The Warner Grand Theater is the new home of the Milwaukee Symphony
The Bradley Symphony Center has been practicing this holiday season. From Holiday Pops to Handel’s Messiah and Chanticleer to Canadian Brass, the music filled the room on the weekends and spilled over into the week.
This venture was a welcome change from the traditional model. Last December, the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra was virtually exiled from its home at the Marcus Performing Arts Center, forced to perform in other venues as touring shows and that sticky chestnut and tutus, “The Nutcracker,” took over Uihlein Hall. Those days are over. Since moving into his new home at 212 W. Wisconsin Ave. in October, the MSO went from tenant to owner, creating its own schedule and controlling its own destiny.
The Orchestra’s “new” home is actually one of Milwaukee’s oldest performance venues: a movie theater that opened in 1931 as the Warner. In his book “Milwaukee Movie Palaces”, Larry Widen, the ranking authority on the subject, described the theater as “the most expensive and the most elegant ever built in the city”. The Warner had a capacity of 2,500 seats and a construction budget of $ 2.5 million, or nearly $ 50 million in today’s currency.
The new theater was the crowning glory of the cinema palace era in Milwaukee. Each such show house was an elegant venue that strove to treat its clients like royalty. Some of them – the Egyptian, the Venetian, the Avalon, the National – sought to transport these customers to specific places far removed from the mundane streets outside their doors, while others were mixtures of multiple styles. . The Oriental featured Buddhist, Islamic, East Indian and a variety of other themes, while OSM’s Warner had a split personality. Guests entered through a sparkling, uncluttered Art Deco lobby, then sat down to watch Gable and Garland in a neo-baroque auditorium adorned with murals of Renaissance courtiers.
The opening night in the New Palace – May 1, 1931 – was an event fit for a king. The Milwaukee Sentinel said it was “as lively and tumultuous as a notable Hollywood premiere” and went on to describe the Warner-style action: Thousands of people gathered, screaming and shouting, movie cameras went on. clicked at a frantic pace, the flashes of the photographers created coils of lightning. As an “illuminated plane” circled overhead and “society women in magnificent stoats” descended from their cars, radio station WISN provided second-to-second coverage of the show.
And all of that was before the movie started. Headlining the opening night poster was “Sit Tight,” a comedy starring Joe E. Brown, but guests were also treated to a newsreel, a “sports reel” from the Golf legend Bobby Jones, a performance of opera gems, a short concert on the Kimball organ and a Mickey Mouse cartoon titled “Castaways”. In the audience were 150 executives from Warner Brothers who came to mark the debut of the latest addition to their empire.
The Depression was well underway when the Warner opened. Although consumer budgets were shrinking day by day, management felt justified in charging 50 cents for evening programs and 60 cents on Sundays, or about $ 11 in current dollars. Not only was the Warner the most elegant cinema in town, it also offered amenities like valet parking and a team of 45 ushers in powder blue and silver uniforms.
The Warner had gear to spare, and one of the most important was its location. Without a hint of government regulation or market collusion, the downtown east and west sides have developed distinct personalities over the decades. East of the river was Milwaukee’s legal and financial district, the headquarters of major banks and law firms. The specialties of the West Bank were retail and entertainment. Department stores (Gimbels, Boston Store, Espenhain’s) were scattered among the theaters, many of which were vaudeville houses that eventually made it to the movies. When the Warner opened in 1931, it was right in the middle of the movie row, a chain of eleven showhouses stretching from the Riverside on the river to the Strand on Fifth Street.
The Warner was the most lavish of the bunch, and it would be the last. The West Side Cinema District withstood the Depression, World War II, and the advent of television, but it could not survive the boom in the suburbs. Until the 1960s, downtown was the place to go for first-run movies, but every twin, triplex, and multiplex that opened up beyond the city limits was another nail in the coffin of W. Wisconsin Avenue. One by one, the capitals darken.
All except Warner’s. In 1964, the performance hall was purchased by Marcus Corp., Wisconsin’s largest theater chain. Proclaiming it “the historic gem” of their film business, Marcus kept the Warner in business for over 30 years, “twinning” it first as Center 1 and 2 and then renaming it Grand. Despite repeated attempts to revitalize the monument, its long-term trajectory was on the decline. The last film was screened in 1995, and this famous beauty from 1931 has become, indefinitely, a sleeping beauty.
Meanwhile, the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra was getting more and more restless in its Marcus Center home. Sharing the facility with other performing arts groups meant fewer available concert dates, fewer guest artist opportunities, and less revenue stream. Forty years after its founding, the MSO was like a plant too big for its pot.
The old Warner emerged as a potential new container soon after it closed. In 2000, the directors of the symphony built a temporary wooden stage and brought the orchestra into the theater for a live soundcheck. Although it was built for the sight rather than the sound, and only four years after the film industry’s first “talkie”, the acoustics of the hall have been superb, which did not. only whets the orchestra’s appetite for a change of venue.
While the theater is in good overall shape, the MSO knew it would have to do more than clean up old soda spills and scrape the gum from the backs of the seats. After a time out for the Great Recession and a long, silent campaign, the orchestra made its plans public in 2016. The MSO set a fundraising goal of $ 120 million (later raised to $ 139 million. dollars) and got down to business.
Restoration was the first task. A small army of artisans and technicians repaired the water damage, removed mold, replaced crumbling plaster and wiped off decades of cigarette smoke. As the old finishes were restored, construction crews added new amenities: bars and bathrooms, improved disabled access, a glass-walled visitor center adjoining the theater, and a new scene created by moving the east wall – very slowly – towards the middle of Second Street.
Led by David and Julia Uihlein, a star cast of local philanthropists supported the project. With the added help of some timely historic preservation tax credits, the money was raised and the work was completed in time for the Symphony Center’s inauguration on October 1. There were no illuminated planes overhead this time, no high school groups on the street but, 90 years after its debut, the theater reopened to thunderous applause, rippling through a hall with one of the best acoustics in the state. In a resounding victory for both music and Milwaukee, the sleeping beauty had awakened to a melodious new life.
John Gurda writes a column on local history for the Ideas Lab on the first Sunday of each month. Email: [email protected]