, the answer – finally – was “yes.” Jim recalls: “We were drowning. We got the loan not because we were smart, not because we deserved the loan, but because good friends called the bank and said they wanted it to happen. They felt that if Barb and I couldn’t help turn Brady Street around, nobody could.” So, in 1983, the Astor Theater became the Brady Street Pharmacy, joined nearly 20 years later by the Astor Street Performing Arts Center.
        This is where the building stands in 2007. Will the Astor Theater ever be restored? Watch for the next installment!
Grateful credit is given to Jim Rankin. The article that he wrote for me impacted & influenced this article. Back to topics


Astor Theater Memories

When I was a kid the Astor Theater was a big part of our entertainment. At that time, going to the movie was a big thing. You got to see a B movie and an A movie. The B movie was always shown first. It consisted of unknown actors and a nondescript story line. The A movie had well known actors and wonderful stories. There also were many musicals shown at the time. The Shirley Temple movies come to mind.
        One night a week they had what is called dish night. Each week you would receive a cup, a saucer a dish etc. Of course you would try to go back each week so you could complete each set of dishes.
        Matinee movies were shown on Saturday and Sunday. In addition to the movie you would see a serial story. Buck Rogers was one such story They were all "Cliff Hangers". He would always be left in a position were death was imminent. You had to go back the next week to see how he escaped that tragic fate. Money was scarce at that time so we would do anything to be able to see his next escape. Cashing in refund bottles was one way. Doing extra "chores" for people was another.
        Another night of the week was called "Amateur Night" They were always enjoyable, because many of the contestants were from the neighborhood. The winner would receive either a prize or money and would come back to compete again. – Josephine P. (DiSalvo) Scheid  Back to topics


Architectural Restoration and It’s Effect on Neighborhoods

 “Die Baukunst ist erstarrte Musik,” said Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. “Architecture is frozen music.” More than any other art form, architecture is “performed” publicly, constantly, and affects everyone who shares that space, either residents, customers, or people just passing through. Public architecture is also a great leveler – it can be enjoyed equally by young and old, rich and poor alike.
        Milwaukee has plenty of public spaces that were designed purely for function, where the chief objectives of design were for human comfort—air conditioning, ease and availability of parking, maximizing sales. They are called malls. Malls are comfortable. Malls are an efficient way to buy and sell. But malls are not beautiful from the outside, and nobody who passes by enjoys looking at them as such.
        The older commercial areas of Milwaukee were designed to be beautiful inside and out. The facades of the Victorian shopping districts were richly ornamented, elegant, and distinctive. They were made for outdoor pedestrians, as opposed to the malls, which have no use for outdoor pedestrians. You drive to the mall and then walk. Victorian commercial architecture was designed to beckon people in from the street.
        The precious few Victorian commercial districts left in Milwaukee need to be cultivated and encouraged so that we can learn from their beauty and wisdom. There are still a few left – National Ave., Kinnickirmic Ave., bits and pieces of 3rd St., and Brady St. Business owners who are inclined to risk some of their precious capital on beauty as well as function need to be encouraged and supported.
        Older buildings that are restored to their Victorian facades give pedestrians something beautiful to look at as they pass by and actually encourage foot traffic. It encourages neighbors to take walks and enjoy this unique public art. It makes streets safer. It encourages nearby homeowners who live in historic buildings to appreciate their own buildings and restore them rather than modernize them.
        The Fifties and Sixties and Seventies were brutal to Milwaukee's Victorian treasury of commercial and residential buildings. Many were mutilated beyond recognition in the interest of modernity. Many were lost altogether. But even in the “enlightened” Nineties, Victorian buildings are being covered over, sided with vinyl, their trim and decoration removed, their gorgeous complexity simplified.
        People who understand these things need to band together and encourage the emotional and financial risk-taking that is necessary for restoring the beauty and viability of the older neighborhoods. Beauty can co-exist with buildings that also function well for business, and the entire population will benefit. Public beauty inspires imagination, gives hope, and generates pride. These things build community. –Anonymous  Back to topics


Theater's new owner to add live music, beer, wine Posted: Jan. 2, 2007

Times Cinema Changing Hands by Tom Daykin tdaykin@journalsentinel.com

The Times Cinema, an art house theater in Milwaukee's Washington Heights area, will undergo major changes, including live music performances and an expanded concessions stand with wine and beer, the cinema's new owner said Tuesday.
        The Times, 5906 W. Vliet St., is being sold to Larry Widen, a freelance writer, film buff and former marketing director at Covenant Healthcare. Widen is buying the business from long-time owners Eric and Sue Levin, and he will employ Eric Levin as the cinema's general manager.
        Widen declined to say how much he's paying for the business, or for the 9,000-square-foot building. The real estate is being sold separately to Widen's brother-in-law, real estate broker David Glazer, who will eventually sell the building to Widen. Both the real estate sale and sale of the business are to be completed today.
        Widen said his entire investment, including the planned improvements, will total around $500,000.
        The Times, a single-screen theater known for showing independent films and the occasional classic movie, is "a real neighborhood gem," Widen said.
        But the business has been underused, he said. Widen said the planned improvements are designed to help showcase a wider variety of films, as well as live events, including three blues concerts already booked for this spring.
        "I think the audience is there," Widen said. "It's just a question of providing a variety so we can be more things to more people."
        The first project will be an expanded concession stand, including a pizza oven and coolers for wine and specialty beers, Widen said. He said the cinema has applied for a tavern license.
        Ald. Michael Murphy, whose district includes Washington Heights, said he supports the tavern license application, pending a meeting with nearby residents to get their views. Murphy said he doesn't anticipate any objections from the cinema's neighbors.
        The expanded concessions, especially wine and beer sales, will help boost the cinema's profit margins, Widen said.
        The tavern license also will make it possible to stage live music performances. Blues harmonica player Corky Siegel has been booked for an April 28 concert, with bluesmen Sam Lay and David "Honeyboy" Edwards set for separate shows in May and June, Widen said.
        Widen plans to install new seats with cup holders. The aisles will be wider, and some of the front rows will be removed to make room for easy chairs and sofas, he said. Those changes will reduce the cinema's seating capacity from around 440 to 350.
        Also, a digital video projector will be installed. That will allow the cinema to show documentaries, animated shorts and other limited-release items that film studios are making available only on DVDs, Widen said.
        Along with the videos and live performances, the Times also will be booking more classic films to complement its lineup of new independent releases, Widen said. He said a recent showing of "It's a Wonderful Life" drew a very strong audience.
        Eric Levin, who partnered with his mother to buy the Times in 1993, said it was difficult to accept "that loss of autonomy" that comes with selling the cinema. Before acquiring the Times, the Levins operated the Avalon Theatre, in Milwaukee's Bay View neighborhood, for seven years.
        But Levin also said selling the Times creates an opportunity to expand the business.
        "Larry does have access to the capital to make improvements," Levin said.
        Widen said his funds to buy and improve the cinema come from savings and investments. He is not borrowing any money for the project.
        Widen is a former longtime advertising and marketing executive. His positions included serving as marketing director at Covenant Healthcare from 1992 to 2002. He also is a freelance writer and author, whose books include the recently published "Silver Screens: A Pictorial History of Milwaukee's Movie Theaters."
        The building that houses the Times is being sold separately by Jay Hollis, who operates the Rosebud Cinema Drafthouse, at 6823 W. North Ave., in Wauwatosa. The Rosebud primarily shows first-run mainstream films, has sofa seating, and serves beer, wine and cocktails.
        Hollis decided in August to sell the building. Hollis made that announcement after failing in his legal effort to oust the Times Cinema in hopes of creating a new business in its place.
        Widen said he considers Hollis a "friendly competitor." Even though the Rosebud and Times are relatively near one another, the Rosebud's focus on mainstream films caters to a different audience than what the Times Cinema targets, Widen said.
        "There's room for both," said Hollis, who recently partnered with restaurant owner Michael Feker to open Il Mito Enoteca, an Italian eatery at 6913 W. North Ave. Back to topics


SILVER SCREENS

by Larry Widen and Judi Anderson

A Pictorial History of the Theaters of Milwaukee

Silver Screens traces the rich history of Milwaukee's movie theaters, from 1890s nickelodeons to the grand palaces of the Roaring Twenties to the shopping mall outlets of today. Authors Larry Widen and Judi Anderson explore the drive-ins, movie promotions, restoration efforts, and more. Illustrated with more than 100 fabulous photographs, many never before published. Larry Widen is the owner of Milwaukee's historic Times Cinema.

Paperback: $24.95, ISBN: 0-87020-368-1, 180 pages, 140 photos and illus., 8x9"
available at http://www.wisconsinhistory.org/whspress/books/book.asp?book_id=307

Wisconsin Historical Society Press Interviews Larry Widen

Wisconsin Historical Society Press: It seems no one did anything along these lines before you began your work in the 1980s. How did you come to "own" this part of Milwaukee's history?
Larry Widen: There were several small articles published about Milwaukee theaters in the 1960s and 1970s, but up until "Milwaukee Movie Palaces" in 1986, there was no single body of work devoted to the subject. I feel very fortunate that I became the one to compile this aspect of Milwaukee's history. My research actually began in 1979 when I discovered an article on the theaters in a magazine from the Milwaukee County Historical Society. I began making trips to the Society's library to look at the collection of photos. When I got out of college in 1982, I was a freelance writer and photographer (because quite honestly I didn't know what else to do with myself!). In between the paying jobs, I began photographing the facades of former theaters such as the Egyptian, Apollo, Lincoln and others. Once I built up a set of photos, I used the old city directories at the Public Library to create a list of names, addresses and dates of operation. That particular bit of research generated more questions than it answered, and the digging for information continued for the next several years. In 1985, the late Dr. Fred Olson, a history professor from UWM, looked at the body of work and said, "You know, you have enough for a book here." Dr. Olson helped bring the manuscript to the attention of the Historical Society's publishing committee.

WHS Press: You have no formal training as a historian. What are some pros and cons of being self-taught?
LW: Great question! The cons probably outweigh the pros, but there is some value to being self-taught. The writing part was easy because I've always been a writer and my degree is in Journalism. But very quickly I learned where all of Milwaukee's official historical repositories where and how to access them. Tax records were kept in one place, building permits in another, and so on. Along the way I was helped time and time again by librarians, clerks and other city and county employees. The one thing about history that can't be taught in a classroom is curiosity. If you're not interested by the subject, you won't be motivated to go digging for the answers. I happen to be fascinated by certain histories, and so the desire to learn wasn't an issue.

WHS Press: As a rule, history is rewritten about every ten years. How has this affected your theater research and the findings presented in the new book?
LW: What's amazing about "Silver Screens" is it was entirely generated from the 1986 "Milwaukee Movie Palaces." People who loved the first book contacted me with stories and photos that I would have never otherwise known about. The Saxe history is greatly amplified in "Silver Screens" because someone gave me a 100-page document containing a deposition taken from a longtime employee at the time the company was sold to Fox (1927). This testimony was highly detailed and filled in a lot of the mortar between the bricks. It also helped me correct some errors from the first book. I think the story of Milwaukee theaters is much more complete now.

WHS Press: What was the most interesting part about the process of creating this book?
LW: Working with [editor] Kate Thompson and watching the book take shape under her guidance. I'm a writer, not an editor, so I was grateful for her leadership. She's an excellent editor and a pleasure to work with (although there were times when I think I drove her crazy!). Believe me when I tell you that we wouldn't be holding "Silver Screens" in our hands without her keeping me on deadline! I hope she and I can do something else together in the future.

WHS Press: Describe the process of gathering the information for this book. What became relevant, and what was cut from the final version?
LW: Some of the material is derived from my earlier book, but much of it is new, as I related earlier. The book was constructed journalistically, mainly through interviews and subsequent confirmation of fact. Kate and I did a number of revisions to the text, streamlining text passages or in some cases reducing the level of detail, but this was primarily to get more photos in.

WHS Press: How were the images for Silver Screens selected?
LW: It was a collaborative process with [editor] Kate Thompson and her staff. Kate asked me to put forward a list of mandatory photos and a list of photos I'd be willing negotiate for. She was willing to work with me to slim down certain pieces of text in order to slip in another picture. That's where the collaborative part came in. I think the photos are a huge part of the story.

WHS Press: How is Milwaukee's theater history different from other cities?
LW: It's not, really. Movie theaters came to American cities at approximately that same time (1903-4). New York City was first, like always, and Chicago followed immediately afterwards. Then the nickel theaters spread like wildfire to Minneapolis, Milwaukee, Madison, Kansas City, Buffalo, etc. Everywhere. And it didn't take long for them to open in smaller towns across the nation. What's different about Milwaukee is the personalities. We had the Saxe Brothers, while Chicago had Balaban and Katz.

WHS Press: Is there an example from modern business that could be compared to the time when the first theaters appeared? Risks to investors, courage to try something new?
LW: I think so. The best example I can come up with is the Internet. It's part of our lives now, but in 1993 and 1994 who was visionary enough to see its potential? Many thought it was a silly fad that wouldn't last. Those who believed in it took their chances and invested in it. Some lost everything and others rode the wave to financial success.

WHS Press: Does this "pop culture" history resonate more with people as opposed to a "textbook" history?
LW: While both types of publications have an audience, I think the "pop" history appeals to a wider set of readers. I write for a magazine here in Milwaukee, and the editor paid me a great compliment recently. She said she always hated history until she began reading and publishing my stories. What she likes about them is the way I bring the subject to life and make it fun to read about (her words, not mine!). In the case of movie theaters, it's a very nostalgic subject, unlike, say, a Civil War textbook. The movies are a phenomenon of our culture, and we recall going to them with dates, family and friends. And as I indicated earlier, it's the fabulous photos in this book that really make it fun to read. Too many footnotes would make it tedious, and that's not the experience I want the reader to have.

WHS Press: What reaction do you get from people on the subject of old theaters and movies?
LW: It's very gratifying. Many people see me as a kind of "nostalgia merchant" who helps them relive their youth. I think a book like "Silver Screens" takes you away from the unpleasant headlines of the day and off into a different time. Everybody needs a little of that, especially these days.

WHS Press
: What other kinds of things do you write about?
LW: In addition to history pieces, I do a lot of writing for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. In the last year I've interviewed musicians B.B. King, Buddy Guy, Bonnie Raitt, Alice Cooper, Cheap Trick, Bob Weir (from the Grateful Dead), Gregg Allman, the guys from Lynyrd Skynyrd, and Joan Jett, to name a few. I've also interviewed actors Mickey Rooney and Jeff Daniels. I write a lot of "people" stories as well. I've published stories about being homeless, the life of an exotic dancer, living with AIDS, and riding with the police in the middle of the night. All my work is posted each month on my website, http://www.larrywiden.com. Take a look.  Back to topics


Saxe Service to Patrons Heavily Stressed

Training of Ushers Big Feature

Service to patrons, which is maintained at all Saxe Theaters, is one of the innovations in the state which makes a visit to a Saxe theater a truly delightful one.
        
The uniformed attendants of these theaters are thoroughly drilled in all the requirements of Saxe service before they are permitted to come into contact with patrons. This training calls for courtesy and polite attention, which must be extended in gentlemanly fashion to all patrons. It also prohibits the acceptance by employes of gratuities in any form. No attaché of a Saxe theater is permitted to speak to a patron except in a low tone of voice, reflecting refinement and culture. An usher, when addressed by a patron, must answer immediately in polite and concise fashion, giving the patron the information or assistance desired.
        As a patron enters the theater, the uniformed doorman is required to prefix the word “please” in asking for the ticket, must thank the patron in brief, courteous manner. The patron is then directed to one of the three aisles in the theater in a most polite manner, where a uniformed usher, carrying a small flashlight, guides the patron to his seat and offers the women patrons such courtesies as the best of etiquette would provide.

AID FOR CHILDREN
        If a patron stops in the lobby on leaving the theater to put on a wrap or coat, the ushers are instructed to assist and to open the door when a patron is entering or leaving the theater.           
        Children are given the same careful attention by these uniformed attaches that would be expected from their parents or a chaperone. This has inspired a feeling of confidence among the women in the cities in Wisconsin where Saxe has theaters, who feel perfectly at ease in sending their little ones to view Saxe performances.
        But to establish and maintain this service, which was first inaugurated at the Wisconsin theater in Milwaukee, is more of a task than the average person would imagine. At the Wisconsin, a daily school for ushers is conducted, attended by some of many of the best families who desire theatrical careers. Here they are taught the principles of courtesy and service to patrons which are among the basic thoughts in the entertainment world.

SENT TO SCHOOL
        Whenever a new theater is opened, the boys who are to be the attendants are carefully selected and then sent to the Wisconsin to the ushers’ school, where they are given a complete course under the direction of James Long and his assistants.           
        Ushers are graded each week as to deportment, politeness, neatness and other items which either make or cause the discharge of an usher. Any usher falling below 70 percent two weeks in succession is immediately replaced from the waiting list.
        Before a young man is permitted to join either staff or school of a Saxe theater, he is carefully investigated. He must come from a good family, possess a good education and show signs of having had good home training. The majority of the best showmen, leaders in the industry, started as ushers.           
        These are but a few of the reasons for the impression you receive of Saxe attaches upon attending one of the theaters. – Wisconsin News, 1927   Back to topics


A Pioneering Projectionist by Amy Rabideau Silvers

The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Mar 9, 2006

Even as women moved into factory jobs during World War II, it was still news when someone found a job where no woman had gone before.
        
In 1943, Jean Larson made headlines as the first woman projectionist in the Play Circle movie house at the University of Wisconsin Student Union in Madison.
        "Invader of a man's field, Jean M. Larson, 19 year old University of Wisconsin sophomore, operates the movie projection machine," read a caption under a photograph of Larson at work. "Theater managers doubt whether there are more than two other women projectionists in the country."
        Working with film became her life's work.
        "I've been in this AV business since the beginning," Larson said years later. "During World War II, when they started taking the fellas to war, I worked backstage at the theater. I learned to run a 35mm projector. That was such an unusual thing for a woman to do."
        Larson died of natural causes March 3 in hospice care. She was 82 and a longtime resident at an Astor Hotel apartment. Larson had lived with multiple sclerosis for more than 30 years.
        Her love of film began early, as might be expected, in the dark of the local movie theater when she was a child in Plymouth.
        As a speech and drama major at the University of Wisconsin, she began helping backstage at theatrical performances at the Union. The theater manager, tired of losing his projectionists to the military, suggested that Larson take the three-month training course.
        After graduation, she went to New York City, working for an airline in reservations and dispatching. But that, too, was considered a man's field, and she returned to Milwaukee.
        Larson got a job with Photoart Visual Services, a camera shop and film rental library owned by a woman named Roa Birch. By 1953, Birch decided to concentrate on film rentals, making Larson vice president for Roas Films.
        "It's like Roa used to say, I guess I have film in the blood," she later said of her old boss.
        The business became one of the largest film rental companies in the nation and specialized in mail-order rentals.
        In 1970, the Journal Company purchased Roas Films, then the first division in an educational subsidiary. Roas Films was sold in 1986, and Larson decided to retire.  Back to topics


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