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Tuesday, Nov. 6, 2012

Milwaukee’s Neighborhood Movie Theaters

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Remember the days when neighborhood movie houses were an integral part of many residential areas of the city? These mostly small theaters boasted a single screen and double features and attracted big crowds almost every night. The Downer has been successful, split down the middle into a two-screen theater, the Rosebud (formerly the Tosa) reopened in September and the Times is scheduled to return later this month. The others are gone.

During my teenage years in Milwaukee’s black—and growing blacker—inner city, neighborhood theaters were among the most popular places. For many adults, theaters even rivaled the ubiquitous taverns that dotted heavily populated blocks.

Each of these venues was special in its own way. Graced with typical theater names, such as the Regal, Atlas, Fern, Garfield, Roosevelt, Colonial, Franklin, Egyptian, Grand and Peerless, these movie houses and their friendly surroundings attracted countless black teenagers and grown-ups, as well as many whites.

Indeed, such theaters were the perfect setting for a gathering of our version of “boys in the hood”—or a sizzling tryst or nervous first date. Better yet, they were where we learned to appreciate why Hollywood was making a big deal of telling the country that “Movies Are Better Than Ever.”

Of course, one of the best things about “going to the show,” as we called it, was that just about every one of these theaters was within walking distance of our homes. No need for a teenager to use the family car. No need to drive and look for a place to park.

The Regal, hard by the 700 Tap at Seventh and Walnut, was the standard by which all other neighborhood theaters were measured. It was dearly loved by movie-smitten, Near North Side youths. And the Regal is where my mother took me for my very first movie, a reissue of 1943’s Cabin in the Sky with an all-black cast.

Affectionately dubbed “The Flick,” this chummy-sized venue was known for its ear-splitting decibel levels, vociferous audience reaction, heckling of films and Sunday triple-feature “shoot-’em-ups” for kids. Also famed for its 25-cents admission for a movie-and-a-half after 9:30 any night, it’s where we swooned for Lena Horne, cried with Louise Beavers and tapped our feet to Cab Calloway soundies.

This made seeing films an experience that today’s under-40 adults and kids cannot imagine. Plastic, multi-screen clones in sterile shopping centers can’t compare with our mix of cozy and opulent movie houses in vibrant residential neighborhoods and bustling inner-city commercial streets.

One of the most popular neighborhood houses was the smallish Fern, at Third (now North King Drive) and Clarke. Once a week, I’d meet one of my best buddies at Third and Meinecke at 7 p.m., and we’d stay in the theater until the house lights came on. He and I also met at the same corner to attend the bigger, balconied Atlas, on Third just past North Avenue.

Both theaters were about six blocks from my home. Slightly farther away, but still easy to reach on foot, was the large, opulent Garfield on Third between Locust and Chambers. I loved its huge lobby, main auditorium and two balconies, as well as the ornate walls and ceilings. I remember going there to see 1952’s classic High Noon.

Another favorite was the Roosevelt, at 14th Street and North, which lured us in droves for “Two Hits for Two Bits” on Wednesday and Thursday nights. “The Velt,” as we called it, was closest to the Regal in popularity. It’s where I was entranced by Humphrey Bogart's tour de force with Katharine Hepburn, 1951's The African Queen.

Not too far north, at 17th and Center streets, was the Franklin, close to my late-1950s’ residence. I clearly recall running into a long-lost high-school buddy enjoying himself immensely there for 1957’s great The Bridge on the River Kwai. In my late teen years, I also loved the classy Egyptian (with décor to match its name) at Teutonia and Nash. It somehow seemed fitting that this is where I took in the late James Dean’s bravura work in 1956’s Giant.

About six blocks from where I lived were two cozy theaters, the Grand and Peerless, a block apart on Holton between Center and Locust. There, in a mainly white area, black and white students of Lincoln High School often gathered. They were among the few public places that brought us together at night.

Finally, there was the Colonial, a big, balconied house at 16th and Vliet. One of the most memorable of my Milwaukee youth, it attracted many families to its quality double features. I marveled there at Oscar-nominated Gloria Swanson in 1950’s Sunset Boulevard and John Huston’s gritty The Asphalt Jungle the same year.

But best of all in the 1950s, the Colonial also presented doo-wop and black R&B concerts on its spacious stage. Among big names I saw perform were Little Richard, Bo Diddley and the legendary Spaniels of  “Goodnight, Sweetheart, Goodnight" fame.

Those were the days, my friends, and sadly, end they did. But I’ll never forget the sights and sounds of neighborhood movie houses.

Richard G. Carter has appeared on “Larry King Live” and “Donahue” and was a local radio commentator. Carter was a reporter for the Milwaukee Sentinel and a columnist for the Milwaukee Journal and New York Daily News.

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