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Milwaukee's historic movie palaces get renovations & redevelopments as pandemic lessens crowds

Oriental Movie Theater

The COVID-19 pandemic had a big impact on the movie business. Locally, the biggest impact can be seen at movie theaters, which faced closures during the pandemic. Some still haven't recovered and these losses can be especially difficult for historic buildings with unyielding maintenance and improvement expenses.

Yet in Milwaukee, some historic movie palaces were able to capitalize on this time without audiences to do some much-needed renovations.

"The Oriental and the Warner I think both illustrate some different examples of how that happened," says Tom Daykin, a Lake Effect contributor and reporter covering commercial real estate for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

The Warner Grand Theater on Wisconsin Avenue and the Oriental Theatre on North Farwell Avenue are two iconic examples of Milwaukee's movie palaces. Both theaters began construction during the late 1920s and are ornately decorated with room for hundreds of people.

"What makes it a movie palace, is partly the size. These are all larger cinemas. When they were being built, they were typically seating easily 1500 or up for a number of patrons. They also have the sort of elaborate decorative profiles that make them a palace," says Daykin.

Movie palaces saw a decrease in popularity around 1929 during the start of the Great Depression, says Daykin. Films were also starting to be made in sound, which also challenged movie places popularity.

"While movie palaces are beautiful, that elaborate interior decor actually is not good for acoustics. It can make it very hard to hear film dialogue. It's interesting one of the Oriental's improvements was to improve the sound system," says Daykin.

While many historic movie places have lay vacant during the pandemic, Daykin says maintaining them is key to making the most out of the time.

An example Daykin gives is the Grand Cinema shutting down in 1995. Marcus Theaters still controlled the building, and did a great job maintaining it, says Daykin.

"So when the time came for it to be converted into symphonies, new performance space, certainly there was a lot of money that had to be expended to do that, but the building itself was in good shape," says Daykin.

Milwaukee is unique in how many of its movie palaces have remained. As redevelopment starts in some new spaces, many are concerned the city may be losing a part of history.

"I can tell you that certainly there's disappointment on the part of preservation is particularly those who are focused on theaters and old cinemas that much of the building is going to be demolished. Still, I think they acknowledged that that's likely just the reality of the situation," says Daykin.

Joy Powers is a WUWM host and producer for Lake Effect.
Tom Daykin has been covering commercial development at the Journal Sentinel since 1995.
Kobe Brown was WUWM's fifth Eric Von fellow.
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