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An Encore for Historic Theaters

During the 1950s and 1960s the advent of television dramatically affected movie attendance. The explosive growth of postwar suburbs also brought movie theaters to shopping centers at the edge of town where cheaper land and more space allowed the development of larger, multi-screen theaters. In 1970, the first triplex in Milwaukee opened in the Mill Road Shopping Center, soon followed by triplexes on the north and south sides. This increased competition led to the decline of many historic theaters.

One response was the partitioning of historic theater interiors to create multiple screens, such as in the Sheboygan Theater, which has since been restored. Many others were demolished, victims of changing economic structures, land use patterns and demographics. Many theaters were converted to other non-sympathetic uses such as the Royal Theater in Ashland, which became a tire store. The Bijou Theater in Marinette was converted from a nickelodeon long ago, but a sensitive rehabilitation has allowed its story to be told. In urban areas, churches occupy many theater spaces like the Paradise Theater in West Allis, a use that allows the retention of theater spaces.

There is a future for historic theaters, in many communities volunteer groups and non-profits are laboring to save old theaters. Residents of Viroqua organized a successful effort to restore the Temple Theater, located in their historic Masonic Temple Building. Many more will survive as a result of their conversion to new uses, like community centers and performing arts venues. Entrepreneurial efforts to create multiple uses for old theaters are breathing new life into these historic jewels.

More examples from the National Register:

Sheboygan Theater, Sheboygan

Bijou Theatre Building, Marinette

Oshkosh Grand Opera House, Oshkosh

Masonic Temple Building, Viroqua

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