N.W. Side Men Plan Gala Day – August 27th, 1927
Northwest Side business professional and real estate men are taking a lively interest in the announcement that Saxe's Uptown Theater, destined to be one of the most popular communities theatres in the country, will open early in September this week by Thomas Saxe, president of Saxe Amusement Enterprises. The Uptown, located on North and Lisbon at Forth-ninth Street, is ultra modern in both design, equipment and the type of entertainment that will be featured there. Designed by Rapp and Rapp of Chicago, world’s most famous theatre architects, it is Italian renaissance in motif and semi-atmospherical in its interior colorings and decorative effects. The Uptown will seat 2,000 in the comfortable auditorium and palatial mezzanine and will fill a long need in its particular vicinity with embraces of all on northwestern Milwaukee and Wauwatosa. Business men in these neighborhoods are so enthused over the Uptown and what it will mean to the true citifying of the district that they plan a gala celebration at the time of opening. Mr. Saxe states that complete details regarding the definite date, type of entertainment to be offered and other exciting details will be announced next week.” Wisconsin News, Saturday, August 27th, 1927.
The Uptown, 2323 N. 49th Street, was one of a series of six movie palaces that the Saxe brothers, Tom and John Saxe built in Milwaukee the late 1920s. (The only one left is the Oriental Theatre) The design of the Uptown Theatre was Hollywood’s idea of a Roman villa. The triple windows in the front of the theatre had beautiful drapes visible from the outside hung in a display above the ticket lobby. The backlit marquee had 18-inch UPTOWN letters on the front & sides that lit up red at night.
Like most theatres, the architects used a mixed style with the lobby having a very different look than the auditorium. Immediately inside the front entrance, there was a three-sheet ornamental cast iron lobby box for posters on each side. The large posters came in sections put together to make one large poster – 40 x 80 inches. The lobby was long and narrow – art deco. As you might have guessed from the photo of the front of the theater, the lobby was over two stories high with a vaulted ceiling and huge frosted glass art deco chandeliers. The center of the lobby had an eight-sided fountain. A boy with an umbrella spouted water in the middle. The walls of the fountain were covered with blue glazed ceramic tiles. The tiles were also used to outline the walls. The foyer had a 15-foot-long candy and soda counter.
The side walls of the auditorium each had three faux balconies. Each has four columns running from the “balcony” to the ceiling. Each was over 25 feet high, 10 feet wide and six feet deep. The back of each “balcony” was covered with a canvass painting of an Italian landscape. The canvas was lighted from the inside base of the “balcony.” The “balconies” beyond serving as decoration served to control sound reverberations. The canvas being soft holds the sound wave preventing sound from bouncing off the side wall hitting the sound coming from the front. The tops of the columns met a cornice that corresponded to the bottom of the “balcony.” The cornice had three lights (red, blue, yellow) that went on with the house lights. At each side of the very front of the auditorium, a similar faux balcony had the organ pipes behind a panel with a screen. The theater had a 3/10 (three-manual, ten-rank) Barton theatre pipe organ – not exactly top of the line of theatre pipe organs. The console was ivory with gilt rococo mountings. In front of the organ screens hung art deco chandeliers with frosted glass sheaths with a bottom bowl of crystal strands to match the lobby. They were later removed when new air conditioning came in. The additional airflow caused the chandeliers to rattle – not good. They ended up hanging in a farmer’s barn. The original photos lack the detail in the ceiling around the dome. It originally was stenciled with a design of flowers and birds in hues of blues and browns. Later, the stenciling was painted over. The large rectangular dome covered most of the ceiling. All around the perimeter of the dome in a cove the house lights were placed. They were the main source of lighting for the auditorium. To get to the dome lights, you had to go up to the projection booth. From there you went to the air handler room, which also had the motor generators. The motor generator converted AC to DC current used for the two projectors and travel spotlight – 50V, 100 amp. Next you went up a short flight of stairs. At the top was a door leading to the catwalks above the ceiling of the auditorium. Catwalks from hell are a good description – no safety here. They were made of two parallel 2x12s hung on rods from the roof (about fifteen feet above). They had a 2x4 about a foot off of the planks for a railing. The catwalks ran down each side of the dome going all the way to the stage. To change a dome light you had to reach over the edge, and remove the colored lens. It was a slow process as the next step down was through the ceiling straight down. You always took along some extra lens in case you dropped one. The house lights were controlled from the projection booth.
If you look at the front of the stage, the Uptown had a large orchestra pit. At the opening of a movie, it would have been full. The orchestra and pipe organ would have played a score to go with the movie. Silent movies were anything but silent. The main front drapes corresponded to the front of the proscenium arch. Behind the main drapes there was a good-sized stage perfect for live performance. The stage had trap doors and a counterweight system to lift sets and lights for stage shows. The screen was at the back of the stage. A second curtain was used to cover the screen during shows.
The small screen (television) was originally laughed at by the film industry. It took its toll with audiences dropping. United Artists tried just about everything to keep it going. A live performance was to become part of the Uptown’ legacy. Bruce Springsteen’s 1975 show at the Uptown Theater still is talked about. He was just starting to hit national attention. "I'm not sure whether it's a tribute to the audience or Springsteen, but during that song ('Thunder Road,' with Springsteen on piano) there was perfect silence. Springsteen reached the audience like no other performer here has." (Milwaukee Sentinel, Oct 3, 1975) Forty-five minutes after the show started, some one called claiming that a bomb had been planted at the Uptown leading to a rather quick evacuation. The search turned up zip in explosives with the show finishing.
When the Uptown closed in 1980, the theatre was in pretty good shape. A maintenance man opened the cold water feed to the red-hot boiler (which had gone dry). The resulting steam explosion blew the boiler flooding the theater up to the fourth row of seats. United Artists gave up on the building. With no heat and a leaky roof much of the plaster from the dome dropped onto the chairs.
Editors note: Grateful acknowledge is given to Jim Rankin, theatre historian, who greatly impacted this article. I’ve checked with a number of other people who were involved with the Uptown. Paul Dorbialski was a projectionist at the Uptown. The projectionist union was one of the hardest to get into – very strong union. Running a projection booth required lots of skill. But that’s another story. Another source of information was Paul Finger. Paul had the salvage contract just the Uptown came down. Paul had to rent scaffolding to get the chandeliers down in the lobby. He helped us to save some of the equipment from the Uptown. Henry Weiland (Peters, Weiland & Company) is the reference for movie theatre organs. He does not like Barton organs (compared to Wurlitzer Theatre Organs).
We wanted to save a stage light at the front of the catwalks right above the stage. Only one little problem – the cat walk had dry rot half way down due to water damge. Paul held the flash light as I jumped onto the air condition duct - quite large hung on rods from the ceiling. We walked down about fifteen feet and jumped back. Coming back with the light under one arm was another story. I need a good clean hit – too much or too little and it was one long drop after going through the ceiling. I remember saying “bring me home God.” Off I flew back to the catwalks. Back to topics