Movie magic: The rise, fall, and possible return of Milwaukee’s Grand Warner Theatre
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It’s hard to conceive of in the age of streaming video and generic multiplexes, but there was a time in the first half of the 20th century when going to the cinema was often as interesting an experience as the films people saw. They didn’t go to a movie theater; they went to a goddamn movie palace. As a medium, film graduated rather quickly from sideshow tents and ramshackle nickelodeons to architectural wonders erected in the name of Hollywood. Unfortunately, America has been gradually losing these shared cultural spaces for decades, thanks to a variety of factors, from TV and suburbanization to file sharing. Here in Milwaukee, with the Downer Theatre nearing its 100th birthday, the Oriental Theatre still beautiful and operating, and the Times Cinema recently revived, we’ve been lucky enough to hold on to a decent amount of our movie-going past. But now, if everything goes according to plan, one of the most luxurious parts of that history will soon be back from the dead.
Built in 1911, the Butterfly Theatre on Wisconsin Avenue was one of the most extravagant movie houses of its day; but forget about that, because in 1930 it was knocked down to make way for something bigger and better. Warner Brothers stepped in, hired the highly respected Chicago architecture firm Rapp & Rapp, and spent $2.5 million erecting what would become a Milwaukee landmark. Even by today’s standards, the Grand Warner Theatre was impressive, but in its era, it was downright stunning. “The first night crowd was awed to say the least,” says Myron Heaton, head of the trust attempting bring the building back to life. “Since the beginning of the 20th century there had been a continuous raising of the bar for theaters, but this one topped them all, and since the Depression was taking full effect by this time, the Warner ended up being the last.” For Milwaukee, the art deco structure was the final hurrah of film’s gilded era. Theaters like the Warner were on the way out.
As affluent residents abandoned cities for the suburbs through the ’50s and ’60s and shopping center cinemas popped up to cater to them, downtown entertainment districts fell on hard times. The Warner, which had since changed its name to the Centre Theatre, was not immune, but handled the decline better than others. By the ’70s, when other theaters were shutting down or, in a few cases, turning to porn, the former Warner reinvented itself again, becoming one of the first movie palaces to transition to a “bi-plex,” by adding another screen to increase profit, with theaters around the country following suit. Taken over by Marcus Theatres, who was at the same time expanding into the suburbs, the theater operated as the Grand until 1995, when falling attendance finally closed its doors after 64 years. More recently, there was a small flurry of press last year, when it was announced that the box office of the Grand would be used as a downtown information kiosk. The general tone was, “at least it’s being used for something.”
Now, after 18 years, the wheels are in motion to restore the theater to its former glory. There have been various attempts to re-open it over the years, but Heaton and the Grand Warner Trust are modeling their efforts on the highly successful Hennepin Theatre Trust, a non-profit organization that has resurrected a number of historic theaters in downtown Minneapolis. Still, restoring something so elegant after nearly two decades of neglect is a monumental challenge. But according to Heaton, there’s plenty of reason to be optimistic. “We saved the Shubert Theater in Minneapolis, and it was in worse shape than this by far,” he says, adding that most of the damage is aesthetic, not structural, and that they’re working with experts to get the details right.
In the end though, the project has more than just historical value, with plans for concerts, community-arts programs, and possible use as a secondary venue for the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra. The trust’s strategy has a proven track record, community support, and seemingly good political and economic sense, all of which bodes well for the future and reclaiming a big part of Milwaukee’s cinematic past.