Some Milwaukee things come and go, while some Milwaukee things become iconic. Mandatory Milwaukee is all about the latter. This week: the Oriental Theatre!
Is it possible to take something extraordinary—something magical, something unique, something holy—for granted? This was the Deep Thought that occurred to me last week as I settled into my seat at the Oriental Theatre (2230 N. Farwell Ave.) It was Day 8 of the 2023 Milwaukee Film Festival. In a few moments I would be watching Fritz Lang’s silent masterpiece Metropolis, accompanied by a live score from The Anvil Orchestra. The film was made in 1927. The Oriental opened in 1927. Everything about the event screamed MAGICAL! UNIQUE! HOLY!, and yet I found myself preoccupied with thoughts of where I was going to eat that night (Ian’s? Louie’s Char Dogs? Ian’s?) and all the errands I had to run the next day. “Hurry up with this remarkable event at this utterly gorgeous movie palace,” my brain was saying. “I’ve got shit to do!”
The answer to my initial question is, of course, yes. We take extraordinary things for granted all the time. So consider this piece my attempt to stop and fully appreciate Milwaukee’s majestic, iconic, and historic (both state- and country-wide) Oriental Theatre. Please, silence your devices, and no talking.
Milwaukee theater chain Saxe Amusement Enterprise built the $1.5-million, 2,310-seat, single-screen Oriental Theatre in 1927. Saxe was headed up by brothers John and Tom Saxe. The brothers were responsible for other opulent Milwaukee movie palaces, too: the Tower, the Uptown, the Plaza, and the Garfield. Gustav Dick and Alex Bauer of local architecture firm Dick & Bauer designed the theater, which came complete with three eight-foot chandeliers, eight porcelain lions, and numerous Buddha statues. It was all intended to give off a “temple of Oriental art” vibe.
“With design elements borrowed from Indian, Moorish, Islamic, and Byzantine architectural styles,” explains the Oriental’s website, “the Oriental Theatre’s eccentric, East Indian-inspired aesthetic resulted in 2,000 yards of lush textiles, faux teakwood ceiling timbers, intricate tile floors and pillars, onion-domed minarets, a porcelain-paneled entrance, and a stately terra cotta balustrade atop the theater roof.”
The Oriental opened its doors and lit up its screen for the first time on July 2, 1927. (Metropolis had been released earlier that year, in January.) The theater’s inaugural screening was Naughty But Nice, a silent comedy starring bobbed-haircut sensation Colleen Moore. Rounding out the bill that evening was a newsreel, a stage act called Mystic Araby, organ music, and a Felix The Cat cartoon.
“The theater was an immediate success,” says the Oriental’s website, “drawing praise from filmgoers, architects, journalists, industry insiders, and, eventually, cinema and media historians. Regarding the theater’s ambitious, grandiose décor, actress Greta Garbo referred to it as ‘the last word in motion picture theaters.'”
It was also the last word for the Saxe brothers, who sold their Milwaukee theaters (including the Oriental) to Wesco Corporation in December 1927. Decades of turnovers followed: Fox Film operated the Oriental during the Great Depression; the Saxe brothers regained control for a few months in 1933; building owner Moe Annenberg took over for a bit; Warner Bros. got in on the act in the ’40s.
An article from the Milwaukee Public Library takes it from there:
During the 1940s, Warner Bros. ran the Oriental. In 1948, Orto Theaters bought the Oriental Theater Building from the Annenberg’s family Triangle Publication and St. Cloud Amusement started operating the theater. In 1955, former WTVW-Ch. 12 (WISN) investor L. F. Gran bought the Oriental and Tower and formed Kent Theaters to run them. He lost them in foreclosure in 1959. The sister theaters became part of the Prudential Theaters chain until United Artists (UA) acquired the chain in 1968. Electricians Bob, Emmett, and Mel Pritchett bought the Oriental Theater Building in 1972. UA’s lease ended in 1974. Parallax Theatres (renamed Landmark Theatres in 1980) signed a lease in 1976 and turned it into a revival house showing classic, cult, foreign and silent movies on a repertory schedule that saw the weekly bill change more often than during the studio system days. The Rocky Horror Picture Show started its long continuing midnight ride in January 1978.
Ah yes, The Rocky Horror Picture Show. The 1975 fishnet-clad cult classic is still a staple of the Oriental to this day. Sensual Daydreams, a.k.a. Milwaukee’s official Rocky Horror “shadowcast,” has been performing alongside monthly screenings of the film since 1992.
And no history of the Oriental would be complete without mentioning the fact that members of The Pretenders discovered Milwaukee’s own Violent Femmes busking outside the theater in 1981. The Pretenders invited the Femmes to open for them that night; thirty-eight years later, the Femmes (minus founding drummer Victor DeLorenzo) returned to the scene for their “I’m Nothing” video.
These days, the Oriental and the surrounding buildings (including Landmark Lanes) are owned by real estate group New Land Enterprises. In July 2018, Milwaukee Film took over operations of the theater via a 31-year lease. During the pandemic, the non-profit launched a $10-million capital campaign to fully restore and renovate the theater, replacing seats, improving sound quality, spiffing up the concession stand, adding restrooms, and reopening the balcony. (The the two side theaters were added beneath the main room’s balcony in 1988.)
And of course, Milwaukee Film uses the Oriental as the main base for its annual Milwaukee Film Festival. Between the 15-day festival and the stellar year-round programming, it’s clear that the theater is in good hands. (And yes, Milwaukee Film has begun an “interrogation” of the theater’s name and décor.)
Which brings me back to seeing Metropolis at MFF2023. My food and laundry preoccupations didn’t last long—accompanied by the wickedly great Anvil Orchestra, Metropolis wasn’t just a film, it was an experience. Delicate and playful one minute, booming and nightmarish the next, the live-score-film was something I won’t soon forget. “That was incredible!” a friend said as we exited the theater. I struggled to put together a sentence.
Instead, I found myself overwhelmed with personal memories of the Oriental. My first time there as a teenager, having been snuck in by older friends to see Kids in 1995; seeing the Star Wars re-releases and buying a “Wookiee Cookie” in 1997; seeing 2001 in 35mm in 2013; finally seeing a midnight Rocky Horror screening in 2015; palling around with Tommy Wiseau before a screening of The Room in 2019; taking my kid to her first Oriental screening the same year. I could go on.
The Oriental Theatre will turn 100 years old in 2027. It’s magical, it’s unique, it’s holy. It’s impossible to take for granted.
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• Check out the nearly complete restoration of the Oriental Theatre
• Take a behind-the-scenes peek at the ongoing Oriental Theatre restoration
• New concession stand, better sound coming soon to Oriental Theatre
• I finally saw The Rocky Horror Picture Show with a live cast at the Oriental Theatre
• Watch Violent Femmes go back to their Oriental Theatre roots in “I’m Nothing” video