Vintage Milwaukee movie theater magic

In the days before stadium seating, THX sound systems and IMAX technology, Milwaukee had a thriving movie theater business. From small neighborhood theaters to ornate and expansive movie palaces, Milwaukee had it all. Unfortunately, most of these theaters have long since closed, having been converted into storefronts or other businesses, and in some cases, even being torn down. Fortunately, a few of these vintage gems thrive and survive. Two theaters, now owned by the Landmark Theatres, are still going strong on Milwaukee's East Side. The Downer and the Oriental Theatres have been entertaining Milwaukeeans for almost three-quarters of a century. Here is their story:

Landmark's Oriental Theatre
2230 N. Farwell Ave.
414-276-8711

The Oriental TheaterIn 1917, a Milwaukee newspaper boldly exclaimed "the Golden of Age of the moving picture business in Milwaukee is past." Nearly 10 years later -- July 2, 1927 to be exact -- the majestic Oriental Theatre opened for business.

John and Thomas Saxe built 45 theaters around the country, but the Oriental was considered their crown jewel. Designed by Gustave A. Dick and Alex Bauer, the theater had the look of the East Indies.

The design, which remains largely intact today, was simply breathtaking. The building, itself, is a sight to behold. From blocks away, its distinctive minarets poke above the East Side skyline. Inside is even more spectacular. The entrance features Indian tiles with eight porcelain tile lions guarding the staircase to the theater. Inside the inner lobby, large murals of oriental street scenes adorn the walls. Sixteen silver leafed elephant heads with coiled trunks support the inner lobby ceiling beams. As if that's not enough, East Indian idols, elephants and other distinct symbols round out the three brass and stained glass chandeliers and their matching wall scones. Home to six giant Buddhas, the auditorium ceilings are graced with a golden sunbeam and edged with 26 dragons standing on 26 elephant heads.

Unique as it was, time took its toll on the old theater. By the 1970s, it had become run-down and forgotten. The Parallax Theatre chain, now known as Landmark Theatres, bought the Oriental in 1976 and renovated the building. In 1988, they split the Oriental into three separate screens, giving the old movie house a facelift that market changes demanded. Specialty artists scraped layers of paint off the walls and doors in search of the theater's original color. They added two smaller screens beneath the balcony without damaging any of the original artwork in the main auditorium. The Oriental today is still Milwaukee's largest theater with a capacity of an incredible 1,100 seats.

The Downer Theatre
2589 N. Downer Ave.
414-964-2720

The Downer Theatre Just a few blocks away from the Oriental stands another classic movie house, the Downer Theatre. Even older than its neighbor, this neighborhood mainstay first opened its doors on December 3, 1915. At a construction cost of nearly $65,000, it was considered one of the finest and most modernly equipped movie house in a residential district in the US. At the time, it held 1,200 moviegoers, entertaining them with a Weickhardt pipe organ and a live orchestra.

Landmark Theatres purchased the Downer in 1989 and divided it into two screens, remodeling the dark and musty old building. They painted the auditoriums a bright shade of cream, and restored the building's decorative molding sand gaslight-type lanterns. They even matched the original vintage carpeting, breathing new life into Milwaukee's oldest operating movie theater.

Talkbacks

OMCreader | Feb. 6, 2006 at 8:22 p.m. (report)

mike said: If anybody is into great old movie theatres, you really owe it to yourself to go to Baraboo sometime and check out the Al Ringling Theatre. It is super cool. Here is the website: http://www.alringling.com/

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OMCreader | Nov. 7, 2005 at 8:54 p.m. (report)

andrew said: The oriental is a great theater. Not only is it beautiful, but it also shows Rocky Horror. I dig it.

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