Friday, Nov. 8, 2013

Zilber’s Empire

Real Estate, Charity, Movies

By David Luhrssen
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Cleopatra, the famously troubled historical epic that brought Elizabeth Taylor together with Richard Burton, was an over-budgeted money loser. It  “bombed in Milwaukee and we lost a bundle,” Joseph J. Zilber reports in his memoir, How I Built an Empire & Gave It Away. Written with Milwaukee Magazine’s Kurt Chandler, the entrepreneur-philanthropist recounts the story of his hard-working immigrant family and his rise to success. Zilber, priding himself on “street smart savvy,” seized upon the post-World War II construction boom and made a fortune.

Zilber’s Towne Realty built homes, apartment towers, retail businesses, places of worship and college dormitories—and soon enough began to own property he hadn’t built. He had a sense for the greater good. When the tunnel-visioned bean counters on his staff advised him not to foot the bill to fix local landmarks, he did it anyway. In the last years Zilber became best known for supporting services that made a difference to many lives in Milwaukee.

But who knew that he once fancied himself as local movie mogul? By the late ‘50s Towne Realty acquired 11 movie houses from 20th Century Fox, including the glorious Wisconsin Theater on 6th and Wisconsin. It was a different business back then. Summer was the slow season, when sensible people found better things to do outdoors than watch movies inside. Not everything fared as poorly as Cleopatra. According to Zilber, he had to advance the studio $1 million to show Ben-Hur. The gamble paid off. Ben-Hur ran 18 months on the single screen of Downtown’s Strand and made Zilber a tidy sum.

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