Coming Soon to the Oriental Theatre: “BROKEN BLOSSOMS” by D.W. Griffith

posted by JimRankin on February 9, 2004 at 9:06 am

MILWAUKEE, WI — If you can be at the corner of Farwell Ave. at North Ave. on Milwaukee’s east side just six blocks from the lake on the afternoon of Saturday, Feb. 14th, you will have the rare opportunity to view one of the masterworks of the director who is called the greatest pioneer in American film: D.W. Griffith.

As presented in 1919, it was a controversial and somewhat shocking social commentary based on Thomas Burke’s story “The Chink and the Child,” but as “Broken Blossoms” it found success in a day when such topics were rarely spoken of. Called ‘the first great American tragedy on film’ it may not be to all tastes, especially as seen from the perspectives of today’s viewers, but as a technical cinematic milestone it is widely haled.

Lillian Gish was 23 years old then, but wonderfully portrays a waif of 15. The Internet Movie Data Base lists a number of professional reviews of the film. There is also a complete synopsis of it online.

If you have seen only Griffith’s monumental “Birth of a Nation” or “Intolerance” you will be quite surprised by the entirely different focus of this intimate tearjerker. Some say it stands along side Chaplin’s “City Lights” as a true classic of the silent screen.

It is always best to view a film in the atmosphere in which it was intended to be seen, and the Oriental movie palace is just such a setting, especially with the largest Kimball Theatre Pipe Organ in a theatre there to even add to the pathos of this film. There are always surprises to go along with the series of “Silents Please” classics, and this title is going to be introduced by actress Angela Lansbury according to Hugh Swofford. Just what other goodies await, you will have to go and see for a mere $8 for adults at 1PM at 2230 N. Farwell Ave.

Further information may be had from the Kimball Theatre Organ Society at: or via phone at: 262-634-8394, the “SILENTS PLEASE” line.

There is a rumor that the Oriental may not be with us in future, so if you want to enjoy one of the last GREAT movie palaces, reserve that Saturday or one of those on the succeeding second Saturdays through May 8th to enjoy this monument to past days of glamour with a wonderful theatre pipe organ to be heard in the setting it, and the movies, were designed for.

We can no longer “meet under the stars” as we once could at the closed Avalon, the Paradise is paradise lost, the Riverside is now only a road house, and the glorious former Warner/Grand stands idle, so this may be an opportunity not to be missed, but unfortunately, I cannot be there, so say a rousing “Hurrah!” as my stand-in!

Comments (4)

geovhill on February 9, 2004 at 9:39 am

I will try to make it.
George Vreeland Hill

ScottEnk on February 9, 2004 at 10:22 am

I definitely plan to make it!

According to the February 7 Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Angela Lansbury indeed is scheduled to introduce Broken Blossoms—in the very theater where Lillian Gish, in April 1980, made her last public appearance in Milwaukee, at a showing of her 1926 silent classic La Boheme.

Broken Blossoms is everything you’ve read above and more—powerful, lyrical, and tragic. Having seen it many times since I was 12, I am still in awe of this film—and how it leaves even modern audiences stunned into silence, and often tears.

But what do you mean, Jim Rankin, about what you call “a rumor that the Oriental may not be with us in [the] future”? Can you be more specific? Where did you hear of this rumor?

Let’s hope it’s only that. Losing the priceless Oriental would be not only unforgivable, but unthinkable.

Scott Enk

JimRankin on February 9, 2004 at 11:13 am

Mr. Enk, you are very right to be alarmed by the rumor that the ORIENTAL will be demolished. I heard that the three Pritchett brothers who have owned it since 1972 are now elderly and retired and about to will the building to their children, who evidently made it clear that they would immediately demolish and sell the site to a condos developer. The brothers didn’t want that to happen to their beloved theatre, so they quietly offered it for sale, and in a conversation this Saturday with Mel Pritchett I was told that they have a prospective buyer who they are “95% certain” will complete the purchase by the end of March. He would not tell me the name of the buyer(s), but says that they are committed to continue the operating theatre. There is also a lease with Landmark Theatres, the operator, to be completed, but I do not know the term. Mr. Pritchett did not know if there would be a press announcement at the time of sale.

It should be noted, however, that even though the ORIENTAL is a local landmark, that law only protects the EXTERIOR of the building, and any new owner could turn right around and gut it for any other use the city allows. Therefore, there is no ‘absolute’ assurance that the theatre will always be with us. As Mr. Pritchett said, the building is over 80 years old now and needs some major investment in repairs, as witnessed by that episode last December when they had to evacute the place when a damper on the boiler froze and allowed masses of poisonous carbon monoxide to drive the patrons from the theatre. Bad enough publicity, but an indicator of the expense to be met by any new owner. With the movie makers/distributors now offering DVDs of films on almost the same day and date of theatrical release, and on-demand ordering of titles on-line almost here, the handwriting is on the wall as to the future of exhibition, and it is not good. Any new buyer will have to figure out how to pay the bills/taxes without films in the not too distant future, sad to say. Jim Rankin (

ScottEnk on February 11, 2004 at 3:07 pm

If the Pritchett brothers indeed do sell the Oriental to a new owner “committed to continue the operating theatre,” Milwaukee’s movie-palace gem, one hopes, will remain operating for years—decades—to come.

It is certainly better than the situation that, for example, Milwaukee’s Avalon Theatre currently faces. (See this site’s entry for the Avalon for more information. And many, many thanks, Mr. Rankin, for all your research and input about Milwaukee-area theaters on this Web site! That, you, and your dedication are deeply appreciated! What is the latest on the Avalon? If Mr. Rankin or anyone else who reads this knows, please post it under that theater’s extensive entries.)

Thanks, too, Jim, for your detailed information about the Oriental at its respective place on this Web site. Don’t anyone be surprised if you, I, or someone else soon posts to Cinema Treasures about other “neighborhood” Saxe Brothers theaters in Milwaukee, including the Tower (which Larry Widen and Judi Anderson, in their book Milwaukee Movie Palaces, called a sort of “sister” to the Oriental), the Plaza, and the unusually decorated but intriguing (at least for the Midwestern, as opposed to the Eastern, United States) Colonial.

Yesterday (February 10), a representative of the Milwaukee-area Kimball Theatre Organ Society informed me that Angela Lansbury had to cancel her Milwaukee appearances in connection with Broken Blossoms on February 14. Broken Blossoms, and all the rest of the KTOS’s wonderful “Silents Please” program set for that day, however, is still on. Ms. Lansbury, I was told, might still well appear at a future “Silents Please” program, perhaps later this season.

Hope to see all you “Third Coast” silent-film fans at Broken Blossoms. _Bring a friend—or two or more! Spread the word—silent film is cool!

Scott Enk
(A Devoted Silent-Film Fan Since 1963!)

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