Breathing life into Milwaukee’s historic neighborhood theaters
By Ellen Kalk
Illustration by Patrick Benjamin
The Oriental Theater is a show stopper. Walking into the lobby alone is enough to make me drool. Literally. I often fight the urge to touch everything in sight, as if putting my hands on each gilded detail could beam me back to more opulent times.
In the early 20th century, Milwaukee was home to a multitude different neighborhood theatres, several of them lavish movie palaces much like the Oriental. Fortunately for Milwaukee, local entrepreneurs like Lee Barczak and the Neighborhood Theatre Group (NTG) are working hard to preserve some of our greatest historical treasures.
The Rosebud Cinema, on the edge of Wauwatosa, and the Times Cinema, in Washington Heights, are the most recent additions to the NTG family.
“They’re small neighborhood theatres, designed and built to serve the local community,” said John Brannan, director of operations at NTG. “They’re both one-screen theatres, but so many people in the neighborhood prefer to come to this kind of a setting, rather than go to a busier multiplex location.”
When Barczak, owner of NTG, acquired the Rosebud and the Times in 2012, both cinemas required only minor renovation before reopening their doors to the public. But their latest undertaking is a much bigger project: The Avalon Theater in Bay View.
Purchased by Barczak in 2005, the Avalon was once one of five atmospheric theater palaces in Milwaukee. Now it stands alone.
“You were supposed to feel like you were in a totally different environment from the rest of your life,” Brannan said. Especially in the 1930s, at a time when economic hardship pervaded, atmospheric theaters offered a much needed respite from daily life
Designed as a villa, the auditorium was originally a blend of Spanish and Mediterranean fantasies. Vibrant foliage and handcrafted mosaic tiles, coupled with rich velvet drapery, columns, arches, and golden goddesses — all this from the hand of Russell Barr Williamson, a well-known Milwaukee architect who also designed the Eagle’s Club.
Ask anyone what really made the Avalon special and you’ll find the answer is the same: The stars, tiny low-wattage lights dotted across the ceiling, mimicking the twinkling of stars in the night sky. It was easy forget the world outside.
“That’s the one thing everybody talks about,” Brannan said. “Whenever Lee tells the story about how he bought the theater, everyone’s first question is, ‘Are you going to have stars?’”
The theater was originally commissioned by Jack Silliman. Silliman, an established owner of several other theaters, including the Downer, dreamed of opening a cinema on the South Side, one that could top the Modjeska on Mitchell Street.
The project started in 1926, but lost funding merely a year later, and the unfinished structure sat dormant for several years. uring the hiatus, films with sound became more commercially practical. Once it finally opened in 1929, the Avalon became the first theater in Milwaukee with the ability to show talkies.
Since its opening, the theater has been through many changes. In the 1940s, the theater was struck by lightning, destroying the front façade and the vertical sign. The 1960s brought more renovations to the theatre, briefly renamed the Garden. The cinema went from Art Deco to Day-Glo, with neon flowers painted on the walls and set aglow by black lights.
The Avalon was most recently used as a second-run discount cinema when the theater shut its doors for good in 2000, floundering against the competition of the multiplexes. But now, NTG is determined to honor the Avalon’s past while making the theater a staple for the neighborhood’s future.
“The restoration has been a labor of love,” said Brannan. “I think history will show that Neighborhood Theater Group has put more thought, effort, and creativity into the Avalon Theater than anyone since the original developers.”
Renovations include revamping the original 1930s Mediterranean villa setting of the auditorium, leather theater seats, and a new 25-foot vertical sign for the front façade. The group will also be adding a bar and lounge, which as Brannan said could just become the place-to-be-seen in Bay View.
As for the stars, even newcomers will be delighted to know they will shine again.
“The new stars in the atmospheric auditorium are unlike anything previous guests have seen,” Brannan said. “They are now 1,200 fiber optic sparkling stars positioned to look exactly like the summer sky over Granada, Spain.”
Even though opening has taken longer than expected, NTG hopes to put on a soft opening sometime in 2014.
“We have been guilty of being too optimistic with regard to our opening date,” Brannan said, “but we appreciate the patience the community has shown us. Our promise: It will be worth the wait.”