Strand Theatre

510 W. Wisconsin Avenue,
Milwaukee, WI 53201

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Strand Theatre exterior (after remodel)

The name Strand was common to theatres ever since the famous archetype of the Strand Theatre opened on Broadway in New York City in 1914 with 3,000 seats as the first of the “super cinemas” according to the Collier’s Encyclopedia article “Motion Pictures”. It in turn, was named after the famous entertainment district along Strand street in London. To emulate the grand palatial features of the New York City prototype was not the aim of the Strand Theatre in Milwaukee, which opened later in 1914 for it was a double-level, flat roofed, commercial building done in buff and cream faince, ornamented in leaf and forest green terra ornament of cartouches above the theatre entrance and on the ends of the corner-of-the-block building, which also sported several stores and apartments. It was a respectable 2,000 seats but of a modest design, the space being originally intended as store fronts, but the owner noted the rapid rise in motion picture acceptance and hastily revised the plans by local architects Wolff and Ewens to include the cinema without a stage.

The original screen was a tiny rectangle without any stage or drapery around it, smack upon the north (back) wall with an orchestra pit sunk into the floor and a small Wangerin pipe organ speaking through small chambers on either side of the screen. The 30-foot-high ceiling allowed them to incorporate two boxes of seats on either side of the screen, but anyone who bought these more ‘exclusive’ and expensive seats in them must have never repeated the mistake, since the sight lines would have been atrocious! This was the Photoplay Parlor era of exhibition after all, so interior decor was scant being only shallow pilasters along the painted plaster wall, seeming to support box beams which crisscrossed the ceiling dividing it into white-painted squares, each centered with a pendant bowl fixture casting its light upward. The concrete floor supported the wooden seats and had a carpet strip running down the middle of the aisle.

In 1921 it was acquired by the local Saxe chain of theatres and they put in a single line ‘stage’ platform (no fly tower; the single draw drapery line was mounted to the ceiling) fronted by a shallow proscenium frame, some ornamental draperies and did other sprucing up of the simple auditorium including new light fixtures and wall coverings and carpets. The original lobby’s box bays with stud light rims were fitted with fixtures of more elaborate design and the mosaic tile floor was carpeted over as the potted palms were removed and new, elegant furniture took their place. The projection was improved and then sound movies came in 1930, after which the pit was floored over to allow more seating.

By 1947, the Strand had new owners and a new need to compete in a new era of exhibition, and they employed architectural firm Brooks Stevens Associates to modernise the building. Its fancy glazed tile front was removed in the area of the theatre entry along with the cast iron French curve and stained glass canopy and marquee. Two-foot-wide vertical aluminum strips were affixed to the brickwork and a new name sign and marquee in the new aluminum was installed by Milwaukee’s Pablocki Sign Co. which had specialized in remodeling the fronts of theatres throughout the Mid-West. The new canopy was merely that: a horizontal triangle cantilevered out over the sidewalk with the only lights being those in its fluorescent soffit to illuminate the sidewalk line where the new box office stood. That island structure was at first a standard six-sided affair, but less than ten years later it was remodeled into a sweeping streamlined design that was almost bullet-shaped, with a wainscot of curved, horizontal, polished stainless steel bands, with a wraparound curved glass enclosure above it. The ‘vertical’ sign was much different too, being a hybrid of the old attraction boards of a traditional marquee with the outward thrust of a double-sided sign, it being one of the first of Poblicki’s new, patented “Inside Service” marquees which were serviced from inside the sign via a door from the building hidden on the back edge of the sign.

Little was done to enhance the auditorium, with only a forestage platform being built to support the new wide-angle screen which wrapped across the proscenium and the old space of the boxes, which had been removed. Tracks for ornamental drapery were attached to the ceiling and added some glamour to the spare auditorium, but they did little to conceal the fact that the Strand was never designed as a movie palace as had been other theatres nearby. It was a first run house for many years, not withstanding its secondary architectural nature, and the lack of a balcony. It rose to perhaps its finest hour when it was the long-run home of “The Sound Of Music” in 1965-1967, but by 1978 it was closed to movies and only occasionally open for special events. In 1980, the entire block was cleared by the neighboring insurance company which itself was bought by another firm and the site was declared surplus, but it and the next block were later bought by the city to house the new Mid-West Airlines Convention Center, and thus the era of one of the city’s earliest “Super cinemas” came to an end.

Contributed by James H. (Jim) Rankin

Recent comments (view all 16 comments)

Ret. AKC (NAC) CCC Bob Jensen, Manteno, Illinois
Ret. AKC (NAC) CCC Bob Jensen, Manteno, Illinois on August 21, 2013 at 5:14 am

The original Wangerin Pipe Organ in the Strand was made by the Wangerin Organ Company, 112-124 South Burrell Street, Milwaukee, just a bit over 5 miles South from the theatre. They had another factory Southeast around the corner .2 miles at 117-121 South Austin Street and by World War II had a factory less than 2 miles North at 2330 South Burrell Street. Founded in 1895, they made over 1,000 mostly church organs. During the theater organ boom in the 1920’s the Barton Organ Company of Oshkosh Wisconsin could not keep up with production demand. Wangerin stepped in to assist Barton and provided space as a second manufacturing facility during those years. They made wood parts for aeroplanes during World War I and in World War II made things that had been made of metal so metal could be used for defense.

A Golden Voiced Barton Theater Pipe Organ, 2/6, manual/rank, keyboard/set of pipes, was shipped from the Barton Organ Company in Oshkosh, Wisconsin or perhaps the Wangerin Organ Company in Milwaukee to the Strand, in 1926.

Anyone know what happened to either the Wangerin or Barton organs?

Ret. AKC (NAC) CCC Bob Jensen, Manteno, Illinois
Ret. AKC (NAC) CCC Bob Jensen, Manteno, Illinois on August 22, 2013 at 6:25 am

Tinseltoes, that would be off topic, but since you ask, but when you ask a sailor, it could end up a long sea story!

Navy folks have always know what those initials meant and all others as my mother used to say to me “that’s to make little boys ask questions”. I joined the United States Navy in 1962 and retired in 2002. I miss it, but I can’t say my wife does. I was always involved in aviation. You know the Navy has airplanes?

Watch for the capital letters.

Aviation storeKeeper Chief (Naval Air crewmaN) Command Career Counselor

The counselor part was to try and help sailors get promoted so they would stay in the Navy, easy to say, hard to do. For the aircrew, I was loadmaster and had way over 1000 hours flying in the C9B Skytrain II, the Navy version of Douglas/McDonnell Douglas DC9-33RC. Later MD-80, MD-90, Boeing 717. It had a big cargo door so it could be loaded with 7 Air Force pallets of cargo or it could carry 110 passengers. Chiefs are the highest enlisted rate in the Navy. “The Chiefs run the Navy!” Who would know more about the Navy, an officer just out of college or an old salty Chief who has been around forever? I would have been called Chief Jensen or more often just Chief, or if they were talking about me, The Chief.

I flew as far to the West as Okinawa and as far to the East as Spain and all over in between. Getting back to Cinema Treasures, I regret I didn’t pay more attention to the cinemas in my world travels. For example, when will I ever get a chance to again check out the movie theater at the now closed U.S. Naval Air Facility Midway Island out in the middle of Pacific Ocean and it would be nice to see those Gooney Birds again!

Old sailors never die, they just get a little dingy!

The Chief!

LorinWeigard on September 1, 2014 at 3:14 pm

Having viewed “Ben-Hur” again on DVD over the holiday, I felt the need to post my one and only experience with the wonderful Strand, in which I saw this epic for the first time. Our family was in Milwaukee for my dad’s insurance company convention; my mom wanted no part of a movie and prefered to shop, and so I headed off to a movie. My first stop was at the theatre that would run “Can-Can”. As luck would have it, they were still installing the Todd-AO screen at that point, so it came down to “Ben-Hur” at the Strand. I’ve never seen “Ben-Hur” again without recalling the vivid memories of seeing it for the first time on that huge screen at the Strand. It’s not only the huge scale of that epic movie that comes to mind—it was the gorgeous Strand Theatre that was part of it. I remember a unbelivably wide curtain that had this outward bow at the center before it parted for that Camera 65 image. I also remember this matinee being a reserved seat engagement, and a notice at the auditorium doors stating, “No one seated during the first 5 minutes”. Well, I’m 9 years old now and don’t know what to make of this; I know this is a religious picture, so does this mean we kneel or stand or WHAT??? (For all countrykids lost in the big city, it means: come late and stand until the opening credits!) What can I say— the entire experience was unforgettable, not just the centerpiece scene of the chariot race—but the entire picture was the new standard of “epic” filmmaking, and one of the reasons I majored in Cinema Studies years later. As an additional ancedote, I should add, my best friend, whose father was also an insurance agent and in Milwaukee with his family for the same convention as my dad, were at the same showing of “Ben-Hur”, as we would discover years after the fact! They don’t make epics like “Ben-Hur” anymore or build movie palaces like the Strand either!

Coate on March 24, 2015 at 10:35 am

It was 50 years ago today that “The Sound of Music” premiered at the Strand. With a reserved-seat run of 97 weeks, it’s almost certainly the long-run record holder for this venue. (Anyone know of something that ran longer?)

Also, on a related note, I would like to mention my new 50th anniversary retrospective for “The Sound of Music” can be read here. It includes a film historian Q&A and a list of the film’s roadshow engagements. I hope fans of the movie and/or theater buffs enjoy the article.

LorinWeigard on March 24, 2015 at 1:15 pm

Coate—Many thanks for the commentary on The Sound of Music and your link to the 50th Anniversary Retrospective. What a resource that is for us 70mm roadshow geeks. 97 weeks at the Strand might be the record—If memory serves, SOM ran 67 weeks as a reserved seat show here in Harrisburg, left, and came back for another 27 or so as a general release. For Sound of Music fans, Fathomevents is going to run the Turner Classics resortation in select theatres April 19 and 22 for those of us who can’t get enough of this movie. ( I’ve seen SOM easily 35 times, from a reserved seat or the projection room or on the TV; I plan to be there for this showing if for no other reason than to see the most iconic opening of a movie musical on the big screen the way it was meant to be seen! Many thanks again for the comments and links!

gtmokeith on March 27, 2015 at 5:55 pm

Imagine Sound of Music being 50 years old. I got a job at the Strand for after school and weekends as an usher when that movie opened. There were about 6 of us or so, each with a powder blue tux from Sherkow’s up the street. We had reserved seating there then. Do you have any idea how many times I have seen Sound? Then, The Bible came and that was a neat experience too. It was a nice theater but not as nice as The Warner or The Wisconsin down the street.

gtmokeith on March 28, 2015 at 5:01 pm

Lots of times, but mostly just parts of it in between other usher duties. The best thing was seeing the film from the heat of the projection booth.

DavidZornig on February 13, 2016 at 7:55 pm

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

dallasmovietheaters on January 10, 2017 at 9:33 pm

Wolff & Ewens were the architects of the original structure.

LorinWeigard on April 24, 2019 at 6:53 am

Great memories of the Strand April 14 with the 60th Anniversary presentation of “Ben-Hur”. Still a memorable,tasteful film with the never to be forgotten chariot race. Bittersweet is seeing at a multi-plex, and although Fathomevents showed it complete with overture, entracte, it was pale when compared to seeing it for the first time at the Strand on that huge screen.

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