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Tuesday, Aug. 24, 2010

The Times Cinema: A Vintage Movie House

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Media is more accessible to us than ever with conveniences like Video on Demand, DVD rental-by-mail services and the sale of inexpensive movies at big-box stores, but in watching movies on our computers or even on a stunning 65-inch HD 1080p TV at home, we miss the communal experience of laughing or being scared together in a dark theater full of people. Fortunately, charming venues like the Times Cinema in the Washington Heights neighborhood are still operating to offer this worthwhile interaction.

Larry Widen, co-owner of the Times Cinema and co-author of Silver Screens: A Pictorial History of Milwaukee’s Movie Theaters, thinks the building the Times occupies was constructed in the latter part of the 1920s as an automotive garage, and was later used as a Pontiac dealership. While Milwaukee audiences have been going to motion pictures since 1896, it wasn’t until 1930 that movie theaters really hit their peak, with 89 area theaters showing films. Widen believes it was the Schwartz family that saw the investment opportunity in projecting movies and opened the Times Theater on June 12, 1935.

According to Milwaukee Movie Palaces, also by Widen, an average Milwaukee theater changed its entire program three times a week. “Without television to fill in the hours at home, it was not uncommon for people to go to the theater each time there was a program change,” he writes. At these neighborhood theaters, or “nabes” as they were sometimes called, people got to know everyone in the neighborhood because they all went to the movies so often.

In 1940 Ben Marcus, the most successful independent theater operator in Wisconsin history, acquired the Times and Tosa theaters with a business partner named Swirnoff under the name S&M Theaters.

The Times became Milwaukee's first and only Trans-Lux theater, where films were projected from behind the screen. When CinemaScope—an anamorphic lens series invented by Frenchman Henri Chrétien in the late-’20s and secured by 20th Century Fox in 1953—was introduced to the industry, the projection booth was moved to the back of the house.

The advent and availability of the television was the main reason for the sudden decline in theater attendance and the subsequent demise of many movie theaters during the 1950s. New suburban movie theaters with multiple screens located near or in shopping centers provided more competition than most single-screen theaters could handle.

The Marcus Corp. operated the Times while the company continued to expand its reach with 18-screen multiplexes that boast 72-foot-wide screens and comfy stadium seating. In the early-’90s Vliet Street entrepreneur Sandy Folaron bought the theater from the Marcus Corp. and restored the 9,000-square-foot Streamline Moderne-style building. Folaron leased the theater to independent operators until selling the property to Jay Hollis, owner of the Rosebud Cinema, in 2005. On Jan. 3, 2007, Hollis sold the Times Cinema to Larry Widen and David Glazer, and nine months later, the Rosebud too.

Now the Times Cinema is not only a living relic of another era, but it also preserves pieces of Milwaukee movie history, like a large golden scarab (circa 1927) in the lobby from the old Egyptian Theater on Teutonia Avenue, as well as remnants of the Princess and Venetian theaters.

All shows and seats at the Times Cinema are $5, seven days a week, and concessions are reasonably priced. Widen uses a state-of-the-art disc projection system to show first-run, independent, family-friendly films and midnight movies, as well as programs like Three Stooges and Looney Tunes festivals, and plans to offer an expansive selection of Indian, Asian and Hispanic films in the near future.

Times Cinema: 5906 W. Vliet St./ Milwaukee/ 414-453-3128/ www.timescinema.com.