Oriental Theatre

2230 N. Farwell Avenue,
Milwaukee, WI 53202

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Oriental Theatre, Milwaukee, WI in 1927 - Auditorium and Proscenium arch

When Saxe Amusement Enterprises 1,900-seat Oriental Theatre opened in July 1927 with Colleen Moore in “Naughty but Nice” and a stage show “"Mystic Araby”, it was among the most exotic and ornate movie palaces to have opened in Milwaukee with its Middle Eastern-meets-Far Eastern décor. It was taken over by Wesco Corporation in December 1927. In June 1928 they were taken over by the Fox Wisconsin circuit.

Although the large auditorium was divided into three smaller auditoriums in the late-1980’s, the décor was largely kept intact, miraculously, and the theatre has managed to retain its 1920’s appearance to the present.

It originally opened with a Barton 3 manual 14 ranks pipe organ, which was replaced in 1959 by a Kimball 3 manual 28 ranks pipe organ which was originally installed in the Warner Grand Theatre (now the Bradley Symphony Center). The Kimball organ, played each Saturday before each 7 p.m. show, and was the largest of its kind remaining in the US. The Oriental Theatre is known for holding the record for a continuous midnight screening of “The Rocky Horror Picture Show”, which began screenings in January, 1978.

In 2017 the ownership of the Kimball organ changed hands and in April 2018 the instrument was removed from the building. In July 2018 the theatre was taken over by Milwaukee Film, and renovations began straight away on July 1, 2018. Seating is now provided for 1,080 seats, with 554 in the orchestra and 526 in the balcony in the main original auditorium and 220 seats in each of the smaller auditoriums. On May 9, 2019 it was announced that a Wurlitzer 3 manual pipe organ, originally installed in the Paramount Theatre, Atlanta from 1925 to the 1950’s was installed in the Oriental Theatre, with completion at the end of 2020. The Oriental Theatre reopened in late-2021/early-2022.

Contributed by Bryan Krefft

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LouRugani on August 5, 2018 at 8:29 pm

The Changing Face of the Oriental Theatre (by David Luhrssen, July 3, 2018, Shepherd Express) — Although it turns 91 this summer, the Oriental Theatre (2230 N. Farwell Ave.) isn’t Milwaukee’s oldest cinema; the Downer claims that honor. But, with all due respect to the beautiful Avalon, the Oriental was and remains the city’s most spectacular movie palace for its exuberantly Near East-Far East decor. And for several decades, the Oriental has been an anchor of the city’s cinema culture as a repertory house and then as a theater with a consistent lineup of foreign, indie and documentary films.

This month, the venerable Oriental goes dark as its new operators take charge and begin phase one of planned renovations. Milwaukee Film—whose primary project has been the Milwaukee Film Festival—is now the leaseholder, and Jonathan Jackson, MF’s artistic and executive director, has big plans. First off: more ambitious and diverse programming that reflects, and magnifies, the work of the annual festival. “The film community loves the 15-day event, but people have asked us to create more opportunities,” Jackson says.

In 1988, the Oriental caught up with the late 20th century when the Landmark Theatres chain divided its cavernous interior into a three-screen house with great sensitivity to the building’s architectural integrity. To bring it into the 21st century, Jackson has announced an upgrade in sight and sound. The 2K digital projectors will be supplanted by higher-resolution 4K units. And, in a nod to the enduring significance of actual film composed of celluloid (not pixels), MF will also install new 35mm and 70mm projectors. “With those, we expect to secure access to all the leading film archives in the world,” Jackson explains. He has received applications from old-school projectionists—an occupation rendered obsolescent by digital technology—from around the country.

“But first and foremost,” he adds, “I think it’s a great idea that women have a restroom on the first floor!” Since the Oriental Theatre opened, the women’s room has been lodged at the far end of the mezzanine and is inaccessible to the disabled. Women were usually forced into a small chamber, an afterthought added for the handicapped next to the ground floor men’s room. “I was always ashamed to walk to the bathroom during the film festival past a line of women,” Jackson says. “I once saw a gentleman block the men’s room door to allow only women to use it for a given time.”

The new women’s room—carved out of space opened up by annexing a small retail bay abutting the Oriental’s northeast corner—will, like all future alterations, conform to the building’s character. Jackson adds that MF is more than halfway through the process of adding the Oriental to the National Register of Historic Places.

Most Milwaukeeans were surprised last summer when Milwaukee Film announced its acquisition of the Oriental’s lease from the theater’s longtime operator, Landmark Theatres, but the historic cinema had long been on Jackson’s mind. The Oriental was his first job after moving to Milwaukee. He went on to manage the UW-Milwaukee Union Cinema and became, in 2003, programming director for the Milwaukee International Film Festival. (Full disclosure: I was a co-founder of the MIFF and served as its executive director through 2007.) The Oriental had always been one of that festival’s major venues, and its importance only grew after Jackson became the Milwaukee Film Festival’s executive director in 2008.

So, why not continue renting the Oriental for two weeks each year instead of undertaking the year-round responsibility for a historic landmark?

“Our relationship with the Oriental became the critical factor in our success,” Jackson explains. “It was great working with [theater manager] Eric Levin and his staff, but the growth of the festival was inhibited because we had no long-term contract.” Instead, MF worked with the Oriental year by year; according to Jackson, the paperwork for the next fall festival never arrived before late spring. “Anyone in my position would have lost sleep,” he continues. “It was a challenge for long-range planning, to secure sponsors, to sell advance tickets. You can understand the potential instability of that.”

Also, Landmarks Theatre never rented MF more than two of the Oriental’s three screens and never gave Jackson the timeframe he sought. “We always wanted late October-early November, but Landmarks wanted to save their screens for the big fall releases,” he explains. “Historically, our dates overlapped with the New York Film Festival, one of the biggest film festivals with dibs on all content.” As a result, many significant non-Hollywood movies could never be booked at the Milwaukee Film Festival—until this year. “You can only do so much to grow a film culture in 15 days,” Jackson continues. “From now on, Milwaukee Film have an additional 350 days to play.”

Aside from the opportunity to screen every available movie in the world, Jackson’s decision to assume control of Milwaukee’s flagship cinema has a financial dimension. “Non-profit cinemas are healthier than film festivals,” Jackson explains. “Most film festivals operate on 30-40% earned income, mainly ticket sales, and the rest comes from fundraising. Nonprofit cinemas generally run on 60% earned income and 40% philanthropy. We hope to change our metric by running the Oriental.” And what of Landmarks’ remaining Milwaukee venue—the city’s oldest movie theater, the Downer? “Landmarks has a lease on the Downer,” Jackson says. Landmarks Theatres refused to comment.

Milwaukee Film has an 11-year lease plus two 10-year options on the Oriental. “We have a strong, long lease so that we can fundraise long-term to pay for improvements to the structure of the building,” Jackson says. “We are investing in the building even though we don’t own it, but since we’re running it for 30 years, we’re comfortable with that.”

“Aside from, ‘What about the women’s bathroom?’ the thing that everyone says to me is, ‘Don’t touch the popcorn!’” says Jackson on future plans for the Oriental. Phase two of the facelift will include some changes at the concession stand. “We’ll want to feature as many local products as possible,” he says. The original plasterwork of the cinema’s ceiling needs restoration. And down below, the original seats in the balcony have to be replaced. The curtains and tapestries need cleaning or mending. The HVAC (heating, ventilation, air conditioning) system requires updating. “We need to look at the acoustical treatment to insure that the sound is not bouncing within each space or between the theaters,” Jackson says.

He continues: “In the early days of cinema, people might find live programming at a movie theater, a double feature, a newsreel, an organ performance—it was more of a full cultural event, and it’s what film festivals do naturally—to create an experience.” Which leads to the inevitable rebutting of the tired doomsayers who keep forecasting the death of movie theaters. After all, they say, why not stay home with your Plasma screen, your lumpy Barcalounger and your popcorn machine?

“The statistics show that movie attendance is stable,” Jackson replies. “For me, the point is the communal experience. It’s so wonderful and strange, having hundreds of people sitting silently in a room staring at a screen and sharing an experience. It’s an unparalleled opportunity for community engagement. And besides,” he adds, “you cannot beat the experience of seeing a movie on a big screen.”

The Oriental Theatre will reopen on Friday, Aug. 10.

LouRugani on February 26, 2019 at 5:11 pm

Milwaukee Film surpassed its $10 million capital campaign goal to restore the Oriental Theatre and even provided the nonprofit with its first-ever operating reserve. The campaign began in 2017 when Milwaukee Film entered into a 31-year lease to operate the 92-year-old Oriental Theatre and assumed operations in July 2018. The campaign drew gifts from 900 contributors and brought in $10.03 million. Lead donors included Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele who made a personal contribution of $2 million to kick off the campaign, the largest gift in Milwaukee Film history, and also Donald and Donna Baumgartner, the Herzfeld Foundation, the Sheldon and Marianne Lubar Charitable Fund, Allen H. (Bud) and Suzanne L. Selig, and The Yabuki Family Foundation. The Seligs offered a $1.5 million matching grant on opening night of the 2018 Milwaukee Film Festival, and an unspecified but “significant" pledge from The Yabuki Family Foundation allowed the campaign to exceed its goal. “We are grateful for the enormous amount of support given by the Milwaukee community” said Jonathan Jackson, CEO and artistic director of Milwaukee Film. “Accomplishing this campaign in such an accelerated timespan speaks not only to the tireless effort of our team, but also to the passion of donors and audiences.” The campaign will support the restoration of the Oriental Theatre and provide financial stability for the organization. The first phase of the project, completed last year, included adding a women’s lavatory suite to the first floor and replacing mechanical equipment throughout the theatre. A full rehabilitation of the main auditorium is expected this year. “We’ve always had an ambitious vision for what Milwaukee Film can become, and we’ve made incredible strides in meeting some pretty big goals,” Jackson said. “The commitment of all of our supporters, and particularly the generosity of our lead donors in this campaign, shows me we can dream even bigger and do more within our community.”

spectrum on March 7, 2019 at 1:18 pm

URL for the new Oriental Theatre website:


LouRugani on April 23, 2019 at 1:02 pm

Milwaukee Film said it’s beginning the second phase of its Oriental Theatre restoration project with the goal of completing the work in time for the 2019 Milwaukee Film Festival. The organization plans to replace the Oriental’s current concession stand, upgrade the sound system in the main theater, add a new assisted-listening device system, replace all seats in the westernmost theater and upgrade the building’s emergency systems. The first phase of the project, completed in 2018, included adding a women’s lavatory suite to the first floor and replacing project equipment throughout the theater. In February, Milwaukee Film said it surpassed its $10 million capital campaign goal to restore the Oriental and provide the nonprofit with its first-ever operating reserve. In 2017, Milwaukee Film signed a 31-year lease to operate the theatre on Milwaukee’s East Side. “As magnificent as the Oriental Theatre is now, we know there is still work to be done to make it a world-class venue,” said Jonathan Jackson, CEO and artistic director for Milwaukee Film. “Like all our work at the theater, these upgrades will preserve and enhance the historic beauty of this space while creating the best possible film experience for our guests.” All phase-two projects are scheduled to be completed before this year’s film festival, which will run Oct. 17-31. In 2020, the seats in the main and east houses are scheduled to be replaced.

LouRugani on May 16, 2019 at 8:23 am

Milwaukee Film said Thursday that it has secured a 1925 Wurlitzer pipe organ for the Oriental Theatre; it’s in the process of being restored and is expected to be ready sometime before the end of 2020. From 1991 until last year, a Kimball organ was heard on Saturday nights under the aegis of the Kimball Theatre Organ Society. That organ changed hands in 2017, and its new owners elected to remove it from the Oriental in April 2018, three months before Milwaukee Film formally took over. When it opened in 1927, the Oriental had a Barton pipe organ, built in Oshkosh. That instrument lasted there until 1959, according to Milwaukee Film, which was working on getting a new one in the venue since it took over. “Without a pipe organ, the Oriental Theatre has truly felt incomplete,” Jonathan Jackson, CEO and artistic director for Milwaukee Film, said today. “We’ve heard time and again from members of the community who’ve been clamoring to know when we’re going to install another organ.” This Wurlitzer is a three-manual instrument from the Paramount Theatre in Atlanta, where it operated until the 1950s. Milwaukee Film obtained it through a partnership with JL Weiler Inc., a pipe-organ restoration firm.

Earlier this year, Milwaukee Film announced it had exceeded its $10 million capital fundraising campaign target, clearing the way to complete restoration efforts at the Oriental this summer, to include revamping the concession area and replacing seating in an auxiliary auditorium. (All seats will be replaced in 2020.)

Milwaukee Film created a website that promises regular updates on the Wurlitzer project: mkefilm.org/organ.

LouRugani on November 5, 2019 at 6:33 pm

The 15-day 2019 Milwaukee Film Festival Oct. 17-31 drew a record 87,618, up 12% over 2018. This year, the festival also expanded to the Rivoli Theatre in Cedarburg and the Broadway Theatre Center in Milwaukee … eight screens across six venues, the largest footprint in its history. The Oriental Theatre remains the anchor venue. Audiences voted at each screening to determine the three awards. “Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am” received the Allan H. (Bud) and Suzanne L. Selig Audience Award for Best Feature; “Raise Hell: The Life and Times of Molly Ivins” won honors and a $2,500 prize for the Women in Film Audience Award; and “Tree #3” received the Selig Audience Award for Best Short.

GaryStella on August 5, 2020 at 12:00 am

Shouldn’t Cinema Treasures list The Oriental as “closed” and “being restored” rather than “open” since it’s been closed for restoration work since March 13, 2020 (today is August 4, 2020)? I’d be bummed if I were a movie palace fan visiting Milwaukee with visiting The Oriental being a priority (in an alternate reality where flight travel and going to the movies remain normal activities…)

The link below is an article with an excellent slide show that illustrates some amazing cinematic loving care going on at The Oriental Theatre…

I went to The Oriental for the first time in 1980, as a juvenile delinquent film fan with a new driver’s license, accompanied by my friend Karen, my co-pilot and fellow enthusiast of alternative and subversive cinema, to see a double feature of Night of the Living Dead and Eraserhead. In 1980, the number of everyday people realizing that cinema was more than just a disposable medium able to generate profit and/or be an entertaining distraction was about to really become massive. That double feature at the Oriental was an overwhelming five hours from which I will never recover, validating my view that film is a creative artform with history and cultural significance worth studying, as a fan or student. It also emboldened my belief that I could actually make a living as a filmmaker.

I’m so proud of Milwaukee’s generosity, the dedication of Milwaukee Film’s board and members, and the craftspeople responsible for making The Oriental shine like it did when she opened a century ago. A rare, happy instance of an architectural preservation scheme that not only occurs, but provides a place to inspire dreams.


DavidZornig on June 20, 2021 at 4:33 am

Restoration nearly complete. Article with photos below.


spectrum on May 10, 2022 at 8:37 pm

As of May 2022, the Oriental has re-opened. Lots of great movies showing!

Bruce C.
Bruce C. on September 22, 2023 at 11:38 am

The Oriental has named each of their three auditoriums: the main auditorium is the Abele Cinema and the two smaller auditoriums are the Lubar and Herzfeld Cinemas.

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