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

Jun 7, 2019

Like many cities, Milwaukee once was home to a number of "movie palaces" — places where the surroundings were nearly as much of a draw as what was playing on the screen.

These were single-screen, sometimes luxurious venues built in the early days of cinema well before the proliferation of TVs and suburban multiplexes. They had special features like air conditioning and newsreels.

Bubbler Talk received a question asking what happened to one of those theaters: the Grand, previously known as the Warner.

It was built in 1930, just off 2nd Street and Wisconsin Avenue in downtown Milwaukee. It's still there, although it's been out of operation since the 1990s.

 

A historic image shows the extravagant interior of the Warner Theater, later known as the Grand.
Credit Courtesy of Kahler Slater

Cinema Treasures describes the theater as "the fanciest" in Milwaukee "and one of the most beautiful in the nation." It features colorful murals, layers of decorative details, and reflective walls in the lobby.

“It is an experience when you walk into the theater. It’s very decadent,” says Christopher Ludwig, an architect with Kahler Slater. “It touches on art nouveau, art deco, baroque, rococo. It’s like a little bit of everything. You see some German influences.”

Warner Theater staff on Sept. 27, 1931.
Credit Courtesy of Kahler Slater
In 1983, movies playing at the Grand Theater were Playing at the time were "Street Gang" (also known as "Vigilante"), "Kill and Kill Again," "Octopussy" and "Rocky III."
Credit Courtesy of Milwaukee Public Library

The Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra has acquired the building, and it will become MSO’s home. The venue currently is dubbed the Symphony Center. Right now, the MSO shares space with other organizations at the Marcus Center for the Performing Arts.

READ: 5 Developments Coming To Downtown Milwaukee

Christopher Ludwig is the lead designer for the MSO’s Symphony Center. He says before the MSO thought seriously about buying the building, it made sure the space would be a good fit.

“They kind of secretly came into the theater and they removed the first seven rows of seats. They expanded the stage and they brought the orchestra in and they did some tests to see if the hall provided the right acoustic characteristics that they were looking for. So, that was pivotal,” Ludwig says.

Renderings of what the building is expected to look like once renovations are complete.
Credit Courtesy of Kahler Slater

The project involves a number of challenges and new construction. For instance, the stage area isn't deep enough for the orchestra. So the wall of the building that runs parallel to 2nd Street needs to be pushed to the east.

A two-story addition also is being built, with lots of large glass windows, right on the corner of 2nd Street and Wisconsin Avenue. Ludwig says it'll accommodate things like special events, and it'll be a place for people to have cocktails before a performance.

“It became very clear that the contemporary addition needs to be simple, elegant and respect the history and not overshadow," Ludwig says. "At the same time, it needed to bring a fresh energy to the equation — a delicate balance."

A divider that split the historic Warner Theater into two spaces -- one for an upper screen and one for a lower screen -- has been removed.
Credit Courtesy of Kahler Slater

Ludwig says the historic decorative touches are in pretty good shape, and planners are preserving as many as they can. That includes by shipping lighting fixtures to out-of-state specialists for restoration.

Former Grand Theater employees recently toured the space, seeing it for the first time in decades.

Donna Rongholt-Migan was pleased so many of the decorative details are still in place, including a prominent mural in the lobby. It features a red-haired woman, barefoot and simply dressed, scattering flower petals on the grass.

Many decorative touches still exist, including murals in the lobby.
Credit Courtesy of Kahler Slater

“I was very excited to see that the lady was still at the bottom of the stairs, that mural, it was one of my favorite things when I worked there and that was very significant for me,” Donna says.

The old Grand Theater (formerly the Warner) features a number of historic murals that are still intact. This one, off the lobby, has not yet been restored.
Credit Ann-Elise Henzl

Joe Thomae, also a former employee, adds: “I very much agree on the lady. Also, this lobby. It’s a construction site right now. When it is cleaned up, when the chandeliers and the sconces are put back in and...when it's all lit up — it's beautiful.”

Joe visited the theater with his wife, Dawn Scher Thomae. Dawn points out the two met while working at the Grand Theater. She says she's glad it's still around, unlike other spots that played an important part in her life.

“You know, my grade school doesn't exist anymore, other places I’ve worked don't exist anymore,” she says.

Dawn and Joe are among countless people who have stories to share about the old theater. And when it reopens as the MSO’s Symphony Center, Dawn says she and Joe will bring their kids to check it out. The project is expected to be complete in fall 2020.

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