UPDATE (9/20/23): In a press release, President of the Downer Avenue Business Improvement District Michael DeMichele says, “We have high hopes in finding a solution that continues to respect the tradition and historical integrity surrounding this incredible theatre that’s been a foundational institution in Milwaukee’s beloved Downer Avenue Commercial District for more than a century.”
Says Milwaukee Film CEO Jonathan Jackson: “We are honored to be a part of this active conversation and excited about this possibility. We will always champion fostering cinematic spaces and artistic voices and experiences in our community to bring people together any way we can.”
According to a short-and-sweet Tuesday-night social media post, the long-running Downer Theatre (2589 N. Downer Ave.) has closed. We will always champion fostering cinematic spaces and artistic voices and experiences in our community to bring people together any way we can.”
“Landmark’s Downer Theatre is now closed,” the post reads. “We are proud to have served its community over its many years of operation. We thank you for your support.”
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While we have no information beyond that, Milwaukee Record can confirm that Tuesday night was indeed the last night of operations for the Landmark Theatres-owned neighborhood cinema.
HOWEVER, rumors have been circulating for years about a potential new owner and operator for the Downer. We can’t say who it is, but we’ll have the news if and when it becomes official.
The Downer’s closure comes mere weeks after the closure of the Marcus Theatres-owned Southgate Cinema. “With their closings,” says the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, “the Oriental Theatre, the Avalon Theater and the Times Cinema are the last movie theaters in the city.”
For now, R.I.P. Downer Theatre. You were a real one. Here’s our 2020 Mandatory Milwaukee article on the cozy two-screen theater, which opened in 1915:
At some point in the last 20 years, the simple act of seeing a movie became a production. No longer could you simply show up, buy a ticket, and enjoy the film—seats needed to be reserved, and those seats needed to recline and rotate and vibrate and have enough room for three adults and three three-course meals. 3D or not 3D became a question (for a while, at least). Devices needed to be silenced. Ninety-minute pre-show “entertainments” needed to be watched. The whole thing became kind of exhausting.
None of this has ever applied to the Downer Theatre (2589 N. Downer Ave., 414-962-3120). For more than 100 years, the stalwart “neighborhood theater” has served up the very best in domestic, foreign, and independent films. No muss, no fuss. Is it a gorgeous and ornately decorated movie palace? No. Is it a technologically advanced and modernly appointed multiplex? No. Is it kind of scruffy and rough around the edges? Sure. If the Oriental Theatre is the glistening jewel of the East Side (and the Avalon Atmospheric Theater is its Bay View counterpart), then the Downer Theatre is the cool pair of beat-up shades you slip on when you’re watching that dance scene in Godard’s Bande à Part.
The Downer is much more than a charming hole-in-the-wall—it’s the oldest movie theater in Milwaukee that still shows films. The theater opened on December 3, 1915, with a showing of the now-lost film Seven Sisters. Milwaukee developer Oscar/Marc Brachman and “movie entrepreneurs” Thomas and John Saxe built the theater for the princely sum of $65,000. The design of the two-story building came courtesy of Chicago architect Martin Tullgren. Sound in those pre-sound days (“talkies” were still more than a decade away) was provided by an orchestra, a Sohmer piano, and a pipe organ from Milwaukee’s Wangerin-Weickhardt Organ Company. It was a single-screen theater with a capacity of roughly 1,000.
A 2018 Urban Milwaukee piece on the Downer Theatre quotes a city Historic Designation Study Report:
…it occupies a unique niche in the architectural history of Milwaukee’s movie theatres. Built more than twelve years before the advent of ‘talking pictures,’ the theatre is one of the few in the metropolitan area that made the transition from silent pictures to sound pictures and still survives, basically intact, today. … Today the Downer is not only a rare survivor from the silent film era, but it is also an outstanding example of how an older theatre can be successfully adapted to meet the needs of the modern marketplace.
About that modern marketplace. Ownership of the Downer changed several times throughout the years (Warner Brothers owned it for a stretch in the 1930s), but the most current change happened when the Landmark Theatre Corporation acquired the theater in 1989. It was after this acquisition that the Downer was remodeled into a twin-screen theater with a total capacity of 465. The cost of the project was double the theater’s original price: $130,000. The Landmark Downer Theatre reopened in May 1990.
And so the Downer Theatre stands today. The Art Deco marquee (a 1930s-era replacement for the original) is an icon of the already iconic Downer Avenue, and it can sometimes get delightfully cheeky. Some examples from the past few years:
As for films, the Downer has specialized in “art house” fare since the 1940s. (As of this writing, you’ll find Portrait Of A Lady On Fire and Greed lighting up its screens.) Midnight movie series appear from time to time. As for amenities, the Downer is refreshingly bare bones: the usual popcorn, candy, and soda combo is supplemented by wine, as well as beer from Lakefront and New Glarus. That’s it.
And therein lies the charm of the Downer Theatre. It’s a “neighborhood theater” in every sense of the word: small, lived-in, intimate, well-loved. It has no aspirations of providing a “modern” moviegoing experience stuffed with distractions. It looks and sounds good (the projection is digital) and dammit, that should be enough. In an era when going to the movies can feel as personal as eating at a fast food joint, the Downer Theatre strips away the fat and allows the power of film to speak for itself. Show up, buy a ticket, and enjoy.