Wisconsin Cinemas I & II

530 W. Wisconsin Avenue,
Milwaukee, WI 53201

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Additional Info

Previously operated by: Saxe Amusement Enterprises, Wisconsin Amusement Co.

Architects: Cornelius Ward Rapp, George W. Leslie Rapp

Firms: Rapp & Rapp

Styles: Baroque

Previous Names: Wisconsin Theatre

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Wisconsin Cinemas I & II

Aside from civic exhibition halls and recent stadia and outdoor amphitheaters, the largest indoor theatre ever built in Milwaukee was Saxe’s Wisconsin Theatre, "the flagship of their fleet of 28 theatres,"* which presented all 3,275 of its seats to the public on March 28th of 1924 smack in the middle of a blizzard.

The noted firm of theatre architects Rapp & Rapp of Chicago was commissioned to create the first of the four theatres they would do here. While they were not given the budget they enjoyed in creating the super palazzi such as the Tivoli Theatre and the Chicago Theatre in 1921, that extravagance was not needed here since the competition was much less in a smaller city.

Still, the Rapp’s did bring along some of their favorite features, such as a recessed orchestra pit that not only extended out toward the audience with the Rapp’s signature curve, but it also extended inward beyond the line of the proscenium arch to the concave front line of the stage. This not only allowed more room for the orchestra, but it also allowed for two organ consoles - but they both played the same 17-rank Barton theatre pipe organ to accompany the silent films.

This design also allowed the first rows of seating to be closer to the picture sheet (screen) which in that day was less than a third of the size we are used to today. Since this inward extension toward the stage brought the pit beyond the seal-off position of a dropped fire curtain, the authorities here and in Chicago, at least, eventually caused the owners to later remodel to the traditional pit line to be in front of the stage and beyond the line of the fire curtain for effective seal-off of the stage in the event of fire.

A feature that allowed so many seats on only a quarter of a city block was the addition of a mezzanine under the balcony. Only a few other theatres in the state used this more expensive form of construction. The reported $1 million spent on this project could not go to the theatre alone, for it was only part of the surrounding six story Carpenter office building. This part of the project was the work of local architect Martin Tullgren, but the Rapp’s were also responsible for a large Roof Garden dance hall on the roof of the building. Nearly a thousand people could dance up there in open-air refreshment in summertime in the days before air conditioning (actually, air cooling which the theatre below enjoyed) became common. The bandstand on the roof was also carried out in the French baroque used throughout the theatre.

For many years a darkened neon sign up there looked down upon the intersection of 6th St. and Wisconsin Ave. with the words "ROOF DANCING," a puzzlement to the younger generations who danced to rock, but never on a roof!

Those coming to the first real movie palace in Milwaukee (transitional theatres such as the Riviera Theatre in 1920 bore signs of the palaces to come) were not disappointed upon entering the Wisconsin Theatre’s white marble lobby with a split grand staircase carpeted in forest green leading to the mezzanine and balcony and to flanking arcades that had oil paintings and statuary to soothe those impatiently waiting to enter the auditorium for the next show.

Three huge chandeliers with rose colored light bulbs hidden behind a body of milk glass with candolier arms and crowns of stud lights in white frosted bulbs lent an elegant glow to the two levels of heavily gilded ornamentation in a myriad of forms. There were also six smaller chandeliers along the mezzanine promenade arcades.

Among the statues here was one of a Grecian maiden labeled "IONE," 8-½ ft. tall, of purest alabaster. Her demurely draped figure did little to reveal her origin as the parlor ‘maiden’ in one of the city’s former houses of ill repute! Just how this creation from Italy got to the theatre is not known, but before demolition it was removed to the lobby of Centennial Hall at the central library where its beauty and its appraised value of $50,000 adds to her value in the eyes of all who see her.

Entering the auditorium on any of its three levels one encountered a pleasant space, but one certainly less ornate than those accustomed to Rapp & Rapp’s other works might suggest. Their signature sunburst motif was present above the rather simple arches used along the walls from floor to ceiling on the balcony level. They were blind and filled with a celadon and ivory brocade overdraped with simple tied-back legs of dark crimson velour fringed in gold color rayon. Strangely enough, there were no chandeliers as one might have expected, but merely cove lighting from hidden bulbs in the dome coves in the ceiling and the soffits of the balcony and mezzanine.

The organ screens were rather like the balcony wall arches, but here they enriched the view with giant gilded urns of plaster which stood about 12 feet high upon their volute and plinth block pedestals. The balconnets supporting this also contained a number of hidden spotlights to highlight the glittered scrim cloth of the organ screens with changing angles and colors.

The gentle curve of the proscenium arch was nicely gold leafed, but its panels of ornaments lit by a cove only served to frame a Grand Drapery that was something less than grand. Its six velour swags in forest green were fringed in gold rayon and rested upon a lambrequin of silver satin panels fringed in green against a flat rear panel of celadon velvet plush also fringed in gold. Neither tassels nor pendants or drops were used.

Of course, none of this affected the fine stage shows which were seen with the movie, an organ recital, orchestra overture and trailers, all for 25 cents in the more expensive seats. This theatre did boast the only rising orchestra pit in Milwaukee but after 1963 it was one of many things which ceased to function.

On December 20, 1963 & December 23, 1963 this enormous theatre became just another anonymous cinema in order to stay in business. Flight to the suburbs was even faster here than in most cities, so the Wisconsin lost most of its audience and was split horizontally into the Wisconsin Cinemas I & II, in the hope that two screens would bring in enough revenue. It was usually just referred to as the Cinemas. A wall was dropped down to the balcony rail and the balcony became Cinema II. The mezzanine was closed off for good and the orchestra floor became Cinema I, sans orchestra and sans pipe organ.

Out in the once grand lobby, the chandeliers were discarded, a giant stainless steel concession stand was installed and a remarkable ‘flying’ double escalator rose from the new aluminum and plate glass doors (the original bronze ones were junked) upward for four stories to pierce the ceiling and directly invade the balcony foyer now spray painted in tan (who needs gold leaf?!) and carpeted in a synthetic fiber and pattern of geometric shapes - the same pattern applied in a jarring way to the once elegant auditorium ceiling.

A garish electric sign informed the audience that the concession stand was open or if it was about to close; money was then made on candy and popcorn, not movies. And advertisements began appearing with the films; anything to make a buck!

Few of the light bulbs worked any more and few of the patrons came any more and so the Cinemas were frequently closed until finally the insurance company on the other side of the block was bought by ambitious people who persuaded the city to condemn all the buildings on the entire block for a proposed giant skyscraper.

Attorneys spent three years locating over 100 heirs of the Carpenter estate alone, and demolition proceeded in 1986, but by then the purchasing company went bust and the city was left with a large vacant lot. Not to worry, for in a few years state and local funds were appropriated to build a new two-city-block-long convention center which will hold more people at taxpayer expense than the WISCONSIN ever did.

  • Larry Widen in his "Milwaukee Movie Palaces," Milw. County Hist. Soc., 1986
Contributed by James H. (Jim) Rankin

Recent comments (view all 24 comments)

rivest266 on September 11, 2010 at 3:07 pm

pre grand opening ad for the Cinema 1 & 2 is on the top of the page at View link

rivest266 on September 11, 2010 at 3:11 pm

March 28th, 1924 ad is at View link

Mike Rogers
Mike Rogers on September 11, 2010 at 6:39 pm

Thanks for the ads,always great to look at all of them.

1chinatown on October 18, 2012 at 8:49 pm

When I opened this page and seen that “Move Over Darling” was on the marque, I almost fell off my chair. I seen it their on a very cold December day.

moviemonstermuseum on January 20, 2013 at 2:38 pm

I saw Astro-Zombies at this theater. It was part of a horror triple feature upstairs and played with House of Whipcord or some such title. The next day I returned and saw the three kung fu movies playing downstairs. Dennis

Ret. AKC (NAC) CCC Bob Jensen, Manteno, Illinois
Ret. AKC (NAC) CCC Bob Jensen, Manteno, Illinois on August 26, 2013 at 3:54 am

A Golden Toned Barton Theater Pipe Organ, 3/17, manual/ranks, keyboards/set of pipes, it had TWO CONSOLES, was shipped from the Barton organ factory in 1924. It seems the organ was removed around 1963? What happened to the organ?

bones on December 26, 2013 at 10:03 am

I am interested in pictures of the gargoyles that were in the ceiling of the lobby and also the gargoyles that were on both sides of the original stage that was covered up in 1963 if someone could help me find more information and pictures of this theater

DavidZornig on February 13, 2016 at 7:56 pm

Photos of the Esquire, Strand & Wisconsin Theatres in below 2/11/16 link.


rivest266 on June 4, 2021 at 11:02 am

Became Cinema 1 & 2 on December 20th and 25th, 1963. Grand opening ad posted.

LouRugani on January 4, 2024 at 6:37 am

BEAUTIFUL WISCONSIN THEATRE OPENS MAR. 28 The Wisconsin theatre, largest and most beautiful showhouse in the Northwest, will open in Milwaukee, March 28th. This massive structure, Saxe’s $2,000,000 picture palace, houses not only the theatre proper, with its 3,500 seats, but also the largest ball room in the United States in roof garden on top, and recreation parlors containing billiard and pool tables and bowling alleys in the sub-levels. The building contains every improvement known to modern theatre-craft which can add to the pleasure, comfort and safety of the public.

The theatre will be primarily devoted to motion pictures. However, a large part of each program will be given to stage presentations and musical offerings by the organists and symphony concert orchestra. A feature of the theatre is the $50,000 organ, which when played by two organists at the same time rise from three floors below into full view of the auditors, and later sink from sight. The symphony concert or chestra is the largest in the North west. Each of the 3,500 seats affords an uninterrupted view of the stage.

They are most comfortably designed, con taining specially constructed up holstery and double springs in seat and back. Patrons will breathe pure air at proper temperatures. A re cently designed ventilating system will wash the air, heating or cooling it at the same time, as need be. The cooling system, alone, was installed at a cost of more than $65,000. The plan of decoration throughout the house is artistic and elaborate.

Rare oil paintings, marble pillars and rich drapes lend an atmosphere of grandeur to the lobby. Patrons may keep appointments with friends on the handsomely appointed mezzanine promenade which surrounds the lobby. An orchestra on the mezzanine will play softly for those resting there. The lighting system of the theatre is a triumph of electrical artistry. Light colors will be blended, increasing or decreasing automatically to synchronize with the theme of the production.

The 75-foot electric sign in front of the building is admitted by sign makers to be the largest theatrical sign in the United States, each letter being larger than an ordinary man. The name “Wisconsin” will flash on Grand avenue with a blaze of light which can be seen for more than twenty miles. The ladies' lounging rooms luxuriously furnished, contain many innovations. Maids will direct patrons past full length mirrors to chiffoniers containing every known cosmetic, where they may “see that their powder is on straight.” Three floors beneath the building is the “Laboratory theatre,” a diminutive theatre, not open to the public, where directors and executives will rehearse coming attractions while thousands are enjoying productions in the main theatre above. The stage is of such unusual proportions that the largest spectacle can be presented.

Within 24 hours it can be converted for grand opera or any desired attraction. No possible stage requirement has been overlooked, even to the steel animal rooms, which will house wild beasts during jungle productions. The theatre and roof garden are operated by the Saxe Operating corporation of Milwaukee, the largest operators of theatres in Wisconsin. This corporation conducts eight Milwaukee theatres and fourteen theatres in other Wisconsin towns. The purchasing power of these twenty-two theatres assures patrons of the best productions at the lowest possible rates. (The Wisconsin Jewish Chronicle, 3/14/1924)

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