Our Oriental Treasure by James H. Rankin – ©2002
Milwaukee has a number of distinctions that make it a nice place to live, but did you know that our ORIENTAL THEATRE was one among them?
It certainly is according to international theatres expert David Naylor writing in his book "Great American Movie Theatres" on page 178:
"The 2100-seat Oriental is about as fine a neighborhood theater as one could want." High praise indeed, but our ORIENTAL is of such a high caliber that it would serve well to grace the downtown of most any city.
That we are not provincial in accepting Mr. Naylor's opinion is confirmed by New York City theatres historian, Elliott Stein, who wrote: "And then what was for me THE revelation of the trip: the Oriental..." and "Dick and Bauer, architects, wherever you are, thank you." ("Film Comment," March/April, 1979, pg. 41).
And recently in the national newspaper "USA TODAY" they ran an illustrated story: "10 Great Places To See A Classic Cinema" (Travel section, Friday, Nov. 23, 2001) which featured our ORIENTAL among that select group across the nation, according to the mavens at www.CinemaTreasures.org. Local architects Gustave Dick and Alex Bauer are no longer among us to accept such praise, but in 1927 when the ORIENTAL opened they proved their artistry and even preceded it with several other theatres whose names some may recall: the COLONIAL, PLAZA, GARFIELD, MILWAUKEE, TOWER and the NATIONAL. The fact that not one of these structures still stands as a theatre should give us all the more appreciation for our wonderful ORIENTAL, among the last of our movie palace heritage.
Movie palaces were opulent theatres usually designed to a decorative theme, such as the East Indian decor in this case, in order to draw patrons from the dozens of competing movie houses that sprouted during the building craze of the 'Roaring Twenties.'
Milwaukee was blessed with more than the average of highest quality theaters such as the PABST, WARNER (last open in '95 as the GRAND Cinemas, now being eyed by the Milwaukee Symphony), EGYPTIAN, and, of course, the ORIENTAL. Such theatres, aside from the PABST, were built to showcase the craze of the silent films and each therefore had provision for a small orchestra to accompany the film as well as a special theater pipe organ for matinees and preludes. The extra large Kimball brand organ was removed from the former WARNER when that theater was divided in 1973 and later installed and greatly enlarged in the ORIENTAL (the much smaller Barton organ originally there had been sold many years ago.) The majestic, yet very sweet sounds of this three manual, 38-rank (voice) "one man orchestra" can still be heard there several times a year, courtesy of the Kimball Theater Organ Society.
Let us investigate some of these things and thereby increase our own appreciation. Movie palaces were designed to attract attention, of course, and certainly those floodlighted minarets of white glazed terra cotta with copper onion domes would spell fantasy and exotic adventure to any passerby. Unfortunately, the original bronze marquee and four-story-high vertical name sign have been removed and the marquee is now a standard 1940s fluorescent version with a simple neon name sign. Gone are the light bulb-filled miniature minarets, which topped the original with swirling colored lights.
The Gateway to this island of fantasy is appropriately signaled by the adorable little box office which is more Moorish in feeling than East Indian but the charming walkway formed by the ticket foyer is now introducing us to some of the elaborate stained glass light fixtures and stucco walls we will enjoy beyond those doors to the Grand Lobby. As the door is opened, we are greeted or should say overwhelmed by the lavish but gracious spectacle before us; a truly Grande lobby which many larger cities would wish for their downtowns, and we have it in a neighborhood! What do your eyes see first… the three eight-foot-high brass and bent glass chandeliers with their eight matching sconces blazing with light? If so, you will see some of the finest glass and metal work custom built by Milwaukee's Chas. Polacheck & Bros. Co. From the attic, manual winches lower these heavy fixtures.
Little children, however, seem to always first notice those eight, black glazed terra cotta lions forming the balustrade of the Grand Staircase. They are symbolic of the Buddhist guardians of the temple, according to the architects, and are actually formed of four carefully joined pieces. The blend of East Indian religious motifs is apparent in the Hindu as well as the Buddhist ornament, as the architects labored to eschew the frightful and bizarre elements of those designs of the Orient so foreign to Occidental eyes, as Alex Bauer made clear in his unusual newspaper prologue to the 1-1/2 million dollar theatre. Typical of the more acceptable motifs are the various miniature incarnations of Shiva and Vishnu in the little corner niches of the pedestals of the faux black marble pilasters. These and others in the theatre were modeled after the banded pillars of Kankali, Mathura, and Amaravati. The elephant-headed Ganesha is a benevolent deity to the Hindus, and so he is depicted here in silver leaf, obligingly acting as the bracket to support those mock teakwood beams. Originally, the now solid reddish brown bays between the beams had graceful arabesques painted in gold, but roof leaks over the years necessitated repainting.
A Mr. Thomas of Chicago who evidently felt more familiar with the view of the Dardanelles than the Ganges, but presented a lovely vista, nonetheless, painted the murals between the pilasters. Also significant to the oriental plaster ornamentation are the multifoil and horseshoe arches as well as the majolica tile panels of the elephants with howdahs upon their backs. The A.H, Bluel Co. is to be given credit for the superb plaster work, but as is often the case, no mention is made of the artisans responsible for all this fine work, which in this case was Milwaukee's own Anthony Spalthoff who subcontracted the casting of the ornament by Bluel's production crews based upon his models. Mr. Spalthoff designed the ornament for Dick & Bauer's remodeling of the 1895 PABST Theater in 1928, as well as many other projects before his death in 1933.
The lions may growl silently as we ascend the Grand Staircase to the Balcony Promenade, which is infinitely enhanced, by the six balconies that are framed in green damask draperies of a floral design. The astute observer will notice that the draperies in this area have been stripped of that little ornament which few people think of, but which one misses when it is gone: the tassel. The ORIENTAL originally had at least 60 of these special ornaments which were custom designed by the E.L. Mansure Co. of Chicago, and which are listed prominently (along with a photo of the ORIENTAL'S organ screen) in their 1928 catalog as No. TH-350. They were only $15 each then for one with a 3-1/2 inch diameter mold and an 18-inch overall length. If that company existed to replace those tassels at this time, they would charge the prevalent market price of about $300 each! They are made of rayon, not silk, which would be more expensive yet. Just one archway of these "simple" draperies would require over $5,000 to be replaced today, which shows why few theatres can afford to replace the textile decor.
In the auditorium the organ screens are still lush with their original draperies of "lambrequins of ruby silk plush" with green satin swags heavily fringed and surmounted by a padded gold satin Pendant, studded with glass jewels and hung with tassels. Three matching Pendants once hung against the elaborate Grand Drapery and the gold satin House Curtain behind it, long ago removed. This House Curtain can be seen in early photos where there are two peacocks appliquéd with tails in full spread. The exquisite stage draperies also featured two larger versions of those Pendants: No. TH-563 in the Mansure catalog and 88-inches long at $160 each at that time (approx. $4,000 each today). They were rayon satin hand tinted in four colors and studded with large glass jewels. The artistry thus lavished on such theatres is very rare today, with the cost of reproduction of the ORIENTAL at probably 60 to 70 million dollars!
No doubt one of the principal glories of any theatre is its decorative lighting, and that is certainly true of our theatre. Over a dozen lighting groups are hidden in the two ceiling coves, the arches, niches, and beams. These circuits are each in three colors that could be mixed by means of dimmers to produce a dazzling variety of color "moods." Unfortunately for our day, high energy and light bulb costs, as well as labor, make keeping all these hundreds of bulbs lit a daunting task. One of the causalities of this expense is the loss of the most unique lights to grace this theatre: the glowing green glass eyes of the baboon demons which encircle the lower ceiling cove with their feet upon the head of an elephant, and a lotus bud at the outer rim. These "ee-AHLees," as one man from India identified them, lend a certain eerie mystery when their eyes glow in the darkness; we can only hope that they will be reactivated in future to again fascinate the children of a generation new to the ORIENTAL.
Despite having a full stage and the largest Kimball pipe organ in a theatre, and despite having some of the finest refreshments in one of the few theme decorated refreshment stands in a theatre, the box office receipts were not enough to continue a single screen policy. A decade ago the owners of the theatre, the Pritchett brothers, agreed to have two mini-cinemas built under the balcony in a tasteful way, and it is in that form that we now find the ORIENTAL. The competition for patronage is fierce what with other screens about town and the presence of TV and videos, so it will largely remain for those who appreciate such architectural treasures to support such glorious venues, or they will not long be with us. But how can we doubt the future of so entrancing a house when this telegram was sent over the name of a famous actress:
"I have heard much about your new Oriental and know that it will be the last word in motion picture theatres. Best wishes on its opening. Greta Garbo."
James H. (Jim) Rankin has been interested in theatres ever since seeing "20.000 Leagues Under The Sea" at Milwaukee's RIVERSIDE theatre in the mid 50s, and this prompted him to team more about these opulent structures. He had the privilege of assisting in researching "Milwaukee Movie Palaces' and has been a member of the Theatre Historical Society of America since 1976. He has written for their "Marquee" magazine as well as descriptions for www.CinemaTreasures.org, and was the Archivist/Historian for the PABST Theater. He lives in West Allis.
SEEDS OF THE PABST
While the Pabst is not the oldest extant theatre in Milwaukee County (that honor belongs to the Ward Memorial Theatre of 1881 on the Veteran's grounds, the former federal enclave of Wood, Wis.), it is the fourth oldest continuously operating theatre on the same site in the United States, and that is one of the distinctions that led to it being designated a National Historic Landmark of the US in 1991. That site was at first a shipyard along the Milwaukee River and the eastern portion a black smith's shop, but when Swiss immigrant Jacob Nunnemacher and his sons sought a site for the first classy opera house in the city, it was here that they started construction in 1870. Ironically, these entertainment pioneers were in the same business as that of the Pabst brewery, libations.
For years this handsome Grand Opera House served the various ethnic groups in the city, but by 1890 the need for a larger site for the German's theatre led Frederick Pabst, late of a captaincy on the great lakes steamers and now head of the brewery bearing his name, to purchase the opera house and drastically remodel it upon the same footprint, and christen it Das Neue Deutsche Stadt Theater (or: The New German City Theater, as the main such theatre in a city would be called in his native Germany). The original Stadt Theater had stood where the parking lot for the Hyatt Regency hotel is now on Third Street. Originally, this new Stadt theater was to be of a revolutionary design by famous Chicago architects Adler and Sullivan, but apparently the tradition minded burghers of Milwaukee, who made up over sixty percent of the city's population at that time, were taken aback by such a nontraditional design and persuaded the Captain to hire a local man more familiar with local tastes. It was then given to Carl G. Hoffmann in conjunction with local panorama scenic painters such as Georg Peter to design and decorate in a Germanic flavor complete with the names of German notables of the arts painted in ornate frames upon the archivolt of the auditorium, a device later expanded in the Pabst to literati of other nations as well.
The Stadt may have continued as it was for years had it not been for an opportunity for remodeling presented when a fire started in the basement kitchen of the attached cafe and caused extensive smoke damage and the necessity of rebuilding the basement areas of the theater as well. With this need to close the theater for a time, the occasion was used to have Pabst brewery architect G. Otto Strack redesign the boxes in the auditorium to better the acoustics and sight lines, and thus this man got his first opportunity to put his mark upon this theater, even though his design for it had been rejected in 1890. The Stadt continued for two more years until finally a disastrous fire reduced all but its foundation and some of its walls to rubble in January of 1895. Preparations for a charity ball had been under way with streamers of tarlatan radiating from a chandelier of open flames, one of which ignited the streamers. Though valiantly fought in near zero temperatures, the multitude of fire companies could save only the four bays of the attached commercial and office building which was separated from the theatre by a brick firewall.
Vacationing in Europe at the time, the Captain when informed of the disaster, reportedly cabled:
"Rebuild at Once!" to his architect on staff, Otto Strack. Herr Strack was not ignorant of theater design after having studied in Germany and having seen many theatres there, and then he also took a quick tour of the foremost theatres in the US within months after the fire. Since he had to build on the same foundation of the Stadt, there was no opportunity to enlarge before the next theatre season would begin in the autumn. Instead, he concentrated on devising the most fire proof theater built up to that time, and one of the most comfortable and ornate since it would now bear his employer's name; PABST.
HER COMING-OUT PARTY
In a remarkably short span of eleven months the Grande Olde Lady was born as a new theater was designed and built with many innovations, such as the fact that the superstructure was of cast iron and concrete, the only wood in the building being the stage floor and the window frames. No sources of flame were allowed since this was to be our first all-electric theater. Even the traditional "fire curtain" built into most theaters to close off the stage from the audience in the event of fire and usually woven of asbestos over cotton cords, was here a unique fabrication designed to outlast most any fire. It was an iron frame 38 feet wide by 50 feet high having wire mesh on both faces with the space between them filled with firebricks. No fire was ever going to destroy this barrier as it had so many asbestos fire curtains in the past!
A very efficient stage with the newest technologies for the performers assured excellent productions, among these technologies being the first use in the city of a complete permanent steel counterweight system to fly scenery and draperies without the old "slots' for sliding scenery frames which had dominated stagecraft for nearly a century, as well as the first national use of an all electric lighting system, according to national theatres expert David Naylor writing in his "American Theatres; Performance Halls of the Nineteenth Century" page 120. Even the stage floor was in three sections that could be raised or lowered by remote control to affect some dazzling dynamics. In the spacious orchestra pit now resided at center position the console of probably the first electric pipe organ in a US theater, certainly the first to have its wind provided by an electric blower. The balcony and gallery were of semi-cantilevered construction thus almost eliminating the view-blocking columns common to theatres before this. The 1800 seats were on concrete floors with down flow air circulation through registers under them, probably among the first such in the nation.
The attention to luxurious decor and comfort was not absent in the rush to a fireproof theater, and the idea pioneered at the Stadt of having names of notables inscribed about the cornice of the drum shaped auditorium was enlarged upon in the Pabst to act as a visual tribute to the Stadt. The dominant ornament was the statue of Apollo some seven feet high flanked by the muses of Drama and Song upon the apex of the proscenium arch, all in gold leaf. Fourteen boxes flanked the stage allowing the local 'beer peerage,' as one wag put it, to dominate the evenings in regal splendor. To enhance that splendor and cause the ladies' diamonds to sparkle was the task of the innovation of unusual lighting. Since only dim carbon filament bulbs existed at the time, provision was made for over a thousand of them to adorn the balcony and gallery fascias, the dome, and other fixtures; but these would still provide only soft light that complemented the ladies' complexions. What was needed was brilliant lighting to sparkle diamonds and show off the hand wrought gold metal thread tiebacks upon the deep maroon velvet hangings and the richly tasseled gold house curtain on the stage, so eight carbon arc street lamps were installed above a 16-foot diameter circle cut in the theater's dome and below which was hung a "bowl" or "veil" of crystals to scatter the brilliant white light. Imagine the dazzling brilliance as the gorgeously coifed and gowned ladies with their gloved arms upon those of their men in evening dress and top hats promenaded into the auditorium and took their seats as the bright white light extinguished and the glowing quality of the little light bulbs remained until dimmed out themselves as the orchestra struck up the overture.
While the heating from the Pabst Brewery power house blocks away was sufficient to provide the physical warmth that the glittering decor already suggested, the real claim to comfort came in the summer when some 10 tons of ice was carried by the back stage electric elevator up to the attic and transferred by a small railroad across to the auditorium attic where it was placed before two 13-foot-diameter fans which sent delightful waves of cooled air down to the heretofore sweltering audience in the days before air conditioning. A bow must be made to Adler and Sullivan's Auditorium Theatre in Chicago for this idea, and that of the carbon arc auditorium lights from the 1882 Exposition Theater of Munich, Germany. Opening night was November 9, 1895 and the SRO event was the talk of the town as one carriage after another pulled up to the carriage lobby entrance under the tight bulb studded arcade supporting the canopy along the four story brick, limestone and granite facade. Gold leafed metal urns and a lyre surmounted the parapet with the terra cotta letters spelling out PABST THEATER to this day.
It was a grand program with dedicatory speeches and even a special "Pabst Theater Festival March" composed by orchestra conductor Christopher Bach and played for the occasion on the new 35-voice electro-pneumatic pipe organ by our architect cum organ engineer and entertainer, Otto Strack. A farce in four acts from the stages of Berlin that season was featured: "Zwei Wappen," (Two Coats of Arms), a 'Romeo and Juliet' retelling with an American cousin visiting a family in Germany. At intermission, the Captain and his family stood in their box and graciously accepted the applause of the appreciative audience. A happy crowd thronged the 'refectory' in the basement where the men enjoyed intermission with (what else?) Pabst beer, and after the show they retired with their ladies to the adjoining Pabst Theater Cafe where they further imbibed by toasting the future of so glittering a showpiece showplace.
The Pabst enjoyed many more seasons of German touring companies and also hosted the resident German theatre groups, interspersed with occasional English language occasions. With the outbreak of World War I, things changed drastically for the Pabst. No longer were German touring companies available, and in the Teutophobic days that ensued, anything German was discouraged. By the 1920s, most of the productions were in English and the theater saw many other uses as for political rallies, religious ceremonies, chataqua discourses and numerous concerts of the Chicago Symphony and countless other artists of the stage, so much so as to feature a complete roster of the American stage for the next fifty years. The advent of motion pictures and the decline in attendance at traditional theatre caused the Pabst to look tired by the mid-twenties, so local theatre architects Gustav Dick and Alex Bauer (who had just completed their work on our Oriental theatre) were engaged by the owner, the Pabst Brewery, to remodel the aging theatre into new vitality. Gone now were the boxes, the pipe organ, the stage elevators, the unique fire curtain, and the brilliant carbon arc lighting, which was replaced by an art glass 'disc' fixture which filled the original opening with standard tungsten filament bulbs behind the stained glass which was done in an art deco motif. The new color scheme was greens and gold, and the mechanical air washing and cooling machines of the day usurped the basement, the outmoded ice cooling having melted away. Gone too, by now, was the Captain himself and thus a new generation and a new era had begun.
The Great-Depression years followed with reduced patronage, but little change to the building, and the days of World War II saw many Gl's but little advancement aside from the 1928 movie palace-styled vertical sign of the theatre's name on the facade fading more. As the war ended, the brewery sought to divest itself of the theatre even as it had divested itself of other real estate acquired by its founder. It was decided in 1953, that a foundation would be formed of three local foundations to own and run the theater which was turned over to several promotional companies. During this time such names as Liberace, Louis Armstrong, Liza Minelli, Beverly Sills, Jack Benny, Rita Moreno, Billy Joel, and Dave Brubeck trod the stage in between various film showings from the projectors installed in the Twenties in a former trunks storage room. Follow spotlights were installed to follow these great names, but a new foe appeared on the scene to drain away the audience: television.
With an abundance of movie houses already competing in the city, it was thought pointless for a fine legitimate stage facility like the Pabst to continue with films, especially since such stages as the Davidson, the Garrick (Bijou), and the Academy of Music (Shubert) were now gone. By 1961, the city acquired the theater and then sublet it to the foundation to continue its previous mixed-use policy. The city spruced up the again aging interior with new draperies, asphalt tile flooring to replace the worn carpets and other minor efforts to forestall decay. Uninspired leadership caused the old lady to be used less and less, and there was talk of demolishing it for much need parking for City Hall across the street. By the end of the Sixties, however, the county's Performing Arts Center was beginning construction just two blocks north. Then mayor Henry Maier was envious of another government's progress in its new travertine marble hall, and dismayed at the loss of so many performance dates to the new PAC, so he and others knowing the potential of the Pabst sought to rescue it from its oblivion.
In 1967 the city sought local landmark designation for the Pabst, which it received. They then sought listing on the National Register of Historic Places from the federal government to document its significance to all (granted in 1972), and the awarding of that designation was the springboard for the accumulation of public and private funds to finance the 2-1/2 million dollar refurbishment which was never intended to be a real restoration. Nonetheless, by 1976 the often dark dowager of Wells St. was revived by a makeover that didn't restore the box seats, but did restore the red, maroon and gold color scheme, newer, brighter lighting, a complete regilding by the same artisans who had done the 1928 remodeling, Conrad Schmitt Studios, as well as new stage hardware, electronic lighting, a forestage elevator and a new pipe organ. The exterior was finally given the many repairs it needed, and the air-cooling of the 1920s was replaced with the freon air conditioning of the 1970s. The Olde Lady was again resplendent in new frock and jewels and many thousands of people attended the grand re-opening on September 23rd, 1976 as did this writer and thrilled at the glorious 'new' opera house that greeted yet another generation into yet another era. The Performing Arts Center may have been larger, but the intimate Pabst, with superb acoustics praised since its opening, was now going to try to be Mayor Maier's "People's Theater." More local groups were booked into the Pabst and some even saw their births there, but it still remained dark for too many days of the year under a succession of managers.
In 1989 a new "hyphen" was added to the Pabst in the form of a connecting transitional corridor from the high tech attitudes of the new adjoining Milwaukee Center office/hotel complex, to the new north grand lobby of the Pabst, decorated to harmonized with the restored 1890s opulence of the theatre itself, complete with a gilded and coffered ceiling, an ornate hand carved wooden back bar from a local mansion, and 'puddled' damask draperies 12 feet high. A series of showcases along this transitional corridor contain photos, programmes, and memorabilia of the many greats who have graced its stage. In this same era came a new Executive Director, Philip Procter, a native Milwaukeean, who got the place going by encouraging its use by many more diverse groups, and even found a bust of the late Captain to add the historic nexus.
His dynamic tenure also sought and obtained the coveted designation of National Historic Landmark of the United States, an honor held by Carnage Hall in New York City, Ford's Theatre in Washington DC, and only a couple of other theatres in the nation. This writer was privileged to be engaged by Mr. Proctor to compile and write the two volumes (retained at our Central Library, as well as the National Archives) which were sent to the federal government to document the importance of the Pabst, both in history and in present, to the United States in general as well as locally. In its Nomination Volume in 1991, the Department of the Interior writes in "Summary:"
"The Pabst Theater is the best preserved German-American theater in the United States and is one of the most tangible reminders of the cultural role of Milwaukee, the "Deutsch Athen" (German Athens), as it was known to generations of German-Americans. The Pabst is also important in theater design and for its long-time multi-cultural appeal.... The Pabst thus is nationally significant for both its importance to German American history and for its significance in the history of the American theater. It has been praised and appreciated by performers and theatergoers of many nationalities for nearly a century."
I was told that this is one of the few Nominations that received unanimous recommendation from the survey committee and it was submitted to the Secretary of the Interior for his signature, which he bestowed on December 10th, 1991.
Aside from the production every December of the Milwaukee Repertory Theater's "A Christmas Carol," the Pabst is too small to originate any substantial productions and thus sees its days as a 'road house' for touring groups on a rental basis. This realization puts even more emphasis on making the theater suitable for both diverse productions as well as maximum use of its seats. To this end, a capital campaign was resumed in 1998 with the object of reseating the gallery with seats for now larger Americans (a new total of 1300 in the theater), passenger elevators to there and other levels of the theatre, enhanced air conditioning, and the restoration of a cafe, or "Cudahy's Irish Pub" as it is now called, to the east side of the original lobby. This last item was a gift of $1,000,000 through the generosity and foresight of local philanthropist Michael Cudahy who long knew the value of so original and historic a location to the city. With the completion of this campaign and its wonderful additions in early 2002, the Pabst again can accommodate the most people with the greatest comfort amid splendid surroundings. The Grande Olde Lady is again a young bride in all her splendor awaiting her groom.
Like most cities, Milwaukee is fighting a drain on its tax base, and thus seeks to shed as many financial burdens as possible, and just when no one knew who could successfully take this burden from the city that admired it but could no longer afford it, along comes Mr. Cudahy yet again, this time to offer to purchase and run the theater through his foundation. His daring and foresight are very commendable and he explains that he seeks to make the theater yet more useful to more local and national groups as well as to put money into those areas needing care that previous funds could not accommodate. He has the vision to see the fact that the Pabst has a dedicated crew of acolytes at this temple of Thespis and pledges to retain them and add such personnel, as the theater has needed for many years. Back to topics
Return To Avalon by Michael Horne
A Madison Operator Has Plans For Movie Palace – What Will The Neighbors Think?
A Madison-based rescuer of vintage theaters is taking a chance that he can stage a revival of the Avalon Theater, 2483 S. Kinnickinnic Ave. Billed as the first movie house in Milwaukee built in the talkie era, the Avalon has been silent since it closed in July 2000. Now comes Henry Doane who plans to purchase the 1929 building and restore it, "primarily for live shows and special events", he tells Filmmakers.
He's been down that road before, when he bought the Orpheum Theatre in 1999 when it had been "scheduled to be gutted", he said. He restored the gem and converted it into a mostly live performance venue, where it draws acts like the Reverend Horton Heat, Richard Thompson and the Yonder Mountain Spring Band. During downtime, he shows movies like the English mystery "Gosford Park" and "The Endurance", a documentary about a 1914 Antarctic expedition.
The Orpheum has an extensive restaurant operation offering such nouvelle maison du cinema cuisine as Mussels, Crab Cakes, Tomato Bisque, "Farfalle with creme fraiche, peas, basil, garlic", and, for the rest of us, 'The Half Pound Orpheum Burger", which will run you seven bucks.
At about the time the Avalon shut its doors, Doane leased the Majestic Theatre, which itself had been closed for over a year, and turned it into a cinema. The movie fare ranges from the commercial (Mullholand Drive), to the sure-fire midnight moneymaker, the Rocky Horror Picture Show.
The Avalon will be run more along the lines of the Orpheum, he says. "I don't plan any restaurant there initially", Doane says. "I want to do live productions and plays, and receptions and movies on a limited basis.”
But will the magic Doane's worked in the Capital City translate to success in Milwaukee? Does anybody really want to see Reverend Horton Heat without having a couple drinks at the same time?
Doane says he wants a liquor license for his operation, which will require the cooperation of neighbors and Alderman Suzanne Breier. This support was not forthcoming when the current owners, Greg Cepanica and Craig Ellsworth, lobbied for it a few years ago. Although Bay View labels itself as "Milwaukee's Other East Side", in many ways it is The Same South Side, a place where you shovel your sidewalk throughout the snowstorm, and if the lawnmower is broken you go out and cut the grass with a scissors if you have to.
Doane takes pains to insist that neighborhood concerns are uppermost in his mind, and explains, "I would not do any operation here that the neighbors or community would find objectionable". Don't look for him to stage "DeathFest", or "Metal Madness". And don’t expect him to put just any junk on the screen, either. "I'd like to show movies occasionally. But I show movies whether or not they are commercially viable. If I am going to show them, they might as well be good".
He admits that for him to successfully open the business, he will have to spend time in Milwaukee, getting to know the community. "I have not yet met Ald. Breier", he said, "But I look forward to and I will be coming down to Milwaukee weekly".
There will be plenty to keep him busy here. To be fair, the building, with its 10,000 sq. ft. of retail space, 19 apartments and 27,000 sq. ft., 1,200 seat theater was in rough shape when the current owners purchased it, and that was a source of some neighborhood disaffection with the operation, which manifested itself as opposition to their being granted a liquor license. The owners remodeled the apartments, leased the storefronts and made some changes to the theater. Any revenue from liquor sales probably would not have been sufficient for them to complete the transformation Doane, with his considerable resources, envisions.
"I want to put the building back to its original configuration", like he did with the Orpheum, he says. This will take some doing. Theater historian James H. Rankin, in an architectural assessment of the Avalon, notes that the present "picture sheet" (movie screen), which dates to the 1950's, fronts the once useable full stage; having no curtain in front of the screen, it creates a cold look to the otherwise charming auditorium, designed in the "atmospheric" style by local architect Russell Barr Williamson.
Doane would bring back the charm, he says. "I want to put the screen back behind the curtain, uncover the orchestra pit, and reveal hidden architectural details'. This would restore the utility of the stage for a variety of live performances.
Others have had ambitious plans for Milwaukee landmarks in the past, and when many of the Cream City's movie palaces fell to the wrecking ball they took with them the hopes of undercapitalized dreamers who wanted to save these great buildings.
The evidence, however, is that Doane, 38, is of a different breed. Although he was born in San Francisco, he says he has lived in Madison for most of his life. The upscale menu of the Orpheum Lobby Restaurant, which is open for breakfast, brunch, luncheon, dinner and late night dining, reflects his interest in cuisine developed when he was a restaurant cook. "But I realized I wasn’t going to make a living as a chef, so in 1990 I got some friends together and opened the Blue Marlin, and then in 1996 I opened Tourneado's Steak House". Both restaurants are in Madison, and have liquor licenses with good records, he says.
His success with the Orpheum, built in 1927 and the Majestic, which dates to 1906, shows that he is familiar with the restoration and maintenance of movie houses from the golden era of Hollywood. His experience in Madison, with its considerable base of university and professional people could translate to Kinnickinnic Ave., where a shifting demographic has found many younger, educated people displacing the elderly blue-collar survivors of an earlier industrial age, in a neighborhood that was once virtually isolated from the rest of the community.
Today, places like Club Garibaldi and the Cactus Club offer regular live music in the neighborhood. Both clubs received approval of their cabaret licenses after the operators demonstrated to the neighbors and the alderman that they could manage their affairs without the attendant scares of loitering, littering and public urination, subjects of persistent and consuming interest to Milwaukeeans in general, and south siders in particular. Just up the block, the Boulevard Ensemble, 2250 S. Kinnickinnic Ave. has been offering live theater in its storefront space for years, and the troupe is in the process of purchasing its rented home.
Doane's challenge, it seems, will be to sell his innovative plans for his multi-purpose building to a neighborhood that is far more traditional (and residential) than his accustomed Madison base. On the other hand, the south side neighborhood of Bayview, if it is to fully embrace its non-industrial future, must adapt to the entertainment needs of a new generation of residents, and understand that "outsiders" from as far north as Brady Street might from time to time park outside of their houses for a few hours during concerts, and that they promise to leave in a quiet, orderly fashion, without loitering, littering, or that other thing.
Let the show begin!
Web Resources for this story: www.orpheumtheatre.net home page of the Orpheum and Majestic Theaters includes showings, concert schedules, maps, driving directions and menus. www.CinemaTreasures.org contains a page for the Avalon Theatre along with the complete text of James Rankin's essay on the history of the Avalon Theatre. Back to topics