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Restoring Milwaukee's Movie Palaces

Maksym Yemelyanov
The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel’s Tom Daykin reports on the efforts to restore some of Milwaukee’s movie palaces.";s:

As Americans fell in love with movies in the 1910s and 20s, extravagant movie palaces were built. The theater's generally featured a single screen and a stage for vaudeville performances. However, as modern movie theaters came on the scene with multiple screens, many of those older, ornate theaters began to close and fall into disrepair. Over the past few decades, many of these spaces have been brought back to life as atmospheric theaters and music venues.

Here in Milwaukee, many of these historic theaters are undergoing renovations. Tom Daykin covers commercial development for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, so he's an ideal person to share updates on some of the plans for renovating these historic buildings.

Milwaukee, in general, has done a good job of maintaining historic buildings. The problem though, according to Daykin, is that "the idea is one thing, the romance is one thing, the costs is quite another. They tend to be like a lot of historic building renovation projects — very expensive."

Although some of these movie palaces will still show movies, Daykin says they aren't trying to compete with AMC and Marcus for regular release movies. "The people doing these projects, in some cases they may be a a bit idealistic, but they're not stupid." 

Many of these theaters are still in the planning stages of redevelopment, so Daykin is proving an update on some of the renovations that are moving forward.

A view of the exterior marquee of the Warner Theater on Nov. 27, 1932.

The Warner Grand Theatre (212 W. Wisconsin Ave.) 

Built during the height of the Great Depression, the Warner Grand Theatre will get a second life as the new home of the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra (MSO). It will cost $89 million to restore it and turn it into MSO's performance venue, rehearsal space, and office space.

A building next to it was torn down to create a new addition that blends the older historic architecture with a new design. Daykin says Marcus Corporation did a good job of maintaining the building, making the renovation much easier than it otherwise could have been.

READ: One Of Milwaukee's Last Movie Palaces Is Getting New Life

The restorations is "going to have a really big impact on downtown, specifically on the west side of downtown," Daykin says.

The MSO plans to open at the newly restored venue by September 2020.

Credit shazam791 / Flickr
The historic West Bend Theatre, which is currently being restored.

The New State Theater (2600 W. State St.)

Built in 1915, the State Theater closed by the late 1950s. Throughout the 1980s and up until the early '90s, however, it served as a working tavern and club for mostly rock music. After shutting down and reopening as a strip club, its license didn't get renewed and it subsequently closed for good.

Last year, though, a nonprofit group bought the property with plans to restore the theater into an all-ages music venue, which Daykins says "is something that we hear repeatedly is needed in Milwaukee." The group also plans to use the space for classes and workshops, a storefront for local artists, and sound engineering studios.

The West Bend Theatre (125 Main St., West Bend)

Just outside of Milwaukee, the West Bend Theatre is going through a renovation of its own. The Historic West Bend Theatre nonprofit group is in the midst of an approval process with the West Bend Plan Commission to renovate the exterior. But they've already done a significant amount of interior work, including removing lead paint, asbestos, and all the old seats that were beyond repair, Daykin says.

They hope to have their soft opening by winter of this year. Daykin says "they plan to show some movies," but also have "live performances and other events too."

The Grand Theater (2917-23 N. Holton Ave.)

Built in 1911, the lesser-known Grand Theater sits on the border of the Riverwest and Harambee neighborhoods. Although renovation of the theater is still in its nascent stages, Daykin says the Riverwest Investment Cooperative has raised money to convert the theater into a live venue for performance arts. And that makes sense, as Daykin says "Riverwest and Harambee both have a lot of musicians living there."

Credit BWChicago / Flickr
The Modjeska Theatre on Milwaukee's south side.

The Modjeska Theatre (1134 W. Mitchell St.) 

Built in 1924, the Modjeska Theatre is owned by the nonprofit Mitchell Street Development Opportunities Corporation. The group is seeking proposals to renovate the theater and operate the building. "They've done a fair amount of interior demolition and gutting work," says Daykin, and "they're actively looking for a user for the building." 

Joy Powers is a WUWM host and producer for Lake Effect.