A guide to Milwaukee's historic theaters

With the recent news that the Brady Street Pharmacy will draw influence from its building's past use as a movie theater to create a Milwaukee filmmakers' mecca, we are reminded that many buildings still standing in our city once served as entertainment centers. Before TV and video games, folks went into these buildings -- many of them so unassuming that we'd never guess they were theaters -- and were transported to exotic locales and marveled at the legends of Hollywood.

We've assembled a list of some of the surviving theaters, so that you can take a self-guided tour of Milwaukee's theater history. Please feel free to add others or update the info by using the comments feature at the bottom of the story.

The Astor Theater (1696 N. Astor St.), served as a cinema from 1914-'52, accommodating 752 moviegoers. These days, of course, it is the Brady Street Pharmacy and owner Jim Searles has announced that he plans to restore the building to its theater appearance and donate the second floor for a cinema and performing arts center.

The theater known as the Royal (830 S. 6th St.) was also called the World during some of its years as a movie house, 1928-'85. After some years screening Spanish-language films, the theater now sits empty.

The Paradise (6229 W. Greenfield Ave.), built in 1926, served as a popular revival cinema for a number of years before shutting its doors in the mid-1990s. The building now houses a church.

The State (2616 W. State St.) served as a theater from 1915-'55 and later became The Palms nightclub and an exotic dancing venue, Hoops. It is now empty.

The Riviera (1005 W. Lincoln Ave.) was built in 1921 and showed films until 1955, when it was converted into retail space. The nearby Lincoln Theater (1104 W. Lincoln Ave.) is even older, having been built in 1910, but ceased screenings the same year as its neighbor. This theater is now vacant.

The Mozart (1316 S. 16th St.) accommodated 433 moviegoers during its run as a cinema from 1910-'52. The nearby Alamo (1037 S. 16th St.), had a similar life span, serving as a theater from 1911-'54, and was also known as the Idle Hour. Both are now retail space.

Not far away is the Greenfield (2212 W. Greenfield Ave.), which also showed films under the names Abby and Pastime from 1913-'57. This 530-seat space is now a meeting hall.

Bay View had a number of theaters that are still standing. The Mirth (2651 S. Kinnickinnic Ave.) was open from 1913-'52. Most recently the building housed a nightclub and rehearsal space for local bands, but it has been empty for a decade.

The Comique (2246 S. Kinnickinnic Ave.), is now home to Bay View Liquor, but had a brief run as an early Milwaukee theater from 1905-'09, seating 200 patrons. The now-vacant Airdome (2161 S. Kinnickinnic Ave.) was also called the Rex, Badger and Union Electric during its time as a theatre from, 1906-'19.

On the "other side of the tracks" in Bay View was the Lake (2893 S. Delaware Ave.), also known as the Bay. This 970-seat venue operated from 1926-'56 and is now the home to Mark Gubin's photography studio.

The Bell (1402 W. North Ave.) was also called the Lyceum, Iris and Roosevelt during its tenure as a cinema, from 1911-'65. This north-side building now serves as retail space.

Downtown was once littered with movie theaters, as any old photo will illustrate, but only a few buildings remain nowadays. One is the 1931 Warner (212 W. Wisconsin Ave.), one of the grandest theaters in the city's history, justifying its alternate name, The Grand, which ceased screening films about a decade ago.

The Lyric (311 W. Wisconsin Ave.) was a small, 250-seat theater from 1908-'13. Nearby, the larger Majestic (219 W. Wisconsin Ave.), seated 1,902 from 1908-'32.

A number of old theaters are still being used in their original capacity: entertainment. Among them are...

The Tosa (6823 W. North Ave.), erected in 1931, has been transformed into the Rosebud Cinema Drafthouse, which screens independent films and dishes up food and microbrews.

The Downer (2589 N. Downer Ave.), built in 1915 and designed by Martin Tullgren, and the Oriental (2230 N. Farwell Ave.), a lavish showhouse erected in 1927, survive, albeit in altered form and are part of the Landmark Theatres chain.

The lovely art deco Fox Bay (334 E. Silver Spring Dr.), built in 1950, recently reopened as a first-run movie house, after spending a number of years laying dormant and serving as a second-run theater. The new set-up has two screens and serves food.

The Times (5906 W. State St.), an intimate movie house built in 1935, continues to screen second-run films.

The Miramar (2842 N. Oakland Ave.), was also known as the Oakland during its movie days, 1913-'54. After that it became the home to the Milwaukee Rep (when it was converted into a theatre in the round), the Metropole nightclub and a church. Recently, the building was purchased and turned into a recording studio and a place for concerts, plays and other performances.

The Varsity (1326 W. Wisconsin Ave.), which was built in 1938 and served as a movie house until 1976, is now a lecture hall at Marquette University, that also hosts concerts, readings and other performances.

The Avalon (1929 S. Kinnickinnic Ave.), which opened in May 1929, was Bay View's last surviving movie palace until it ceased screening films in spring 2000. This gorgeous atmospheric theater, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright disciple Russell Barr Williamson, still opens up to host concerts and other performances under its starry sky.

Similarly, The Modjeska (1124 W. Mitchell St.) is mostly shuttered, but opens occasionally to host a rock and roll concert or DJ dance party. The current building, built in 1924 to seat 2,000 people, replaced an earlier Modjeska on the same site, built in 1910 to seat a mere 900. Run by theater mogul Thomas Saxe, the Modjeska served as a sister theater to downtown's Princess (738 N. 3rd St.), which endured into the mid-'1980s as an adult cinema. It was razed for a parking lot.

The Pabst Theatre (114 E. Wells St.), built in 1895 to replace the Opera House that burned, and The Riverside (116 W. Wisconsin Ave.), built in 1929, currently host concerts, plays and other events.

For more information on Milwaukee's historic movie theaters, check out "Milwaukee Movie Palaces," a book by Larry Widen and Judi Anderson, published the great folks at Milwaukee County Historical Society. A new edition of this out of print gem is reportedly due for publication in 2001. Meanwhile, Widen also has a web site www.widenonline.com.


OMCreader | Jan. 30, 2006 at 1:13 a.m. (report)

NICOLE said: I am desperately looking for pictures or any information obtainable by internet about the old popular nighclub in milwaukee during the 80's called "the palms". I am out of state and used to live thier and wonder if you can help me out by getting this info?? thanks

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