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Wednesday, Sept. 9, 2009

Rosebud, Times Cinema Mark the Return of the Neighborhood Movie Theater

Larry Widen shares his love of films with Milwaukee

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His poise and salt-and-pepper hair are the only indications of his age. Sipping on Mountain Dew, Larry Widen, owner of Rosebud Cinema Drafthouse and the Times Cinema, speaks with the wide-eyed excitement and energy of a child.

Widen really likes Batman. Batman collectibles decorate the Rosebud Cinema’s lobby and his office, and the Batman insignia decorates the inside of his wrist. It’s obvious that after putting in his time in corporate America, Widen has finally found his dream job.

Widen, a movie fanatic his entire life, has early memories of going to theaters all over the city with his grandfather and father. So owning movie theaters seems like a natural fit. Widen shares ownership responsibilities with his brother-in-law, David Glazer, whom he calls “the money man who makes all the real estate deals.”

In a serendipitous case of timing, Widen and Glazer snatched up the Times almost three years ago and the Rosebud nearly two years ago. Both theaters were built in the 1930s and are unique historical and cultural attractions for Milwaukee entertainment-seekers.

Though they are very different entities, there is a great synergy between the two theaters. Just minutes apart, both single-screen theaters are open seven days a week. Widen says he is almost always at one of the theaters to greet customers with a smile. He knows many of the regulars by name, he adds, and is dedicated to providing a one-of-a-kind moviegoing experience.

The Rosebud, originally built as the Tosa Theatre, offers first-run feature films and plush red couches for seating up to 180 people. There is full food and bar service featuring local beer, wine and spirits as well as seasonal specialty drinks. Tickets are $9 for adults and $7 for children and seniors. A film typically runs for two weeks, so customers can expect to regularly find a new feature.

The Rosebud, with its old-school quaintness and charm, is known as a perfect date-night spot. Widen says that he is very careful about the atmosphere in his theaters.

“I want to be there and know what’s going on as much as I can,” he explains. “The most important part is the customer experience, and I want them to feel like they are walking into a home.”

The Times: A Hidden Gem

The Times, meanwhile, is a hidden gem. Although it does not have a full menu like the Rosebud, it provides an ever-changing mix of entertainment—and all tickets are only $5. Widen calls the Times more of a “grab bag,” as it offers family and art-house films, live musical performances, midnight movies every other Friday and an in-house shadow cast troupe eight times a year.

Recently, Widen made cosmetic updates at the Times in order to make it stand out to passers-by. “It’s amazing what a fresh coat of paint will do,” he says.

For the past 30 years, Widen has been collecting artifacts from theaters in Milwaukee. At the Times, he has curtains from the Riverside Theater and pieces of the Princess and Venetian theaters. There is also a huge golden scarab that hangs in the Times lobby. The 1927 artifact came from the Egyptian Theater on Teutonia Avenue, which closed in 1967 and was demolished in the mid-’80s. Although historic in nature, the Times Cinema operates a digital video projector for digital shorts and other art-house films that might not make it to the mainstream.

Despite the recession, Widen says that business remains solid—so much so, in fact, that Widen and Glazer are looking to expand. “It’s not that our business is recession-proof, but people always need to just get out of the house,” Widen says. “Going to the movies is still the cheapest way to do that.”

Widen and Glazer say they have plans to build another Rosebud theater in Cudahy, in the former space of Kohl’s grocery store at 4630 S. Kinnickinnic Ave., and hope to open by late December. The new Rosebud will consist of four intimate rooms with seating for 100 people in each. There will be couches as well as dining and bar service, just like at its Wauwatosa counterpart. Widen says he is looking forward to playing four films at once, and plans on including a mix of family movies, thrillers and dramas.

One movie at a time, Larry Widen is sharing his love for movies with Milwaukee—and people are taking notice. He pauses for a moment to take a call from the Times. “Forty-seven tonight? OK, fantastic, thanks,” he says.

After hanging up the phone, he notes: “Forty-seven people at the Times; not too long ago that could have been seven. For a Thursday in the summer, with everything else that’s going on, that’s pretty damn cool—I love that.”

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