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Wednesday, July 29, 2009

A Cinema Landmark Milwaukee’s Oriental Theatre

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In an era dominated by homogenous multiplex theaters with cookie-cutter interiors and stadium seating, Milwaukee’s Oriental Theatre is a rare gift that cinephiles, architectural aficionados and historians alike revere. The story of the Oriental begins with two Irish brothers named John and Thomas Saxe, sign painters who serviced dime museums, burlesque theaters, opera houses and stages, all of which needed new posters and attraction boards painted weekly. When Saxe Signs sued a local theater owner for an unpaid balance, the owner turned his theater over to the brothers to settle the account. Over the years, the brothers accumulated more movie theaters and in 1908 they incorporated as Saxe Amusement Enterprises, Milwaukee’s bona fide movie kings.

The debut of Saxe AE’s 3,000-seat flagship theater, the Wisconsin, in 1924 marked the beginning of Milwaukee’s love affair with the movie palace. As their name implies, movie palaces were designed to make visitors feel like royalty. According to Larry Widen, author of Silver Screens: A Pictorial History of Milwaukee’s Movie Theaters and owner of the Times Cinema and the Rosebud Cinema Drafthouse, movie palaces were designed with special motifs that enhanced the romantic images Hollywood placed on the screen. With their ever-expanding local chain of theaters, Saxe AE was in direct competition with Hollywood movie studios seeking guaranteed Milwaukee outlets for their pictures. According to Widen, the Saxe brothers quickly opened theaters, including the Oriental, in key neighborhoods around the city to strengthen their chain against outside interests while building its value for potential future sale.

Saxe AE enlisted prominent local architecture firm Dick and Bauer to design a $1.5 million palace theater that would ultimately become the crown jewel of their cinematic empire. Opened on July 2, 1927, visitors to the Oriental Theatre were dazzled by an elaborate and mystical dcor that incorporated elements of East Indian, Moorish, Islamic, and Byzantine design that included six larger-than-life gilded Buddhas with glowing green eyes, eight porcelain lions, a trio of 8-foot chandeliers, 2,000 yards of silk and a tiled staircase to the balcony. That same year, Saxe AE sold its holding to a subsidiary of 20th Century Fox for $2 million. The 1,800-seat Oriental continued to operate as a movie theater while many of its palace siblings faded into oblivion.

In 1972 Emmett, Robert and Melvin Pritchett purchased the Oriental and gave it a much-needed renovation, a huge undertaking. Soon the theater was hosting classic films, comedy shows, concerts and traveling plays. The Rocky Horror Picture Showhas been screened regularly at midnight on Saturdays at the Oriental since 1978, longer than anywhere else in the world. By the mid-1980s, the single-screened Oriental was wavering financially in a world of suburban multiplexes. Its operator, Landmark Theatres, decided that the only way the Milwaukee institution could survive was if it was triplexed by adding two smaller theaters underneath the balcony without encroaching on the original artwork of the main auditorium.

Milwaukee moviegoers have a choice: either patronize one of the shiny and new multiplexes out in the ‘burbs or walk beneath the two glowing minaret towers and the bright bulbs of the marquee into the Oriental Theatre. One is just a place to see a movie, the other is an entirely unique experience.

Oriental Theatre lobby| Photo by Miranda Chaput