Comments from eszpekjr

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eszpekjr commented about Uptown Theatre on Feb 19, 2013 at 10:47 am

I was the final theater manager of the Uptown and took over shortly after the infamous Springsteen concert. At the time I took over it no longer was a full time movie theater. Like many movie palaces the overhead costs were high especially heating costs making it economically impossible to make a profit. As a result maintenance suffered and only the absolute minimum repairs were done. For a few years the theater broke even on a part time uses basis of Friday and Saturday late night movies tied with a local radio station WLPX. The venue of films like The Dark Side of the Moon (Pink Floyd), The Kids Are Alright (The Who), The Song Remains the Same (Led Zeppelin), Up In Smoke (Cheech & Chong) and Blazing Saddles brought in large crowds of teens and young adults. I recall we even had horses in the lobby and auditorium for Blazing Saddles as a promotional gimmick! Typically the evening began with an amateur band then a Warner Brothers cartoon, a 3 Stooges short and the main feature. Along with the late shows the theater continued with rock concerts. Patti Smith, The Babies, Devo, The New Barbarians (with Ron Wood of the Stones), Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers and drummer icon Buddy Rich are a few that come to mind. On Sunday afternoons the Uptown was rented for foreign films – Indian, Pakistani, Laotian, Arabic, Greek and even Palestinian (just once and it was a terrorist training film!).
I believe it was 1979 when the Uptown Theater made news when it was raided by an organized Milwaukee PD effort to close down the operation. Neighbors did not like the idea of so many young people gathering in one place so complained to their alderman and eventually caught the ear of Chief Harold Breier. The Uptown used bouncers for crowd control and all patrons were frisked for alcohol and much was taken away on any given evening. Ironically the neighborhood beat cops would stop by to visit and help themselves to the booty taken away from the audience. We had very few problems with crowds of more than 1000 at a late show. I recall we were playing The Song Remains the Same. It was evident the police were active outside busting and roughing up underage drinkers. Just as the movie started squad cars blocked the front doors under the marquee and lined up paddy wagons next to the alley exits. They charged in the theater with officers in riot gear with shields only to find a quiet audience of 900 and the realization they did not bring enough paddy wagons to arrest all. Towing along were city health, plumbing and electrical inspectors – all of whom I knew. No violations were found. The promoter we were in partnership with demanded a search warrant. They replied by smashing him through two sets of doors and working him over in a paddy wagon. The only arrest in the Uptown was a patron who was caught smoking, not pot but a cigarette. The ordinance prohibiting smoking in a theater had not been enforced by police since 1952 we were later informed. He was handcuffed in the lobby and when his girlfriend got emotional he was beaten with a blackjack that the officer dropped. I still have it. The matter ended up in Federal Court and the police were found guilty of an illegal search. Punitive damages of $1 were awarded, a real slap in the face. The young patron who was beaten later settled out of court with MPD and was the first time the department ever paid a judgment of this kind. The officer who beat him received a suspension. The late shows did continue. I even made up “I Survived the Uptown Raid” t-shirts that the staff wore as uniforms. I still have mine. But the raid ultimately ruined the thriving new life of the Uptown as many of the regulars stayed away in fear of other police activity. Ironically when the Uptown was razed a new police precinct was built on the site. The blog post about the boiler exploding is pure Uptown myth. It never happened. I was the one who found the boiler red hot when the low water cutoff failed to shut it down when it ran low on water. I also managed the old Ruby Isle and Mayfair Theaters and would typically check the Uptown after I got done working on my way home. I cut the power and gas off to the boiler but for hours as it cooled it sounded like sledge hammers pounding on the walls of the boiler and header pipes. As a result the boiler walls were distorted in areas as well as the tube sheet. All of this was repaired at great cost and the Uptown was back in operation in a week. Ultimately the inevitable happened and the theater closed for good. (The photo links on the blog show the Uptown boarded up. I put up those boards to protect the glass doors and display cases from vandalism.) United Artist could not find a buyer so made the decision to no longer heat the theater although individual furnaces were installed in the attached stores –a barbershop, beauty shop and lamp shade store. Electric heaters were installed in the basement rooms where the main water feed was located. Yes, the Uptown occasionally had flooded basements, one under the stage and one under the lobby where the boiler room and electrical mains were located. (There was also an electric company substation located in the basement but was removed in the early 1980s.) Flooding was generally due to sump pumps that failed but also due to heavy rains when the municipal sewer system could not handle the water prior to the deep tunnel project. Repairs were always quickly taken care of as well as clean up. Without heat the Uptown’s demise was hastened. After I left UA in 1987 as a district manager the Uptown slipped into much disrepair. It certainly was not checked on enough. I heard of the flooding mentioned in the blog but that was years after the boiler and water were disconnected. This dismantling was done when I was still there. The flooding mentioned was due to sump pump failures. The Uptown was eventually sold by UA and as mentioned the new owner made attempts at temporary heating for limited use of the facility. I have many fond memories of the Uptown and put a lot of work into it keeping it running with absolutely no budget from UA. Even met my wife there. She was a cashier while in high school. I hated to see it knocked down but its location was the main factor of its demise. Had it been located on the East side like the Oriental it might have found new life. I worked for UA from 1975 to 1987 at which time I was also a theater manager at Southgate, Mayfair, Ruby Isle, Paradise, Cinema 1 & 2 downtown (Wisconsin Theater) and the Riverside. Only the Riverside stands and coincidentally I was the final manager of it as well when it ceased as a full time movie theater but continued for rock concerts. Kansas, the J Giles Band, George Clinton and the Bride of Funkenstein, Lou Reed are just a few that come to mind. (The late Ernest Lacey who died in custody of the MPD after being mistaken for someone else was an usher for me at the Riverside. His death eventually brought to an end the Breier police regime.) Fortunately the Riverside was completely restored and appears to be thriving. So many, many stories of those old theaters! Love this website.