Silver Screens: A Pictorial History of Milwaukee's Movie Theaters

By Larry Widen and Judi Anderson

Paperback: $24.95

ISBN: 978-0-87020-368-8

184 pages, 173 b/w photos and illus., 8 x 9"

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"Silver Screens" traces the rich history of Milwaukee's movie theaters, from 1890s nickelodeons to the grand palaces of the Roaring Twenties to the shopping mall outlets of today. And the story doesn't end there: in the past two decades, the revival of interest in preservation and restoration of theaters has confirmed that there's still life in these beloved old structures. With the publication of "Silver Screens," authors Larry Widen and Judi Anderson help ensure that our old theaters, those being restored and those long since vanished, will remain forever embedded in our collective memory.

In this revised edition of their book "Milwaukee Movie Palaces," the authors present new findings on film innovations, drive-in theaters, projection booths, movie promotions, noted theater personalities, recent restoration efforts, and much more. Illuminated with more than a hundred photographs, including many never before published, "Silver Screens" is a stunning tribute to the legacy of the movie theater.

Larry Widen is a Milwaukee-based freelance writer with more than 25 years experience in advertising, marketing, and communications. He writes about travel, local history, and popular culture and is the author of "Tombstone Blues," "Lar and Len: A Long Strange Trip" and "Vintage Milwaukee Postcards."

Judi Anderson has a degree in history from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee; she is an advertising brand manager for Aurora Healthcare in Milwaukee.

***

An Interview with Lary Widen

Wisconsin Historical Society Press:  It seems no one did anything along these lines before you began your work in the 1980s. How did you come to "own" this part of Milwaukee's history?

Larry Widen: There were several small articles published about Milwaukee theaters in the 1960s and 1970s, but up until "Milwaukee Movie Palaces" in 1986, there was no single body of work devoted to the subject. I feel very fortunate that I became the one to compile this aspect of Milwaukee's history. My research actually began in 1979 when I discovered an article on the theaters in a magazine from the Milwaukee County Historical Society. I began making trips to the Society's library to look at the collection of photos.  When I got out of college in 1982, I was a freelance writer and photographer (because quite honestly I didn't know what else to do with myself!). In between the paying jobs, I began photographing the facades of former theaters such as the Egyptian, Apollo, Lincoln and others. Once I built up a set of photos, I used the old city directories at the Public Library to create a list of names, addresses and dates of operation. That particular bit of research generated more questions than it answered, and the digging for information continued for the next several years. In 1985, the late Dr. Fred Olson, a history professor from UWM, looked at the body of work and said, "You know, you have enough for a book here."  Dr. Olson helped bring the manuscript to the attention of the Historical Society's publishing committee. 

WHS Press: You have no formal training as a historian. What are some pros and cons of being self-taught?

LW: Great question! The cons probably outweigh the pros, but there is some value to being self-taught. The writing part was easy because I've always been a writer and my degree is in Journalism. But very quickly I learned where all of Milwaukee's official historical repositories where and how to access them. Tax records were kept in one place, building permits in another, and so on. Along the way I was helped time and time again by librarians, clerks and other city and county employees. The one thing about history that can't be taught in a classroom is curiosity. If you're not interested by the subject, you won't be motivated to go digging for the answers. I happen to be fascinated by certain histories, and so the desire to learn wasn't an issue. 

 WHS Press: As a rule, history is rewritten about every ten years. How has this affected your theater research and the findings presented in the new book?

LW: What's amazing about "Silver Screens" is it was entirely generated from the 1986 "Milwaukee Movie Palaces." People who loved the first book contacted me with stories and photos that I would have never otherwise known about. The Saxe history is greatly amplified in "Silver Screens" because someone gave me a 100-page document containing a deposition taken from a longtime employee at the time the company was sold to Fox (1927). This testimony was highly detailed and filled in a lot of the mortar between the bricks.  It also helped me correct some errors from the first book.  I think the story of Milwaukee theaters is much more complete now. 

WHS Press: What was the most interesting part about the process of creating this book?

LW: Working with [editor] Kate Thompson and watching the book take shape under her guidance. I'm a writer, not an editor, so I was grateful for her leadership. She's an excellent editor and a pleasure to work with (although there were times when I think I drove her crazy!). Believe me when I tell you that we wouldn't be holding "Silver Screens" in our hands without her keeping me on deadline! I hope she and I can do something else together in the future.

WHS Press: Describe the process of gathering the information for this book. What became relevant, and what was cut from the final version?

LW: Some of the material is derived from my earlier book, but much of it is new, as I related earlier.  The book was constructed journalistically, mainly through interviews and subsequent confirmation of fact. Kate and I did a number of revisions to the text, streamlining text passages or in some cases reducing the level of detail, but this was primarily to get more photos in.

WHS Press: How were the images for Silver Screens selected?

LW: It was a collaborative process with [editor] Kate Thompson and her staff. Kate asked me to put forward a list of mandatory photos and a list of photos I'd be willing negotiate for. She was willing to work with me to slim down certain pieces of text in order to slip in another picture. That's where the collaborative part came in. I think the photos are a huge part of the story,

WHS Press: How is Milwaukee's theater history different from other cities?

LW: It's not, really. Movie theaters came to American cities at approximately that same time (1903-4). New York City was first, like always, and Chicago followed immediately afterwards. Then the nickel theaters spread like wildfire to Minneapolis, Milwaukee, Madison, Kansas City, Buffalo, etc. Everywhere. And it didn't take long for them to open in smaller towns across the nation. What's different about Milwaukee is the personalities. We had the Saxe Brothers, while Chicago had Balaban and Katz. 

WHS Press: Is there an example from modern business that could be compared to the time when the first theaters appeared? Risks to investors, courage to try something new?

LW: I think so. The best example I can come up with is the Internet. It's part of our lives now, but in 1993 and 1994 who was visionary enough to see its potential? Many thought it was a silly fad that wouldn't last.  Those who believed in it took their chances and invested in it.  Some lost everything and others rode the wave to financial success.

WHS Press: Does this "pop culture" history resonate more with people as opposed to a "textbook" history?

LW: While both types of publications have an audience, I think the "pop" history appeals to a wider set of readers.  I write for a magazine here in Milwaukee, and the editor paid me a great compliment recently.  She said she always hated history until she began reading and publishing my stories.  What she likes about them is the way I bring the subject to life and make it fun to read about (her words, not mine!). In the case of movie theaters, it's a very nostalgic subject, unlike, say, a Civil War textbook. The movies are a phenomenon of our culture, and we recall going to them with dates, family and friends. And as I indicated earlier, it's the fabulous photos in this book that really make it fun to read.  Too many footnotes would make it tedious, and that's not the experience I want the reader to have. 

WHS Press: What reaction do you get from people on the subject of old theaters and movies?

LW: It's very gratifying. Many people see me as a kind of "nostalgia merchant" who helps them relive their youth. I think a book like "Silver Screens" takes you away from the unpleasant headlines of the day and off into a different time. Everybody needs a little of that, especially these days.

WHS Press: What other kinds of things do you write about?

LW: In addition to history pieces, I do a lot of writing for the "Milwaukee Journal Sentinel."  In the last year I've interviewed musicians B.B. King, Buddy Guy, Bonnie Raitt, Alice Cooper, Cheap Trick, Bob Weir (from the Grateful Dead), Gregg Allman, the guys from Lynyrd Skynyrd, and Joan Jett, to name a few. I've also interviewed actors Mickey Rooney and Jeff Daniels. I write a lot of "people" stories as well.  I've published stories about being homeless, the life of an exotic dancer, living with AIDS, and riding with the police in the middle of the night.  All my work is posted each month on my website, http://www.larrywiden.com . Take a look.

2006 Midwest Independent Publishers Association Midwest Book Awards
Honorable Mention in the Art Book Category

"The movie theater holds a unique place in American history and culture. It is the place in every community where, for more than a 100 years, people from all walks of life have gathered to share a common experience, where together they laugh and cry and find joy and inspiration. Larry Widen and Judi Anderson have captured that spirit in words and images in 'Silver Screens: A Pictorial History of Milwaukee's Movie Theaters.' Having literally grown up exploring every nook and cranny of many movie theaters, including some in this book, I share the same love of these magical places -- whether they be magnificent palaces or unassuming show houses -- that Larry and Judi so passionately write about."
—Steve Marcus, chairman and CEO, The Marcus Corporation

"The history of Milwaukee's theaters is as fascinating as that of any great American city, and the authors expand considerably upon their previous achievement by explaining the highways and byways through which the moving image reached our 'Silver Screens.' Within six chapters they describe the advent of movies and the places that showed them from 1842 through 2006, both in the forms of the people who dance through its pages as well as the many theatres they built and which we have come to love and remember, as tenderly recalled here."
—James H. Rankin, architectural historian

"This book will become a 'must have' for every theater history buff. ... We who love old theaters revel in everyone's story, everyone's success, and share the sadness across the miles when a treasured old theater is lost. Even when they are lost, they can live on in our hearts when memorialized through the written word. 'Silver Screens' will take its place among other great theater history sagas."
—Karen Colizzi Noonan, president, Theatre Historical Society of America

"Originally published 20-odd years ago, this in-depth look at the movie theater business in Brew City is heavily illustrated and loaded with facts. Especially fun is the list of all theaters in the history of Milwaukee cinema at the back of the book, which was expanded and updated this year."
—Bobby Tanzilo, OnMilwaukee.com

"Twenty years ago the authors of this book penned 'Milwaukee Movie Palaces,' the first guide to local cinemas from before the 1960s, when bland boxes replaced the more substantial, often architecturally interesting structures of earlier eras. 'Silver Screens' is an expansion and rewrite, correcting the odd error, drawing from additional research, inserting the requisite fun-fact boxes ('Important Films of the Silent Era,' etc.) and bringing the story up to date. But aside from noting the decline in cinema attendance and the introduction of stadium seating, 'Silver Screens' can't help but focus on the first half of the last century, when moviegoing was a weekly pastime and most Milwaukeeans walked to neighborhood cinemas. Profusely illustrated and capably researched, 'Silver Screens' is a must for local history buffs and film aficionados." 
—David Luhrssen, "Shepherd Express" 

***

This feature by Tom Daykin appeared in the "Milwaukee Journal Sentinel" on January 2, 2007

Times changing hands: Theater's new owner to add live music, beer, wine

The Times Cinema, an art house theater in Milwaukee's Washington Heights area, will undergo major changes, including live music performances and an expanded concessions stand with wine and beer, the cinema's new owner said Tuesday.

The Times, 5906 W. Vliet St., is being sold to Larry Widen, a freelance writer, film buff and former marketing director at Covenant Healthcare. Widen is buying the business from long-time owners Eric and Sue Levin, and he will employ Eric Levin as the cinema's general manager.

Widen declined to say how much he's paying for the business, or for the 9,000-square-foot building. The real estate is being sold separately to Widen's brother-in-law, real estate broker David Glazer, who will eventually sell the building to Widen. Both the real estate sale and sale of the business are to be completed today.

Widen said his entire investment, including the planned improvements, will total around $500,000.

The Times, a single-screen theater known for showing independent films and the occasional classic movie, is "a real neighborhood gem," Widen said.

But the business has been underused, he said. Widen said the planned improvements are designed to help showcase a wider variety of films, as well as live events, including three blues concerts already booked for this spring.

"I think the audience is there," Widen said. "It's just a question of providing a variety so we can be more things to more people."

The first project will be an expanded concession stand, including a pizza oven and coolers for wine and specialty beers, Widen said. He said the cinema has applied for a tavern license.

Ald. Michael Murphy, whose district includes Washington Heights, said he supports the tavern license application, pending a meeting with nearby residents to get their views. Murphy said he doesn't anticipate any objections from the cinema's neighbors.

The expanded concessions, especially wine and beer sales, will help boost the cinema's profit margins, Widen said.

The tavern license also will make it possible to stage live music performances. Blues harmonica player Corky Siegel has been booked for an April 28 concert, with bluesmen Sam Lay and David "Honeyboy" Edwards set for separate shows in May and June, Widen said.

Widen plans to install new seats with cup holders. The aisles will be wider, and some of the front rows will be removed to make room for easy chairs and sofas, he said. Those changes will reduce the cinema's seating capacity from around 440 to 350.

Also, a digital video projector will be installed. That will allow the cinema to show documentaries, animated shorts and other limited-release items that film studios are making available only on DVDs, Widen said.

Along with the videos and live performances, the Times also will be booking more classic films to complement its lineup of new independent releases, Widen said. He said a recent showing of "It's a Wonderful Life" drew a very strong audience.

Eric Levin, who partnered with his mother to buy the Times in 1993, said it was difficult to accept "that loss of autonomy" that comes with selling the cinema. Before acquiring the Times, the Levins operated the Avalon Theatre, in Milwaukee's Bay View neighborhood, for seven years.

But Levin also said selling the Times creates an opportunity to expand the business.

"Larry does have access to the capital to make improvements," Levin said.

Widen said his funds to buy and improve the cinema come from savings and investments. He is not borrowing any money for the project.

Widen is a former longtime advertising and marketing executive. His positions included serving as marketing director at Covenant Healthcare from 1992 to 2002. He also is a freelance writer and author, whose books include the recently published "Silver Screens: A Pictorial History of Milwaukee's Movie Theaters."

The building that houses the Times is being sold separately by Jay Hollis, who operates the Rosebud Cinema Drafthouse, at 6823 W. North Ave., in Wauwatosa. The Rosebud primarily shows first-run mainstream films, has sofa seating, and serves beer, wine and cocktails.

Hollis decided in August to sell the building. Hollis made that announcement after failing in his legal effort to oust the Times Cinema in hopes of creating a new business in its place.

Widen said he considers Hollis a "friendly competitor." Even though the Rosebud and Times are relatively near one another, the Rosebud's focus on mainstream films caters to a different audience than what the Times Cinema targets, Widen said.

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